RFK 6/6/68 -- No Joking Matter
Mr. Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He's the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).The lengthy primary campaign of 2008 has produced a bevy of tasteless references to political assassination in general, and to Robert F. Kennedy's killing in particular. The former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, made a shameless wisecrack in front of the National Rifle Association about Barack Obama diving to the ground after someone pointed a gun at him. Hillary Clinton has on at least two occasions brought up Kennedy's June 1968 assassination as evidence that "anything can happen" in a presidential race. Fox News sunk to a new low by giving a platform to a "political analyst" named Liz Trotta who riffed on Clinton's remarks and interpreted them as suggesting "that somebody knock off Osama, um, Obama -- well, both, if we could." I never thought I would see the day when presidential candidates and television commentators would be wisecracking and making light of the nation's scourge of public figures being gunned down in recent American history.
On January 4, 2008, I posted a blog where I drew on the RFK experience and raised the issue of powerful forces in this country that are currently profiting from the Iraq war wishing to do harm to a presidential candidate who might put the brakes on their gravy train. I received a lot of angry emails from people who were appalled that I would suggest that a political assassination could take place in America in this day and age. And then just a few months later I hear presidential candidates and commentators yukking it up about the RFK assassination and "joking" about gunplay aimed at Obama. It's sad and obscene.
After Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles, people throughout California collected tens of thousands of handguns and melted them down to create a giant metal sculpture. Two million people lined the tracks to pay their respects as Kennedy's funeral train traveled from New York to Washington. The killing of Robert Kennedy was widely recognized as an unmitigated disaster for the country with lasting historical consequences. But I guess after 40 years our contemporary political discourse has become so callous and cynical that no national tragedy of the magnitude of Robert Kennedy's assassination has the power to shame us anymore.
On the night of June 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy was mingling with well-wishers in a crowded suite in the Ambassador Hotel when television news reporters began haranguing him to give his victory speech before Californians retired for the night. He had beaten Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy in the pivotal California primary, and now Kennedy was poised to wrest the Democratic Party's presidential nomination away from Vice President Hubert Humphrey. At about 11:30 pm, flanked by his aides and half a dozen journalists, Kennedy entered a packed elevator and went down to speak. The huge Embassy Room ballroom was clogged with celebrants, campaign workers, reporters, photographers, and Kennedy partisans of all kinds. When he finally appeared at the podium, the several thousand revelers greeted him with thunderous applause. "If there is one lesson of this political year," he began, "it is that the people of this country wish to move away from the politics which led to an endless war abroad and to increasing unrest in our own country." Senator McCarthy's supporters "deserve the gratitude of the nation," he said, "for the courageous fight which helped to break the political logjam, demonstrated the desire for change, and helped make citizen participation into a new and powerful force of our political life."
But Kennedy wasted no time in focusing his attention on Humphrey who he had to beat to win the nomination. In all of the primaries the voters had "rejected those slates of delegates committed to the Johnson-Humphrey Administration," he said. "I cannot believe that the Democratic Party will nominate a man whose ideas and programs have been so decisively rejected. Yet the Vice President apparently believes he can win the nomination without once submitting his case to the people." He wanted a face-to-face meeting: "I will go any place any time to meet the Vice President in a televised debate." Standing at the podium, with Ethel, Jesse Unruh, Dolores Huerta, and many others by his side, Kennedy continued, "I am the only candidate committed to a realistic negotiated solution to the Vietnamese war, one embracing all the elements of the South Vietnamese population, and opposed to the use of American military force to carry the major burden of what should be essentially a Vietnamese conflict. In fact, I am the only candidate with policies likely to bring an honorable peace to let the killing stop. . . . "
"What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis, and that what has been going on within the United States over a period of the last three years. The divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society -- the divisions, whether it's between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups, or on the war in Vietnam -- is that we can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country. I intend to make that the basis for running."
