Within the Kennedy family, Robert was known as either his mother's pet or the runt. In this highly competitive environment, he was oversensitive, moody, and quiet; a mediocre student, an intense, but awkward athlete. But "Mrs. Kennedy's little boy Bobby" was brooding himself into maturity. This biography, the first major R.F.K. life in twenty years, presents the eternal younger brother as a fierce and sullen campaigner, a talented (if ruthless) negotiator not adverse to use back channels. Wise Man author Thomas scrutinizes the mythos surround Robert, including his links to the mob, assassination plots and Ms. Monroe. As Newsweek readers recently learned, his rendering of the Cuban Missile Crises brings it all back closer than ninety miles from home.
Robert Kennedy: His Lifeby Evan Thomas
He was "Good Bobby," who, as his brother Ted eulogized him, "saw wrong and tried to right it . . . saw suffering and tried to heal it." And "Bad Bobby," the ruthless and manipulative bully of countless conspiracy theories. Thomas's unvarnished but sympathetic and fair-minded portrayal is packed with new details about Kennedy's early life and his behind-the-scenes
He was "Good Bobby," who, as his brother Ted eulogized him, "saw wrong and tried to right it . . . saw suffering and tried to heal it." And "Bad Bobby," the ruthless and manipulative bully of countless conspiracy theories. Thomas's unvarnished but sympathetic and fair-minded portrayal is packed with new details about Kennedy's early life and his behind-the-scenes machinations, including new revelations about the 1960 and 1968 presidential campaigns, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his long struggles with J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson.
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Read an Excerpt
Robert Kennedy liked to plunge into cold water. He swam in the surf off Cape Cod in February and in white water in upstate New York in May. Sailing off the coast of Maine on rainy, foggy days, he would egg on family and friends to follow him into the fifty-degree ocean. George Plimpton, the writer and amateur sportsman, once watched as Kennedy jumped into cold rapids on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. Taking an icy dip before lunch was a WASP ritual that Plimpton understood and appreciated: you would let out a gleeful whoop and then down a martini. But Kennedy, Plimpton observed, was grimly silent.
On this particular day, in late June 1967, the river guides tried to stop Kennedy. The white water was too rough, they warned; a swimmer might hit a rock and drown. But Kennedy, strapping on a life jacket, went anyway. Plimpton recalled anxiously watching Kennedy, "just his head in a great wash of water." Plimpton, who as a stunt had once climbed into the ring against a champion professional boxer, was afraid to join him. So was Jim Whittaker, the first American to conquer Mount Everest. Kennedy had brought along Plimpton and Whittaker as fellow adventurers, but they had less to prove.
Kennedy camping trips were rollicking and fun, with famous athletes and celebrities along for entertainment humorist Art Buchwald cracked jokes, and crooner Andy Williams led the campfire sing-along but the fainthearted rarely came back a second time. Kennedy's custom was to arise from his tent in the morning, scan the surrounding mountain peaks, and announce his intention to climb the highest one. On the morning of July 1, Kennedy set forth on a seven-mile climb out of the Grand Canyon. The temperature at noon was 110 degrees. Some of the entourage begged off and flew out with the younger children by helicopter instead. The march was so demanding that one of the professional guides dropped out. At one point, Whittaker, who by then was half carrying a couple of young Kennedys, asked if the group should turn back. Kennedy answered by reciting a few lines of the St. Crispin's Day speech from Shakespeare's Henry V. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," Kennedy orated. "For he today that sheds blood with me shall be my brother...." "Say the whole thing," urged his wife, Ethel. Kennedy did once, and then a second time when the group was again flagging. Plimpton was reeling like a drunk by the time they neared the end. Andy Williams, unable to go on, had to be carried on a donkey. Considerate in his way, Kennedy stopped the donkey near the summit to let Williams walk the last few hundred yards, and thus not lose face.
Kennedy believed that one should mock fear, not show it. He adopted the studied casualness, the effortless grace of a New England prep school boy of the 1930s and 1940s, but beneath the offhand manner was ferocious determination. The speech from Henry V was delivered half but only half in jest. As attorney general and right-hand man to the president, Kennedy made light of dire predicaments, often using a gallows twist, and he expected his subordinates to join in the joking. In September 1962, several of his top aides, sent by the Department of Justice to gain the admission of a black student to the University of Mississippi, were besieged by angry men, armed with shotguns and squirrel rifles, who had poured into the college town of Oxford from the outlying hills and dirt-poor farms. The mob began by throwing rocks and bottles; soon, shots rang out. From a pay phone in the university administration building, where the feds were surrounded, Ed Guthman, a trusted aide, called the attorney general, who was back at his office in Washington. "It's getting like the Alamo," said Guthman. Kennedy dryly replied, "Well, you know what happened to those guys." Less than a month later, CIA spy planes discovered Soviet ICBMs tipped with nuclear warheads in Cuba. It was the moment of maximum danger for America and the world, the most perilous showdown of the Cold War. At a very tense briefing at the White House, CIA photo interpreters described the deadly missiles and their range. Robert Kennedy mordantly piped up, "Can they hit Oxford, Mississippi?"
