Opinion | How Robert F. Kennedy’s Assassination Derailed American Politics

2

Sirhan Sirhan’s shooting rampage in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen half a century ago did far more than end the life of Robert Francis Kennedy. It extinguished a romantic vision for America and beyond that made Bobby the rare optimist in an age of political cynicism, and would later inspire Barack Obama’s spirited run for the White House. “Each time a man stands up for an ideal,” RFK reminded us, “he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

No wonder his audiences swooned. And no surprise that most of Bobby’s children are outraged by California’s recent recommendation to parole his assassin.

Sirhan Sirhan may seem like a character plucked from the confounding chaos of the 1960s, one with little relevance to our current moment. But revisiting the campaign he upended, it’s clear not just why his potential freedom is generating such furor, but also why his is a story of today.

To understand that resonance, the best starting point is June 4, 1968, when California was staging a bare-knuckled presidential primary that Bobby knew would decide whether he had a political future. With the polls staying open until 8, election results came in slowly and differently on each network. CBS had Kennedy ahead. NBC was less sure. But buoyed by unprecedented turnouts and majorities in Black and Mexican American districts, Bobby scored a clear-cut victory with 46.3 percent of the vote, compared to 41.8 for Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy and 12 percent for unpledged delegates. That was enough for Bobby to go on TV and quietly claim victory, and for journalists and friends gathered across the hall to start the party.


For the first time since he’d jumped in late to the race, Bobby believed he could do it. The dream — “make room for the next leader of the free world,” he’d tease as he sprinted from hotel showers wrapped in a towel — seemed less distant following the win in California and another that day in South Dakota. Battle plans were being charted that very night for the campaign ahead. There’d be a single-minded press in his adopted state of New York. A full-page ad in The New York Times would feature photos of AFL-CIO boss George Meany and segregationist Governor Lester Maddox of Georgia — both staunchly anti-Bobby — asking rhetorically whether insiders like them should be allowed to pick the next president. The candidate would head overseas next, showing his gravitas by meeting with the Pope and foreign leaders. Nobody, least of all Bobby, minimized the obstacles remaining. But he knew the threat was over from McCarthy, whose defining and sole issue was opposing the Vietnam War. The only one who could deny him the nomination was Vice President Hubert Humphrey, or, as the comedian and mock presidential candidate Pat Paulsen had dubbed him earlier that evening, Herbert Humphrey. “I’m going to chase Herbert’s ass all over the country,” Bobby vowed.

Before he went anywhere, Bobby took a quiet moment. Sitting on the floor of his hotel room, arms around his knees, he lit a victory cigar and contemplated. At the start he hadn’t been sure whether he was running as Joe Kennedy’s son, Jack’s brother, or President Lyndon Johnson’s avowed enemy. He still was all of those, but had found a voice and two uncomplicated motivations of his own: to end the war and end poverty. Both were doable, he told himself, as aides pressed him to head down to the ballroom. Legions of restless believers were there singing “This Land Is Your Land,” the Woody Guthrie ballad that Bobby had promised to make America’s anthem.

His valedictory speech began with a nod to Don Drysdale, the Los Angeles Dodgers ace “who pitched his sixth straight shutout tonight, and I hope that we have as good fortune in our campaign.” (Bobby was one of the few men in America who actually didn’t know who the future Hall of Famer was.) Then he got serious: “I think we can end the divisions within the United States . . . whether it’s between Blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups, or over the war in Vietnam.” The crowd loved it, shouting “Bobby Power!” He ended on another light note, saying that “Mayor Yorty has just sent me a message that we’ve been here too long already. So my thanks to all of you, and on to Chicago, and let’s win there.” Giving a thumbs-up, then flashing the V-for-victory sign, he turned to leave for a reception on a lower level followed by a press conference.

But plans had changed. Aides decided to skip the reception and go directly to the press conference, where reporters were eager to file their stories. The shortest route was the way he’d come in, through the waiters’ swinging doors and into the kitchen and pantry. In the pushing of the crowd, Bobby got separated from ex-FBI agent Bill Barry, his devoted and solitary bodyguard, who was helping Kennedy’s pregnant wife Ethel off the podium. Nobody worried, since the candidate was among friends, with a busboy reaching for his hand as a cluster of reporters, photographers, and aides trailed behind. Past the rusty ice machine, 30 feet from the media room, a curly-haired young man wearing a pale blue sweatshirt was standing unnoticed on a low tray stacker, waiting for his opening. It was shortly after midnight and Andrew West, a reporter for the Mutual Radio Network, was asking Bobby his plans for catching up to Humphrey’s delegate lead. Bobby: “It just goes back to the struggle for it . . .”

