Most Americans know James Rogan as the freshman United States representative who led the House impeachment prosecution of President Bill Clinton. But that national star turn was only a small part of the extraordinary – and still very much unfolding – life of the talented Californian, a former district attorney, state senate majority leader, a twice appointed judge, law professor and author.
Rogan had the most unlikely of upbringings for a Republican congressman: the illegitimate son of a convicted felon single mother who raised her four children on welfare and food stamps, he grew up on the mean streets of 1960s San Francisco (along the way, developing a fascination for politicians and other bold-faced names, the subject of his 2014 book, And Then I Met…).
Now, fifty years after one of the most tumultuous, violent and pivotal times in American history, Rogan has delivered his first work of fiction, On to Chicago: Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968.
The book captures a remarkable period dominated by American political giants of the 20thCentury: Lyndon Johnson, Bobby Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace and more. Rogan’s extensive research, his deep political experience and deft, lively writing make On to Chicago a rollicking, absorbing novel that reveals the cunning, hubris and occasional courage of these epic figures, teasing the question of “what if” certain events had turned out differently.
We were delighted to connect with Judge Rogan to take a deep dive into his new thriller –
TSD: You talk about being inspired to write the book as you observed a Republican presidential debate in 2016 – that the crew of 17 candidates on stage seemed smaller in terms of historical stature versus the “giants” who bestrode the American political scene in 1968. That year featured a pretty extraordinary lineup of 20th century US political titans.
James Rogan: Most people don’t remember (if they are old enough), or don’t know (if they are not), that in 1968 nine political titans squared off for the presidency. Imagine in one election—all running against each other at various times that year—names like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, Eugene McCarthy, George Romney, and the wild card of the race, third-party candidate George Wallace. It was a donnybrook like no other race.
TSD: Your earlier books recounted your upbringing and your remarkable “Forest Gump-like” experiences as a political junkie since you were a kid. Where were you in 1968, and what do you remember about that campaign?
JR: As a young schoolboy I developed an interest in presidents, history, and politics—so by the time 1968 rolled along no one awaited the start of presidential campaign more eagerly than I: it was the time I would get to see my first presidential election (at least the first one of which I took any interest).
In 1968 I was in Miss Firpo’s Fifth Grade class. We spent weeks studying the candidates and their positions. Living in California brought added excitement to the race: our state’s June 4thprimary might well decide the Democratic contest. Vice President Hubert Humphrey wasn’t on the ballot, but for Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, California looked like it was make or break.
Miss Firpo urged us to visit their campaign headquarters’ and bring back posters and stickers to decorate the classroom. I rooted for McCarthy only because Cheryl Briones, the freckle-faced girl on whom I had a secret crush, was for him. We were in the minority; most of the kids were going “All the Way with RFK” and decorating the classroom with Kennedy posters. On Election Day we boys bet our best baseball cards on the winner. As a joke, my pal Mike Dittman pinned to my coat a blue Kennedy badge; I stuffed it into my pocket before Cheryl saw it.
That night, tragedy struck: after delivering his victory speech, Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan. I awoke the next morning to the news, which we watched on a neighborhood novelty—a small color television. Whenever the networks replayed the footage of the fallen candidate with his head resting in a spreading pool of maroon blood, I felt sick.
In class that morning, as Kennedy’s life ebbed away, the previous day’s rivalry gave way to shock and overwhelming sadness. Miss Firpo tried to explain the horror to her children in a room still decorated with a dozen Kennedy posters. His picture on the banners, frozen with a half-smile, bore the haunting aura of death. Later that day, something sharp in my jacket pocket pricked my thumb: the Kennedy campaign badge Mike gave me. Destined originally for the junk drawer, now I treated it as a historic relic. I laid the badge inside a small box lined with cotton. I didn’t know it at the time, but I just started a lifelong hobby that added to my unquenchable interest in history and politics. Collecting campaign artifacts somehow brought to life all those stories I read about the lives of politicians.
A few weeks later, on a trip to Reno, my Great Aunt Della and Uncle Ralf let me hang out in the “Humphrey for President” headquarters while they played the nickel slots at Harrah’s. Inside I found a chaotic room swarming with volunteers answering telephones, stuffing envelopes, and marking precinct maps. When I tugged on someone’s sleeve and asked what everyone was doing, her answer thrilled me: “What are we doing? We’re electing a president!” I stood for hours watching with fascination; before leaving, I doubled my collection by getting an “HHH Humphrey” badge and matchbook.