The black Irish humor, like the prep school cool, was for show, to keep up a brave front. In truth, Kennedy revered courage in a romantic, sentimental way that his friends found touching and revealing. In his daybook, where he dutifully recorded inspirational sayings, Kennedy quoted Winston Churchill's epigram that courage is "the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others." In his well-thumbed copy of Emerson's Essays, he underlined "It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, 'Always do what you are afraid to do.'"
Kennedy made a cult of courage. He collected brave men. General Maxwell Taylor, who had commanded a division of paratroopers on D-Day, was a frequent tennis partner and visitor to the Kennedy house, Hickory Hill. Mountain climber Whittaker and astronaut John Glenn often came, along with various professional athletes and Olympians. Kennedy would quiz them about their experiences. The questions were precise and practical, but aimed at eliciting deeper truths about the nature of valor.
Courage was a moral test that his enemies always failed. Lyndon Johnson was a "coward," Nelson Rockefeller had "no guts," Chester Bowles was a "weeper." To RFK, there could be no greater reward than a Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery under fire. In 1963, President Kennedy hosted a reception at the White House for all of America's surviving Medal of Honor winners. Over 250 heroes from America's wars gathered in the Rose Garden, chatting and joking with President Kennedy. JFK, a war hero himself who handed out tie clips fashioned in the shape of his old PT boat, basked easily in the reflected glory. RFK, on the other hand, stood off at the edge of the crowd, watching silently. His eyes, observed White House aide Kenneth O'Donnell, were "full of fascination." The younger Kennedy, who kept a copy of General Douglas MacArthur's World War I Medal of Honor citation in his desk drawer, often spoke reverently of his own brothers' bravery.
Robert Kennedy missed combat in World War II. In 1946, he served as a seaman, second class, aboard a destroyer named after his brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., a naval aviator who had perished after volunteering for a virtual suicide mission. Perhaps in part because he had never seen the real thing, Kennedy glorified war. He felt diminished that he had never been tested in battle. At a Georgetown dinner party in about 1960, when the guests played a parlor game, if you could do it all over, what would you be? Kennedy answered, "A paratrooper." He was thrilled when the president's military adviser, General Taylor, told him that he would have made it in his old unit, the 101st Airborne.
Left behind, unable to catch up to his war-hero brothers, he reconciled himself to a supporting role. He extolled their exploits, advanced the family cause, and carefully polished the Kennedy myth. The Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House was Robert Kennedy's idea. It was in keeping with the role he had created for himself, as the stage manager who worked behind the scenes, who sublimated his own ambitions to the larger cause of his family's success.
Kennedy, for much of his young life, was an acolyte. As a youth, he had been proud to be trained as an altar boy. He liked to be part of the ceremony, to help reenact a great drama, to serve the priest. Attending Catholic Mass as a grown man, he sometimes stepped over the rail to help out if he saw that an altar boy was missing and the priest needed a hand. He served his father, Joe, and his brother John in the same faithful, unembarrassed way, attending to them, celebrating them, helping them produce the grand drama of their lives. He outgrew his altar boy role; to his foes he sometimes looked more like Cardinal Richelieu, lurking behind the throne. He was without question a forceful executor of his brother's will. Yet he did not often or easily imagine himself succeeding his brother as president.
Then, with brutal suddenness, Robert Kennedy stood alone. JFK was dead. Their father, crippled by a stroke, could only utter the word "no." Robert Kennedy had no one left to serve and protect. He had to remake himself, to find a new role. He escaped into brooding for a long time, then slowly rejoined the world. Events pulled at him, forced him to weigh his capacity to lead and his courage. Anguished, uncertain, he hesitated, pulled back then lunged forward. His entry into the 1968 presidential race criticized as belated and opportunistic at the time required an act of tremendous personal will. Kennedy was able to transform himself from follower and behind-the-scenes operator to popular leader in part by conveying, in an urgent, raw way, his identification with the underdog.
This is the story of an unpromising boy who died as he was becoming a great man. There was very little about young Robert F. Kennedy that foretold a grand or tragic destiny. Overshadowed by his more glamorous and accomplished siblings as a little boy, he was small, clumsy, and fearful. His father slighted him, while hovering about the older children, particularly Joe Jr. and John. Desperate to win his father's attention and respect, Kennedy became a hard man for a long while, covering over his sensitivity and capacity for empathy with a carapace of arrogance. But never entirely: his humility was always a saving grace. He might have made an unusual and gifted national leader, one who was able to both feel for and challenge his people.