That was as far as he got. The shooter stepped from his hiding place, reached straight ahead with his right arm, and started firing a .22-caliber revolver. A single shot was followed by a volley – pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. Just how many shots were fired, at what range and angle, would become grist for another assassination conspiracy mill. Bobby lurched against the ice machine, then sagged to the ground, lying face-up on the grimy concrete floor. He was conscious, eyes wide open, as blood oozed behind his right ear. “Is everybody okay?” he whispered. The busboy, Juan Romero, placed rosary beads in Bobby’s hand and tried to cushion his head as Ethel pleaded with the pressing crowd to “give him room to breathe.” Then she turned to her husband and said softly, “I’m with you, my baby.” The scene was bedlam. “Get the gun,” pleaded West, the radio man. “You monster! You’ll die for this!” a kitchen worker yelled from his perch atop the steam table. The only one who seemed serene was Bobby himself — “a kind of sweet accepting smile on his face,” recalled the journalist and Kennedy friend Pete Hamill, “as if he knew it would all end this way.”

Medics finally arrived, and as the ambulance drove away, campaign volunteers sobbed and prayed as a large man pounded a hotel pillar with his bloody right fist, shouting the questions being echoed across America: “Why, God, why? Why again? Why another Kennedy?”

The next 25 hours were a hellish whirlwind. Police, who showed up at the hotel about fifteen minutes after the shooting, quickly assembled evidence that the gunman was a 24-year-old Palestinian with the improbable name Sirhan Sirhan who hated Israel and hated the Kennedys for supporting Israel. His shooting spree wounded five others along with Bobby, whose wounds were recognized from the first to be life-threatening. Friends rounded up the children. 12-year-old son David, who’d always been scared to death that his father would be shot like Uncle Jack, learned by watching the election-night proceedings on TV that his nightmare had come true. Kerry, who was just 8, woke early the following morning to watch Bugs Bunny; “a news flash interrupted the cartoon,” she recalled. “That’s how I learned my father had been shot.”


At two o’clock the following morning campaign press secretary Frank Mankiewicz appeared in the media room across from the hospital with the announcement everyone dreaded. “Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968 … He was 42 years old.” Back at the Ambassador Hotel, a red rose marked the spot on the blood-stained pantry floor where the senator was felled. On the wall above was a hand-lettered cardboard sign that might have been up for weeks but seemed especially appropriate now: “The Once and Future King.”

53 years later, the question still haunts: While Bobby never was the king, could he have been? Research I did for my biography of this iconic Kennedy convinces me the answer is a resounding yes.

That evidence begins with what Bobby really meant that night when he uttered “on to Chicago.” Journalists and most everyone else assumed he was referring to that summer’s Democratic Convention in the Windy City, but this last progressive icon was a master political maestro, and he wasn’t about to wait until August. What he actually was signaling is that he intended to stop in Chicago on his way from Los Angeles back East, and to meet quietly with Mayor Richard J. Daley, who’d help Jack Kennedy win the White House eight years before. “I would say there was a 70 percent chance he was going to endorse him,” says Bill Daley, son of the legendary mayor and chief of staff to President Obama, who was privy to and told me about the planned rendezvous. “Then the momentum would have shifted to where other people like my dad who were still left would have been hard pressed not to go there.”

Bobby knew that Humphrey was counting not on primary voters but on kingmakers like Daley to anoint him the nominee. I think RFK was right about the way to upend the vice president’s plans and nail down the nomination for himself. Daley would woo other Democratic leaders into the Kennedy camp, justifying the move by pointing to Bobby’s wide margin over Humphrey among actual voters. The party would then unite behind a Kennedy-Humphrey ticket much as it had four years before behind former adversaries JFK and LBJ. And the Chicago convention would have had none of the angry left-wing riots that ended up dooming Humphrey’s campaign and leading to a bitter third-party bid by George Wallace, who captured 13.5 percent of the vote in an election where Nixon edged Humphrey by just 0.7 percent.

That’s not history’s conventional version of what would have come next, but it is the read of crucial insiders from back then. “Had Bobby lived,” said Humphrey, “I think there’d have been a Democrat in the White House.” And on that night of the California primary, Nixon told his family, “It sure looks like we’ll be going against Bobby.” Nixon knew that it was Bobby even more than Jack, who’d orchestrated the Kennedy win over him in 1960, and that nobody was better situated than Bobby to answer Nixon and Wallace on fighting crime and restitching the social safety net into a trampoline.

Michael Harrington was contemplating that and more as he looked out the window of the 21-car train that carried Robert F. Kennedy’s corpse from his funeral in New York to his burial in Washington that sticky Saturday afternoon in June 1968. Girl Scouts lined the Penn Central tracks next to Little Leaguers. Factory workers stood alongside rag pickers and nuns, stretching on tiptoes to see. Husbands embraced sobbing wives. They arrived in yellow pick-up trucks and flotillas of boats, wearing Bermuda shorts and hair curlers, tossing roses. Outside Newark, three firemen saluted from the deck of their vessel, The John F. Kennedy. There were brass bands, police bands, school bands, and Catholic bands. Hands were cupped in prayer or held over hearts, hats off.

It was Bobby’s America, and Harrington couldn’t keep from staring. “Every time I did, I began to cry. The sorrowing faces along the way were a mirror of my own feelings,” said the author whose writings helped launch the War on Poverty and who saw Bobby as “the man who actually could have changed the course of American history.” As for those with him inside the rail cars — politicians of the old school and new, intellectuals and trade unionists, Black, Irish, Chicano, and Jewish citizens — they were, said Harrington, “the administration of Robert Kennedy that was never going to be.”

View original post