Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago. I recall the event with crystal clarity, one of many tragedies of 1968. As an eleven year old I watched it on television and woke the next morning to the harsh reality. I went to visit a friend that morning and still remember his mother’s scream when she heard it on the news. This was only a couple of months after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was a year many of us would shed our childhood.
Kennedy’s death not only ended his life and forever changed the lives of his wife and ten children (his wife was pregnant with his eleventh child), but it ended a dream for many Americans who were part of Kennedy’s momentum-gaining journey to the Presidency.
Campaigning was quite different in those days, candidates traveled with less security and people like Kennedy, who was weary of crowds following his brother’s murder, still wanted to connect with those who came to see him.
A lot has been written about Robert Kennedy, and some of it not flattering. He had a temper, he could be arrogant, he and Lyndon Johnson hated each other, he had previously been a firm supporter of the Vietnam War, he is alleged to have had an affair with Marilyn Monroe, and he played a role in wiretaps of civil rights leaders. Joseph Kennedy Sr. made a lot of enemies and that carried forward to his sons. The elder Kennedy’s sins are well-documented, as are those of his sons and grandchildren, so I won’t go into them here.
Robert Kennedy was no prince, not even one of Camelot. He had his faults but also his strengths. He was a man of great conviction who was not after power, only how power could be used to improve the lives of Americans. He was born of privilege, yet had an ability to connect with people at the opposite end of the socio-economic scale. While his brother Jack could pull you in from his words, Robert had a more personal touch and warmth.
He was known as Bobby, ever youthful with the slightly mischievous grim. To this day, I still refer to him Robert, not Bobby.
In the past 50 years, much has been written about all of the Kennedys, but Robert is the most enigmatic of the family. Chris Matthews recently published a very good book on Kennedy’s presidential campaign. There are others that focus on various aspects of his life and career.
Kennedy was obsessed about the future of the country. While Joseph Kennedy Sr. groomed Jack Kennedy for the White House, Robert journeyed there under the steam of his own passion and conviction. Robert received help from the family and others who had worked for his brother, but he was his own man on the campaign trail.
Kennedy got into the race belatedly, with Gene McCarthy the loudest anti-Vietnam War candidate. Kennedy took a lot of criticism for coming to bat late and his much earlier support of the war during his brother’s Presidency. McCarthy’s campaign called him an opportunist.
Kennedy came to Kansas and appeared at college gatherings, including Lawrence, Kansas. The crowd in Lawrence, predominantly young people, caused the Kennedy group much concern because of their number and passion. The crowd was “out of control” as one member of the Kennedy team remembers.
Kennedy was a charismatic speaker, personally more so than his older brother. Robert was less polished and looked a bit like he blew in from a college lecture. Maybe that’s why he had such appeal to the younger generation. He had a self-deprecating humor and could charm or scold you before you realized what he was doing. His wit was that quick and biting.
When Kennedy spoke, you believed him and you felt his honesty. You might not agree with him or dismissed him as a far-left liberal, but he was a man who worked his vision. Many talk about their vision, usually in broad strokes, but Kennedy put his words into action as a Senator. He visited the dire poverty in Appalachia and marched with migrant workers in California over a livable wage. He recognized the carnage in Vietnam and that America was on the wrong path.
Kennedy had been part of his brother’s efforts to wiretap Martin Luther King and backed some terrible Justice Department actions. Over time, he learned and saw the error of his ways. The night that King was assassinated, Kennedy talked to a crowd of predominantly African-Americans in Indianapolis. He abandoned his prepared remarks to inform many in the the crowd of King’s murder.
A very tense situation, but Kennedy handled it with compassion and empathy, and called for peace and clear heads during the difficult road ahead. He didn’t often speak of his brother’s murder but he did that night, to help others understand dealing with personal anguish. Riots and violence would follow across the country but he got this crowd to listen:
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” – Robert F. Kennedy
Following the California primary, Kennedy’s journey would seem to improve yet the fight was intensifying. That road ended at the Ambassador Hotel.
Robert F. Kennedy would shortly begin another journey, by special train, from the funeral in New York City to Washington D.C., for burial at Arlington, Virginia. This final journey reportedly took twice the time due to the estimated two million mourners who lined the tracks and crowded the stations along the way. This was not a planned event, there was no social media in those days, it was a universal expression of grief and respect. Many millions of us took that long, final journey.