He lives on in our imagination of what might have been. Robert Kennedy is one of history's great what-ifs. He was a Zelig of power at the vortex, it seemed, of every crisis of the 1960s, a decade that sometimes felt like one long crisis. He was centrally engaged in most of the great epics of the postwar era McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, the superpower confrontation, Vietnam. He was an essential player in the most severe test of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had vast influence when JFK was in the White House. His brother gave him virtually unlimited discretion and he exceeded it. Sure of his standing with the president, he scorned yes-men and surrounded himself with confident achievers. He did overreach at times, and he could be a bully. Yet in tight spots, under pressure, he often demonstrated that rare and ineffable quality, good judgment. He was at once honorable and cunning. At certain critical moments in his brother's presidency and the nation's history he both connived and stood fast to advance the causes of peace and justice. Nonetheless, he never had the chance to develop and carry out his own vision.
He seemed so young when he died. He was young only forty-two, a year younger than JFK had been upon his election as the second-youngest president in the nation's history. But Robert Kennedy somehow seemed younger, more boyish. With his buck teeth and floppy hair and shy gawkiness, he sometimes came across like an awkward teenager. At other times, he was almost childlike in his wonder and curiosity. RFK was regarded by many as "ruthless," and though the adjective stung, it often fit. Yet with children, his own as well as anyone else's, he was tender. When he spoke to them, he didn't feign affection. Children could feel his identification; they would follow after him, wrapping their arms around his leg and climbing into his lap.
"He had a child heart," said his friend, filmmaker George Stevens. "A gentleness and playfulness and a trace of innocence." Robert Coles, the child psychiatrist who became a friend of RFK's through their shared interest in poor children, observed that even as boys, the older Kennedy siblings were expected to behave like men. RFK, on the other hand, was allowed to be a child, and in some ways never grew up. As an adult, Kennedy retained childlike mannerisms. Put off by someone or something, he would stick out his tongue or make a face. Sitting on a podium listening to a speaker he did not like, he would squirm and look petulant or bored. He was "a little boy in his enthusiasms," said Coles, capable of showing childish delight over something so simple as licking an ice cream cone. Kennedy once engaged Coles in an animated conversation debating the relative virtues of different flavors of ice cream vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate (RFK's personal favorite). On the campaign trail, Kennedy liked to end the day by eating a big bowl of ice cream (while at the same time sipping a Heineken beer). Kennedy was not unself-aware. Once, as a crowd pressed in on Kennedy, someone cried, "There's a little boy there! Watch out!" The person was referring to a small child who had become caught in the crush, but Kennedy felt the identification instantly. Without missing a beat, he remarked, "Yes, he's a U.S. senator."
And yet, at other times for days at a time he seemed prematurely aged, possessed by morbidity. "Doom was woven in your nerves," Robert Lowell wrote in a poem about him. He seemed especially haunted after JFK was assassinated in 1963. Kennedy had never been very forthcoming about his feelings, but now, with his brother killed, he seemed to be holding back, almost as if he were hiding something. He would withdraw, staring out into space, or lose himself in reading. He seemed to be searching, groping for an answer. Mary Bailey Gimbel, a friend since school days, recalled him lugging around a heavy tome of Western literature "like a football." The only writing he liked in it, he told her, was a story about a French poet named Gérard de Nerval who walked with a lobster on a leash. In the story, a friend asked the poet why. The poet replied, "He doesn't bark, and he knows the secrets of the deep."
Kennedy had his own secrets. He was known for his candor indeed, for his bluntness. But at the same time he carefully compartmentalized information. His closest aides understood that he rarely, if ever, told everything to any one person. He had learned, partly from his father, to use private back channels to accomplish difficult or sensitive tasks. He routinely circumvented the bureaucracy in his relentless pursuit of the Mafia and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, not trusting even the CIA to keep his secrets. For public consumption, Kennedy accepted the finding that JFK was not the victim of a conspiracy, but rather had been killed by a deranged lone gunman. Privately, RFK could never quiet his fear that his own enemies had struck back by killing his brother.
On the night JFK died, a friend heard RFK, alone in a White House bedroom, cry out, "Why, God?" His Catholic faith in a good God was shaken. In visible pain "like a man on the rack," said one friend he cast about for a way to make sense of the despair he felt. At the suggestion of his brother's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, he began reading the plays and writings of the ancient Greeks. In the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, Kennedy discovered fate and hubris. He began to wonder if the Kennedy family had somehow overreached, dared too greatly. In his copy of Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way, he had underlined Herodotus: "All arrogance will reap a harvest rich in tears. God calls men to a heavy reckoning for overweening pride." Comparing oneself to an actor in a Greek tragedy may seem pretentious, and inconsistent with RFK's customary self-deprecation, but Robert Kennedy had an epic sense of his own family. The Kennedys were the House of Atreus, noble and doomed, and RFK began to see himself as Agamemnon. RFK also saw himself as Shakespeare's Henry V. When Robert Lowell derided the comparison as trite, Kennedy argued with the poet, pulling down a volume of Shakespeare's Histories and reading from Henry IV's deathbed scene. ("For what in me was purchased,/Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort....") "Henry the Fourth," said Kennedy, without apparent irony, "that's my father."