He thanked dozens of people by name who were involved in getting out the vote, as well as Ethel, Cesar Chavez, and the athletes Rosie Grier and Rafer Johnson who helped in the black communities. He also thanked his dog "Freckles," who accompanied him on the campaign trail, which evoked cheers and laughter. "Where's Freckles?" someone shouted out; "he's sleeping right now," Kennedy replied with a broad smile. "I thank all of you who made this possible this evening. All the effort you made, and all of the people whose places I haven't been to, but who made or did all of the work at the precinct level, got out the vote . . . brought forth all of the efforts required. I was a campaign manager eight years ago, and I know what a difference that kind of effort, and that kind of commitment can make. My thanks to all of you, and on to Chicago, and let's win there." He flashed a "V" for victory with his right hand, swept back his forelock, and stepped back from the podium.
Amidst a deafening ovation, Kennedy slowly made his way from the dais through the masses of people milling about behind the stage, and moved toward a doorway that led to the hotel's kitchen. A press conference was to take place in a room on the other side of the ballroom. Getting there through the kitchen seemed to be wiser than trying to push through the middle of the crowd. He disappeared into the pantry, which was stuffed with some seventy campaign workers, reporters, and food service employees. He paused to shake hands with workers from the hotel staff, and to sign a few autographs. Suddenly, a small man to Kennedy's right who had been crouching behind a stack of metal trays lunged forward and began discharging a handgun. A clump of people surged toward the assailant as he wildly emptied his 22-caliber eight-shot revolver. Gunfire wounded five, including the union leader, Paul Schrade, who was shot in the head. But Kennedy received the worst of it: a single bullet with an upward trajectory had entered his brain from just below his right ear. The muzzle had been no farther than three inches from his head. The gun was a $30 Iver-Johnson pistol.
For eighty-five days, Kennedy had worked harder and longer hours on the campaign than anyone else. He looked forward to a relaxing night of celebration. He and Ethel planned to have dinner and drinks with close friends at a swanky Los Angeles eatery. Instead, he found himself collapsed on the greasy concrete floor of the Ambassador Hotel's kitchen pantry.
In the twenty-five hours following the shooting, Kennedy was transferred to two hospitals, and he underwent four hours of brain surgery. As he fought for his life at Good Samaritan hospital, mournful well wishers amassed at the front of the building. A makeshift pressroom was set up, and Frank Mankiewicz had the grim task of periodically updating the world about Kennedy's condition. In the end, the damage from bullet and bone fragments was too severe. Mankiewicz made a brief announcement: "Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968. With the Senator at the time of his death was his wife, Ethel, his sisters, Mrs. Patricia Lawford and Mrs. Stephen Smith, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. John F. Kennedy. He was forty-two years old."
In New York, schools closed, and a television station broadcast the single word "SHAME" for nearly three hours. Ethel Kennedy, who was expecting her eleventh child that October, received over 325,000 letters of sympathy. Condolence telegrams flooded Kennedy’s Senate office from Poland, South Africa, Vietnam, Argentina, and dozens of other countries. Sorrow and disbelief produced an "eerie quietness" in the city of Los Angeles. The student editor of the U.C.L.A. Daily Bruin said he believed the killing of Robert Kennedy would "make young people completely unreachable."
President Johnson responded to the news: "This is a time of tragedy and loss. Senator Robert Kennedy is dead. Robert Kennedy affirmed this country -- affirmed the essential decency of its people, their longing for peace, their desire to improve conditions of life for all. . . . Our public life is diminished by his loss." The President ordered Secret Service protection for the remaining candidates, and offered the Kennedy family use of Air Force One. Eugene McCarthy suspended his campaign and visited the hospital; he linked the tragedy to "the disposition of violence, which we have visited upon the rest of the world."
A Jordanian immigrant was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison for the murder. Press accounts portrayed the 24-year-old, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, as a Palestinian extremist. A newspaper clipping found in his pocket reported a speech Kennedy had given to a Los Angeles Jewish group where he endorsed the sale of jet fighters to Israel. But Kennedy's speech that day was election year boilerplate. The killer had allegedly singled him out because of his mainstream support of the Jewish state; he could have just as easily targeted Humphrey, McCarthy, or Richard Nixon for the same offense.
