Blogging the Bookshelf

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"RFK Funeral Train", Paul Fusco

July 1st, 2009 · No Comments · Art, History, Politics, The Kennedys

RFK Train Cover

Synopsis: Photo-journalist Paul Fusco presents a collection of his photographs from the carriage of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train.

My Take: Bobby is a bit of a political hero of mine. He was pilloried as a ruthless political operative in life and is revered as an inspirational idealist in death.  He combined compassion and pragmatism in equal measure and was a model for centrist, progressive policy. He felt the honour and public duty of political participation acutely, but never let higher ends impede political means.

Given that I’m an avid reader and an RFK obsessive, I have close to a dozen different RFK biographies, collections of essays, photo books, and manuscripts. I’m not sure how I’m going to blog them yet as there’s a fair bit of overlap between them, but I thought that I might as well start with my favourite. A limited edition, signed hardcover of The RFK Funeral Train given to me as a brilliantly perceptive birthday present by JJ (especially given that the journey took place on my birthday, June 8). It’s twee, but it’s true: The people who love me buy me books.

The RFK Funeral Train is a gorgeous, elegant and moving collection of photographs of the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans who turned out to line the route of RFK’s funeral train from the body’s original viewing in St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to its final resting place in Arlington Memorial Cemetery, Washington DC (retracing the journey that Abraham Lincoln’s train had made 103 years before).

Fusco was a professional photo-journalist at the time and had been commissioned to cover the funeral train’s journey. It was an extraordinary opportunity for a photographer to capture the American polis at its rawest and most emotional moment.

The pictures show Americans from all walks of life – rich, poor, black, white, young and old – standing in the summer heat waiting for the opportunity to farewell a man who had come to embody their hope of a better quality of leadership and a better quality life. People who had already endured the despair of the deaths of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the disillusionment of the Vietnam War and saw in Bobby, the potential for the country to move in a new, more positive direction.  People who for their troubles, a few short months, would be subjected to the first term of the Nixon administration.

Fusco’s moving photos are preceded by a foreword by Norman Mailer and are interspersed with extracts from Kennedy’s most famous speeches. It finishes with a quote from Senator Edward Kennedy’s eulogy for RFK that states:

“My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

Highlights: A sample of the dozens of photos included in this book are attached below:

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An excellent Interactive feature on the funeral train from the New York Times is available here.

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