Fate was to be accepted but not passively, resignedly. The former C-student regarded as a black-and-white dogmatist by his foes began carrying Albert Camus in his pocket. He became an existentialist, without at the same time abandoning his faith in God. He refused to accept the bleakness of a godless world, though he was troubled that God could allow a Hitler or the suffering of small children. He had been a romantic Catholic who believed that it was possible to create the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. He lost the certainty of his faith but never the hope. He believed that one had to keep trying. His philosophy, which he urged on others and truly tried to live by himself, was: we may all be doomed, but each man must define himself anew each day by his own actions. Action relieved Kennedy from dwelling on his fate, while leading him to it.
The year 1968 was one that cried out for action. It was a time that, in retrospect, seems overripe and overwrought, but to ordinary Americans watching the disturbing images on TV young people burning the flag, soldiers burning villages, blacks burning their own neighborhoods the feeling was ominous, pre-revolutionary. In Vietnam, the generals had stopped giving speeches about the light at the end of the tunnel. Now, as the Viet Cong's surprise Tet offensive exploded in February, Walter Cronkite was joining the longhairs looking for a way out. In Detroit and Newark in "the long hot summer" of 1967, snipers had opened up on firemen, and President Johnson had sent in paratroopers and tanks. In the summer of 1968, many whites feared angry blacks would try to burn the cities down. The national crisis called for a leader who was unafraid, who could bring together angry blacks and students and the blue collar workers who feared and loathed them. At once a radical and a moderate pragmatist, Robert Kennedy cast himself as the only one who could reach across the divide.
Yet he balked. He thought and talked incessantly about running for president, but he could not bring himself to declare. He liked to say that his brother's favorite quote was from Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis preserve their neutrality. But through the winter of 1967-68 he equivocated. He did not want to destroy the Democratic Party, said his protectors. He did not want to start a civil war with President Johnson that would ruin his own political future and in the end elect Richard Nixon and prolong the war. Beware of hubris. Do not invite a second tragedy. He was, for all his activism, a prudent man, and he had no time for lost causes.
Or possibly, he was afraid. Kennedy would have made a courageous small-unit commander in combat, the kind who slept with the troops and led the charge. But as a politician, he could appear shy and small and slouched; his hands trembled; he recoiled from the backslapping and insincerity of electioneering. Curiously, for someone whose family helped invent mass media politics, he was terrible on TV. He was too intense, not facile, and the camera caught the haunted look. More profoundly, he had not been raised to be a leader in the grand or visionary sense. If he overreached for power, would he tempt his brother's fate? Kennedy was fatalistic in the extreme. If the police passed on a threat, and his aides tried to hustle him out the back, he would insist on leaving by the front door. Yet he could not entirely hide his fear. His administrative aide in the Senate, Joe Dolan, would not tell Kennedy about most threats, but if there was a really serious one, Dolan would try to be nearby to warn and protect. "I was always the angel of death," Dolan recalled. "I wouldn't show up at his events unless there was a real threat." Kennedy understood this and was not at all glad to run into his loyal aide unexpectedly. Once, as he was leaving a polling place in Manhattan, he stumbled across Dolan standing in line outside. Kennedy visibly flinched at his angel's shadow.
As he dithered in the winter of '67-'68, the crowds and the pundits taunted him. He saw a protester waving a sign, "Kennedy: Hawk, Dove or Chicken." He hated it. He kept a letter in his wallet from a journalist friend reminding him of the photos of John F. Kennedy that hung on the walls of poor people around the world. "This is your obligation," the letter implored. His wife, Ethel, urged him to run, despite the obvious dangers. As fierce in her own way as her husband, she understood that he had to run. Ethel preferred to look at the world in black and white, the good guys (her husband, always) versus the bad guys (her husband's foes). A determined optimist, she would not permit herself to contemplate gloomy outcomes. RFK, by contrast, was a brooder who could easily imagine the worst. But he knew that his wife was right that if he did not run, he would never be able to live with himself. And so, on March 16, 1968, he declared his candidacy.
Viewed three decades later, the films and photographs of Robert Kennedy's eighty-one-day campaign seem feverish, almost hysterical. Not just the jumpers and screamers waving signs that said "Bobby Is Sexy," "Bobby Is Groovy," "I Love You Bobby," but the farmers and workers and housewives who closed in on him, clutching at him, pulling him from his car, and (twice) stealing the shoes off his feet. They came out, at first, to cheer the myth of Camelot restored. They saw instead a raw, sometimes reticent young man struggling to be honest with them and with himself. His speeches were effective not so much for their words, which, when scripted, were usually bland, or their delivery, which was often flat or awkward, but for something more ineffable: the body language, the aura, the emanations of compassion and understanding that Kennedy conveyed. Inarticulate but urgent and sincere, Kennedy could reach poor and dispossessed people who themselves had difficulty articulating their needs and anxieties. People loved him even though he challenged, even baited them, to overcome their fears and narrow self-interest. He would embarrass middle-class college students whose support he desperately wanted by belittling their draft deferments, pointing out that the casualties in Vietnam were disproportionately suffered by minorities and the poor. When a medical student asked him who would pay for better care for the poor, he answered bluntly: "You will." Measured by the poll-driven caution of the stereotypical politician, Kennedy's willingness to speak hard truths seems almost quaint. But it worked to inspire many voters, particularly those most alienated from conventional politics.