Although the press portrayed Sirhan as an assassin with a clear political motive, he allegedly filled notebooks with repetitive hand-written gibberish. The phrase "RFK Must Die" is scrawled over again, filling pages of his notebooks, followed by: "Pay to the Order of" in identical form. They appear to be the work of a psychotic rather than an assassin with "rational" aims. Curious for a fanatic, he never staked claim to his deed, but said he could "not remember" the shooting. (It might have been a ploy for his defense to avoid the death penalty.) The Mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty, told reporters that Sirhan was a "Communist." The killer's grand "political" motive may have been an afterthought to give meaning to a senseless act in an era plagued by them. Or it may have been an attempt to snuff out public talk of conspiracies after the lingering doubts about the events of November 1963. (A Gallup poll taken the day after Robert Kennedy was shot showed that the public by a wide margin believed it was a product of a conspiracy.)
There is new acoustic evidence from tape recordings of the Ambassador Hotel's pantry that night that suggests, as Thomas Noguchi's autopsy did, that there were two firing positions: One in front of Kennedy where Sirhan was shooting wildly and wounding people behind the Senator, the other at extremely close range just behind Kennedy where the fatal head wound originated. The historian Philip Melanson and other authors have raised legitimate questions about some of the actions of the Los Angeles Police Department, (particularly the "Special Unit Senator" that ran the investigation), with respect to the treatment of the crime scene, the questioning of witnesses, and the destruction and handling of evidence. There is a new and interesting book on the assassination by the Irish-born writer, Shane O'Sullivan, Who Killed Bobby? The Unsolved Murder of Robert F. Kennedy, which explores some of the inconsistencies with the "open and shut" case that convicted Sirhan as the crazed "lone gunman." Paul Schrade, the labor leader who was shot in the head that night while standing behind Kennedy, has worked for years to try to reopen the case. Although it is not well known, the LAPD, and particularly the officer in charge of test firing the weapon allegedly used in the killing, DeWayne Wolfer, never even came close to proving with ballistic evidence that any of the bullets that hit Kennedy came from Sirhan's Iver-Johnson.
Kennedy's body was flown to New York where he lay for two days in the vaulted nave of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Over 100,000 people lined up for twenty-five blocks, some of them waiting five or six hours just to walk past his coffin. The diversity of those who came to show their respects was a testimony to Kennedy's wide-ranging appeal. Edward Kennedy gave the eulogy. He had lost the last of his three brothers. He said Robert Kennedy should be remembered "simply 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."
A funeral train carried Kennedy's body to Washington. Thousands of people lined the tracks; some held American flags and plaintively sang the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." On television, as the twenty-car locomotive set out on its final leg, with the flag-draped coffin visible in the last car, Walter Cronkite, intoned: "It is the end of a brilliant political and public career." Kennedy's death also marked the end of an era, and a grave setback for those who were trying to stop the Vietnam War. On June 8, 1968, he was laid to rest not far from the eternal flame of his brother's grave in Arlington National Cemetery.
Robert Francis Kennedy embodied the roles of activist and politician. His views on the perennial American problems of foreign wars, poverty, and racial strife continue to resonate. He had the unique ability to challenge people morally, and to stand together with those who wished to build a more humane society.
The killing of Robert F. Kennedy was particularly brutal coming just eight weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and less than five years after the murder of President John F. Kennedy. The leader of the peace wing of the Democratic Party was removed from national politics with a shocking abruptness. His death came at a time when the party and the nation were bitterly divided, when there were riots in the cities and over a half million American soldiers fighting in Southeast Asia. The silencing of Robert Kennedy's voice could not have come at a worst time for the nation. His death cleared the path for the presidency of Richard Nixon with all of its attendant cynicism and divisive tactics that have had a lasting imprint even to this day.
Given our horrific recent history of assassinations that disfranchised millions of voters and robbed a generation of some of its best young leaders I fail to see "humor" in jokes about guns being aimed at candidates or public musings about how the killings affected the political chances of rivals. On the 40th anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, we should honor the memory of an extraordinary public servant and idealistic leader, and take a step back from the cynicism of our current political discourse and reflect for a moment on how America might be different today had he been allowed to live out his natural life.
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