And so it went that year, right up to election night—when I pulled an all-nighter sitting before my television watching the lead swing back and forth between Nixon and Humphrey. It wasn’t until morning that the networks called the race for Nixon—by a whisker, and Humphrey conceded.
Little did I realize as a boy that night I not only would get to meet them in later years, but one day I would tell their story from their epic battle.
TSD: “On to Chicago” must be one of the most thoroughly footnoted pieces of historical fiction ever published. You clearly spent an extraordinary amount of time researching events of ’68 — what did you learn that surprised you the most?
JR: What surprised me the most was learning some of the intimate details from behind the scenes of those nine campaigns—information not available at the time but has since trickled out over the decades and after all of the key players were dead.
Take Senator Eugene McCarthy, the virtually unknown and iconoclastic senator who toppled the immensely powerful Lyndon Johnson from his perch and drove him into retirement. He proved to be a character unlike any I have ever seen in politics. For example, at the end of his announcement that he would challenge Lyndon Johnson (when no other Democrat dared to do so because he appeared unbeatable), a reporter asked why he wanted to be president. McCarthy corrected him: “I didn’t say I wanted to be president. I’m willing to be president.” Taken aback by that answer, another reporter asked what kind of president he thought he would make. McCarthy replied, “Oh, I’d be adequate.”
McCarthy’s campaign style drove his staff mad. He entered the race at the end of November 1967, but he didn’t bother showing up to campaign in New Hampshire (the first-in-the-nation primary) until two months later—only six weeks before the crucial March 12thvote. When he finally sauntered up there, he campaigned with such indifference that reporters dismissed his effort as a joke. He canceled events arbitrarily and at the last minute. Once a huge audience gathered in an auditorium for his heavily promoted speech. On the way there, McCarthy blithely told his driver to take him back to the hotel. He just didn’t feel like talking politics that evening; he felt like writing poetry instead.
On another occasion, an aide arrived early one morning to pick up the candidate for a packed schedule. McCarthy was gone, having left instructions to cancel all of that day’s events. Why? McCarthy had discovered that there was a nearby monastery, so he decided to blow off the campaign to go there and meditate all day. Then there was the time his staff set up a private meet-and-greet with local bigwigs; McCarthy arrived to find over a hundred prominent people anxious to see him. He entered the room, shook a few hands, and then he turned to an aide and said, “Okay, I’m bored now.” With that, he blew past everyone in the ballroom, walked over to the bar and ordered a drink, and he remained there until the room emptied. The day a wealthy donor arrived at McCarthy’s campaign office to deliver a personal check for $10,000 — a monumental sum in 1968 — the candidate refused to walk down the hall to thank him. He explained to his flabbergasted manager that since the donor was giving money to a cause, and not to McCarthy personally, the donor shouldn’t expect any thanks. And so it went.
Still, there was something about McCarthy’s aloofness and contempt for the political rulebook that created its own bizarre appeal. As one former colleague remembered, when Gene was “on,” nobody was more articulate and elegant. And when it came to expressing his opposition to the Vietnam War, he was at his articulate and elegant best. And, of course, for a brief and shining moment in the McCarthy campaign, he was viewed as having a shot at becoming the 37thpresident of the United States.
TSD: Talk about Bobby Kennedy — he was a charismatic and compelling figure to be sure, but a man with many flaws who came late and still warily to many of the issues he is remembered for championing: civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam War, etc. Yet the hagiographic treatment has continued in this, the 50th anniversary of his tragic assassination. You depict a much more complicated man, and certainly a vicious street fighting pol.
JR: As I related in the book’s introduction, growing up in San Francisco in the 1960s in a blue-collar, part-Irish, and all-Roman Catholic family, John and Robert Kennedy were heroes to our generation of immigrant and denominational descendants. We admired them in life and mourned them in death—deeply. As I mentioned earlier, as a Fifth-Grade boy I followed it with the same enthusiasm that other boys my age reserved for baseball statistics. That landmark campaign infused me with such an intense interest in history and government that it led to my own eventual career in law and politics.
The excitement of Bobby Kennedy’s battle, and then the horrible violence that ended it instantly, left a profound impact on me that never waned. However, as I wrote the book, I always kept before me the notion of not allowing fascination to lead to blindness. Romance and idealism aside, many of RFK’s supporters never knew, or chose to ignore, that Bobby started his political career in the 1950s as one of the lead investigators for Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose last name became—fairly or unfairly—a liberal synonym for reckless and career-destroying witch hunts.