The intensity was so great, the yearning and devotion so palpable, that the inevitability of Kennedy's victory in 1968 has become an enduring political myth. In fact, as his campaign entered the final day before the California primary that June, his advisers were very worried. "We were losing altitude, though the Kennedys today don't like to admit it," recalled Fred Dutton, Kennedy's top aide on the campaign plane. Defeated by Eugene McCarthy in Oregon, way behind Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the delegate count, Kennedy himself understood that if he failed to win California, he was out of the race.
Kennedy's solution, as always, was to try harder. On the Monday before the Tuesday vote, he intended to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco, back to Watts and Long Beach, on to San Diego, and back to L.A. 1,200 miles in thirteen hours. His aides wanted to hit the three major TV markets in a single news cycle. Kennedy, whose father took home movies as footage for the family myth and whose brother spent hours choosing which photographs to release to the press, understood the practical necessities. But at times he drifted along in a dreamy reverie. From time to time he would think of the Ulysses of his favorite poem by Tennyson, which he often quoted in his slightly self-dramatizing way wishing "to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, until I die."
Generations of office seekers have tried to model themselves on Robert F. Kennedy, as politicians able to exude sensitivity, moral force, and a touch of glamour while doing whatever it took to win. Beyond warmed-over rhetoric, haircuts, and hand gestures, none have succeeded. Kennedy was one of a kind. He was consumed by an inner flame. On this last day, he seemed on the verge of burning out.
As the motorcade crept through San Francisco's Chinatown that Monday morning, there was a series of loud pops. In any Kennedy motorcade post-November 1963, a sound that seemed to echo gunfire was an instant source of panic. Ethel Kennedy "dove for the bottom of the car," recalled Bill Eppridge, a Life magazine photographer in the car just ahead of the Kennedys. Robert Kennedy, standing on the rear hood of a convertible, remained upright and continued to wave to the surging crowd. But Karl Fleming, a Newsweek correspondent who was running alongside the motorcade, saw Kennedy's knees buckle. The campaign entourage and traveling press were all "scared to death," remembered Eppridge. "Everyone remembered Dallas." The explosions were only firecrackers. Seeing that Ethel was badly shaken, Kennedy asked a newspaper reporter, Richard Harwood of the Washington Post, to comfort her. Harwood climbed into the car and held her hand.
After Chinatown and another rally at Fisherman's Wharf, Kennedy flew to Los Angeles. Burgeoning, fast-forward California was in many ways the perfect test for Kennedy. It was a vast mixing bowl in danger of becoming a cauldron. The first of the urban race riots of the 1960s had erupted in Watts in 1965. The white middle classes in their bungalows and tract houses, the voters who had elected Ronald Reagan governor, feared that the fire next time would be in their backyards. To some, Kennedy was a peacemaker, but to others he was merely an instigator. He needed to challenge and soothe all at once, a tricky task for someone who still had to steel himself to appear in large public forums. In Long Beach, Kennedy was engulfed by six thousand people. As usual, the crowd was enormous and edgy. An agitated man kept calling out, "How 'bout your brother? Who killed your brother?" Kennedy stumbled; his delivery was flat, his attempts at humor forced. "He seemed spaced-out, like he had gone off someplace," observed Newsweek's Karl Fleming, who was watching from the crowd. Back in the car, Fred Dutton, who understood Kennedy's low tolerance for insincere flattery, told the candidate that his speech had not gone well. "I don't feel good," said Kennedy. Dutton was taken aback. Kennedy subsisted on four hours a night of sleep, almost never got sick, and never complained if he did.
The motorcade headed down an avenue in the black inner-city neighborhood of Watts, where the stores were still burnt out from the rioting three years before. The Los Angeles Police Department was nowhere to be seen. The mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty, regarded RFK as a subversive. In downtown L.A. a few days earlier, a policeman had improbably given the Kennedy motorcade a ticket for running a red light. Security, such as it was, was provided by a militant group called Sons of Watts. Ethel, sitting in Kennedy's car, did not seem reassured. Her customary sunniness had, for the moment, clouded over. "I looked into her face," said Marie Ridder, a friend and journalist who was working as a reporter for campaign chronicler Theodore H. White. "It was a mask of such concern and fear fear is not the right word it was tenderer than that. It was: what's going to happen?"
Dutton was eager to get out of the ghetto. "We knew that coming to Watts would look bad on TV that night. California is full of Okies and Iowans. TV is a cool medium and we were too hot, too emotional." Dutton and other top advisers had been trying to tone down the campaign. "Bob understood this, rationally, when he was sitting in a hotel room," said Dutton. "But out there...." Dutton paused as he recollected; he seemed suddenly weary, as if he had gone back thirty years in time and was trying, futilely, to reason with a force of nature. Shy and uncertain, Kennedy fed off the crowds.
Fortunately, the candidate was, as usual, running behind schedule; Dutton was able to steer the motorcade into a quiet residential neighborhood to make up time and escape the mob. As the press bus raced down a deserted street, assistant press secretary Richard Drayne asked aloud, "What is this? Are we going house hunting?"
In San Diego, night was falling. In the semi-darkness, black children squealed "Bobby! Bobby!" as the motorcade pushed through Logan Heights, a poor district on the edge of downtown. Kennedy's driver was Stuart Bloch, a young onetime volunteer. Bloch had simply been given a credit card in the name of Joseph P. Kennedy ("that's how we charge everything," an aide had explained) and been told to rent a white convertible. Greeting Kennedy at the airport, Bloch was surprised by his weak handshake. "It was like a noodle. He seemed shy, mousy. He kept looking at the ground." In the car, Ethel scolded Bloch to watch out for the children. Kennedy seemed to revive, rejuvenated by the squealing kids, whose natural energy seemed so out of place in the dusty, exhausted streets. Kennedy's bodyguard, Roosevelt Grier, an all-pro tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, held Kennedy by the waist as the candidate leaned out, his arms stretched wide so he looked like a human cross, swinging from side to side. The children squealed and waved and smiled, their teeth flashing white in the gloaming. After a while Kennedy, spent, fell into the front seat with Ethel, who anxiously stroked her husband's forehead, feeling for fever.
The motorcade arrived at Kennedy's last rally of the campaign three hours late. About three thousand people had crammed into a ballroom at the El Cortez Hotel. A few minutes into his speech, Kennedy nearly collapsed. He abruptly sat down on the stage and put his head in his hands. Grier hustled him into a bathroom, where he threw up. He lay on the floor while Grier knelt and mopped his head. He rose and walked back into the ballroom and finished his speech, ending, as he always did, by paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw. Kennedy's talents as an orator may have been limited, but his Boston twang became more resonant as he delivered his familiar peroration: "Some men see things as they are, and ask why," said Kennedy. "I dream of things that never were, and ask why not."
It was nearly midnight when he took off for Los Angeles. "He just shriveled up," said Bloch. On the plane, Ethel told the staff and the reporters to leave them alone. The usually boisterous press corps quieted. Kennedy rested. He was not really ill, just done in. He had given all he had. In a few hours, he would learn if it was enough.
Historians have argued ever since that night about what Kennedy might have become, just as journalists and commentators in his lifetime debated who he really was. The Good Bobby/Bad Bobby dichotomy, limned by cartoonist Jules Feiffer, became a cliché even before he died. Was he the hard, bullying, McCarthyite, wiretapping, Hoffa-Castro-obsessed hater forever scowling and vowing to "get" his enemies? Or was he the gentle, child-loving, poetry-reading, soulful herald of a new age? Liberals and conservatives have laid equal claim to his legacy. If Bobby had lived, he would have united the races and at the cost of billions,
Chapter 21: Legend
When John Bartlow Martin had joined the Kennedy campaign in April, he was startled by Kennedy's worn visage. The brown-blond hair was turning gray, and the once-boyish face was deeply lined. "He really did not look young," Martin wrote. "He aged more than he should have since his brother's death." Kennedy's body was still hard from headlong exercise, but varicose veins protruded from his legs. At dinner, Ethel Kennedy counted out his pills, about a dozen in all, mostly vitamin pills and medication for his damaged voice. By California, Kennedy was taking a massive vitamin B12 shot every other day. He was existing on about four hours of sleep a night. Columnist Joe Kraft had "never seen him look so bad, so tired; his blue eyes were standing out really like a death's head from his skull."
Kennedy was forty-two years old. He kept his tan, and he could still be boyish in his manner and enthusiasms. But he was an old man. He had lived a lifetime, really several lifetimes, of hard stress, self-imposed and inflicted by almost constant conflict. As he entered the contest of his life, he was living on the edge of exhaustion.
He was worried about neglecting his family. At the end of April, while he and Ethel were campaigning in Indiana, his son David, age twelve, was picked up by police near Hickory Hill for throwing rocks at passing motorists. Troubled by his son's vandalism, Kennedy spoke to his friend, child psychiatrist Robert Coles. Why, he asked Coles, would his boy throw rocks? Because he wanted to hit someone, answered Coles. But why throw rocks at strangers? Kennedy asked. Because he can't throw them at someone else, Coles answered. "Bob's eyes widened," recalled Coles. "He realized that David, the smallest and most sensitive of the boys, was a little like him, throwing rocks at strangers or LBJ." Kennedy understood that a consolation of losing the presidential race would be more time at Hickory Hill. "If I lose," he told reporters, "I'll go home and raise the next generation of Kennedys." With Joe Kraft, he recalled what his father had told him in the summer of 1961, when RFK had felt overwhelmed by the burdens of running the Justice Department and helping JFK deal with the Soviets in Berlin. "You may solve the Berlin crisis or you may not solve the Berlin crisis," said Joe Sr., "but nothing you do is as important as raising your family."