After leaving McCarthy’s staff, Bobby became chief counsel to the Senate committee investigating labor union racketeering. He dragged in over 1,500 witnesses before the committee in a vendetta to “get” those he perceived as enemies, especially Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa—an obsession that carried over into his tenure as JFK’s US attorney general. During Bobby’s stint at the Justice Department, he supported covert foreign assassinations and coups. He ordered wiretaps on enemies and friends alike, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Revisionist histories notwithstanding, Attorney General Robert Kennedy did not champion the cause of Southern civil rights marchers—he viewed them as irritants creating escalating nuisances to his brother’s 1964 reelection prospects.
Over the ensuing decades, RFK biographers overwhelmingly offered a more forgiving explanation—his brother’s 1963 assassination changed Bobby Kennedy. Dallas supposedly transfigured him from vicious streetfighter into Greek tragedian: deeper, sensitive, selfless. Bobby helped in this rehabilitation by peppering his post-JFK era speeches and interviews with quotations from Camus, Emerson, and Aeschylus. He dined with poets, strikers, and migrant workers, and he walked the ghettos. Those perpetuating the RFK myth excuse his calculated backflips on Vietnam. Instead, we discover he “grew” in his opposition when he saw an unjust war and its aftermath.
This renovated RFK meets us in history books as one upon whom fate forced leadership, which he accepted for duty, not ambition.
The truth: Robert Kennedy, both before and after his brother’s death, was a calculating politician who fought dirty, played for keeps, and (when politically expedient) took various sides of an issue to please specific and often conflicting interest groups. Strip Bobby Kennedy of the sentimental hogwash that bathes his memory, and we find that he and his brother had the same cunning ambitions and methods as their non-idealized counterparts. We forgive the Kennedys, but not the graceless LBJ or the sweat-beaded and shifty-eyed Nixon, because the Kennedys had a cultured, smooth veneer when cutting an opponent’s throat.
Doubtless Dallas and its aftermath changed Robert Kennedy. All the evidence suggests that Bobby did become more soulful, patient, thoughtful, and empathetic for the underclass, but his darker political side never wandered far. Of Bobby’s 1968 opponents—Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, Eugene McCarthy, George Romney—if any were alive today, they would tell you that RFK understood the family business perhaps better than any other member of his clan. When Bobby fought you on the political battlefield, he fought to win, and if that meant leaving your corpse rotting in the dust, tough luck.
TSD: How did you find writing a novel different from your previous nonfiction books?
JR: When my first book, “Rough Edges,” came out, it covered my early life as the illegitimate son of a convicted felon single mother who raised her four children on welfare and food stamps. It told the story of how I was expelled from high school (and never finished), and then worked my way through college and law school in every job from bouncer in a porn theater to bartending on the Sunset Strip and around Hollywood in female mud wrestling bars, female hot oil wrestling bars, a Hell’s Angels bar, etc.
Anyway, after the book came out my wife and I were having lunch with my literary agent. My agent gushed to Christine, “Jim is such a talented writer—next he should try fiction.” My wife replied, “I think he just did!” To this day she has a hard time believing some of the crazy stories of my youth.
With “On to Chicago,” because so much of the book is based on actual history, I didn’t find it to be particularly hard to retool my approach. I’m Irish, an ex-bartender, and an ex-deputy DA—so storytelling comes naturally to me. In this book, I tried to present it so that the characters themselves, and not the writer, told the story.
TSD: Any chance we will see this great book developed into a film? And what’s your next book project?
JR: I will let anyone make a movie of “On to Chicago” as long as they give me a cameo role in the film!
My next book project will be what I intended my last book project to be—that is, until I got the afflatus to write “On to Chicago.” I want to do a sequel to the book that tells the stories of my meeting all kinds of famous people growing up, “And ThenI Met….Stories of Growing Up, Meeting Famous People, and Annoying the Hell Out of Them.” The sequel will be the same sort of book, but this time include stories of famous people I came to know during my decades in public life. After all—when a guy has done everything from sparring with Muhammad Ali and pranked both Neil Armstrong (the first man on the Moon) and Pope John Paul II (seriously—I did!), those stories should be memorialized. My tentative working title is, “And Then I AlsoMet….More Stories of Meeting (and Annoying) Famous People.”
TSD: Have you ever been to our beautiful little state of Delaware? and if so, what did you do while you were here?
JR: I visited Delaware just once—around the time I was running for Congress. I attended a three-day conference on the east coast, and I slipped away one morning, rented a car, and spent the day driving around your state. I loved it—and I would look for any excuse to come back!