Ethel Kennedy had become pregnant with their eleventh child that spring. Kennedy's mood, often irascible, improved when Ethel was on the plane. Marie Ridder, a Kennedy friend who was working for campaign chronicler Theodore H. White, recalled watching Bob and Ethel try to find a moment of privacy on the tarmac at the Indianapolis airport. Usually, the Kennedys were not physically demonstrative with each other "they were buddies, not lovey-dovey," said Life photographer Bill Eppridge but Ethel was flying back to Washington, and Kennedy seemed to want to hold on to her. "They were holding hands," Ridder recalled. "He was sorry to see her go."
Lonely in his crowd of liegemen, Kennedy looked for small escapes. In late May, he slipped off to director John Frankenheimer's Malibu beach house with some Hollywood glitterati, including Shirley MacLaine, Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg and Seberg's novelist husband, Romain Gary. Unable to leave Kennedy alone, Gary accosted him: "You know, don't you, that somebody is going to kill you?" Kennedy fended him off with fatalism. "That's the chance I have to take," he said. Privately, he nurtured his fears. In his desk drawer, he tucked away a quote from Keats: "While we are laughing, the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events, while we are laughing, it sprouts, it grows, and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck."
At moments, he would drop his guard and indulge in despair. After a long day of campaigning in Indiana, he had said to Richard Goodwin, "If I get to be president, what can I do anyway? With Congress and the press, what chance do I have to make basic changes?" He wanted to be his own man, yet inevitably, in low moments, he compared himself unfavorably to President Kennedy. After losing his audience with a flat, rambling speech one night in South Dakota, he gloomily told George McGovern, "I just am not Jack."
Yet these were exceptions. For the most part Kennedy carried on, drawing strength in the upturned faces, letting the crowd's adulation bathe him and invigorate him. Late at night, he sometimes came down to the hotel bar to have a drink with the photographers, quizzing them, wanting to know what they saw in the crowds, recalled Life's Eppridge. "He wanted affirmation," said the veteran photographer. As ever, Robert Kennedy wanted to believe that the crowds were there for him and not his brother.
California, with its melting pot, was more congenial than Oregon. Arriving in Los Angeles the morning after the Oregon primary, Kennedy stood in his convertible while it crept through teeming black and Mexican neighborhoods. The cuff links long gone, his shirt was torn and soaked with sweat by the time the motorcade hit downtown in a rain of Jerry Bruno-generated confetti. On a swing through the same neighborhoods ten days earlier, he had lost both his shoes. A British journalist observed "the hooded weariness disappear[ing] from his face." More than once, Kennedy told Dutton in the seat beside him, "These are my people." He was being truthful. There had not been since Lincoln, nor has there ever been again, a white national politician so embraced by people of color.
The hardheaded Dutton was worried about the people watching on TV white middle-class voters in places like Orange County who feared rioting blacks and the influx of Mexicans. Dutton and scheduler Joe Dolan agreed: an absolute minimum of campaigning in poor black or Hispanic neighborhoods. Dolan canceled a motorcade through Venice when he learned that the neighborhood was mostly black. Kennedy was depending on heavy black and Hispanic turnout to beat McCarthy's affluent suburbanites on primary day, but the New Politics of the street were, momentarily at least, retired for the Old Politics of the back room. In San Francisco, John Seigenthaler, who had taken leave from editing the Nashville Tennessean to help rescue the Kennedy campaign in northern California, was paying black ministers to turn out their flocks. Assemblyman Willie Brown was helping him set the price. (In his journal, John Bartlow Martin recorded Seigenthaler's description of the bargaining process: Brown "told him [Seigenthaler] that a certain preacher was coming in and not to go a cent over $250. Seigenthaler started low, at $100, the preacher asked $500, and 'we came in right on the button, $250.'") Jesse Unruh's local political operation counseled against buying black ministers too early, lest they have to be bought again.
Kennedy was kept far removed from these tawdry, if commonplace, transactions. He bridled at personal shakedowns. At a meeting set up to win over New York party leaders in May, a Queens Democratic boss brazenly demanded, "What's in it for me?" Kennedy started to explain that he could represent the interests of the state of New York better than the other presidential candidates, but the Queens pol persisted, "No, no, what's in it for me?" Kennedy's "face flushed, his muscles tightened," recalled John English, the Nassau County
Democratic leader. English tried to escort the man out of the room before Kennedy took a swing, but Kennedy grabbed English by the arm, spun him around, and spat out, "Don't you make any deals with him!"
Kennedy continued to practice his own brand of back-channel diplomacy. An off-the-record meeting was arranged in Oakland with the so-called Black Caucus, a group of black community leaders, some self-appointed. Kennedy brought along astronaut John Glenn, warning him, "This isn't going to be pleasant." The blacks jeered and taunted Kennedy and his entourage. A tall man in flowing robes who called himself "Black Jesus" was particularly vituperative. He denounced two of the blacks traveling with Kennedy, Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson and Assemblyman Brown, as "Technicolor Negroes" and RFK as a "white pig." Johnson was upset and ashamed, but Kennedy told him not to worry, that the blacks needed to be able to yell at someone. "He had tremendous tolerance for intolerance," Johnson remembered.
Kennedy's advisers were determined that the candidate be well prepared for the climactic and long-delayed debate with McCarthy, scheduled for Saturday night, June 1. The format would be a panel of three journalists asking questions. Kennedy was handed "about two pounds" of briefing material on Friday night. Sprawled on the bed with his dog Freckles, he fell right asleep. "Freckles probably got more out of it," Dutton said. Saturday was set aside for all-day debate prep. Tag teams of advisers briefed the candidate, who listened, but not always closely. His hotel suite in the Fairmont overlooked San Francisco Bay. The day was sun-drenched, the air sparkling clear. Kennedy's eyes kept wandering to the view out the window. Walinsky would look up from his thick briefing book and see Kennedy, dressed in a silk kimono, curled up at the end of the couch, surrounded by advisers but "floating almost all alone."
Kennedy dutifully rehearsed his answer to the question of whether he had wiretapped Martin Luther King. He planned to fudge: He had never authorized any bugging, he would say. He had approved wiretaps when the national security was threatened, but he never discussed specific cases. "That's not good enough," interjected Richard Goodwin. "It's the only answer they're going to get," Kennedy said. He got up and walked out of the room for a few minutes. "Next?" he said when he returned.
Fortunately for RFK, McCarthy had prepared for the nationally televised showdown by having a couple of drinks and reciting poetry with Robert Lowell. Kennedy's opponent was himself increasingly distracted. McCarthy's staffers despaired that their candidate had fallen into a clutch of journalists and artists they bitterly nicknamed "the astrologers." At the debate, McCarthy's coolness verged on indifference. One of the press questioners, Bill Lawrence of ABC, asked Kennedy about wiretapping King. Kennedy delivered "an obvious set piece" that was "scarcely convincing," reported the British team covering the campaign for the London Sunday Times. But McCarthy didn't bother to follow up. Kennedy got off one cheap shot: when McCarthy suggested that the ghettoes needed to be "dispersed," Kennedy interjected, "You say you are going to take ten thousand black people and move them into Orange County?" He wooed the Jewish vote by endorsing more arms for Israel, and later complained to his own aides that he had "pandered" to voters who continued to regard him as an anti-Semite. That day, an olive-skinned, bushy-haired Palestinian-American named Sirhan Sirhan, who had seen an earlier TV report of Kennedy wearing a yarmulke outside a synagogue, bought a box of ammunition for his .22-caliber pistol.
The overhyped debate was regarded as anticlimactic, "a mutually pedestrian performance," wrote David Halberstam. For Kennedy, a draw was a win: he had exceeded expectations. McCarthy "didn't do his homework," Kennedy said. The next day the absentee father took his kids (six of them had come out to California) to Disneyland, where they rode Pirates of the Caribbean. On Monday came the final, grueling push: Los Angeles to San Francisco, back to Long Beach and Watts, and down to San Diego, 1,200 miles and all three major California TV markets. On the plane back to Los Angeles, he recovered from his near collapse during his last speech in San Diego, but he was reaching the limit of his physical endurance.
Kennedy spent his last night with his family at John Frankenheimer's Malibu beach home. Primary day dawned gray. A chill fog hung over the windswept ocean. Kennedy went swimming and took his kids. Young David was knocked down by a crashing breaker and trapped by the undertow. Kennedy dove in after him. When Kennedy emerged, holding the frightened boy, both father and son were scraped and bruised from bouncing off the pebbly bottom.
After lunch, Kennedy slept, stretched out across two chairs by the pool. Richard Goodwin, casually glancing out to the terrace as he went to the buffet, froze when he saw Kennedy:
His head [hung] limply over the chair frame; his unshaven face was deeply lined, and his lips slightly parted. There was no movement. I felt a sudden spasm of fear. But it swiftly receded. He was sleeping, only sleeping. God, I thought, reaching for the food, I suppose none of us will ever get over John Kennedy.
After eighty days of nearly nonstop movement, Kennedy could only rest and wait. Shortly after 3 P.M., the campaign learned the results of the first network "exit polls": Kennedy 49, McCarthy 41. There was relief, although not so much from the candidate, who wanted to break the 50 percent mark to erase the stain of Oregon. At 6:30 P.M., it was finally time to head back into Los Angeles, to the victory celebration at the Ambassador Hotel, and to be interviewed by the networks before voters in the East, three hours ahead, went to bed. Frankenheimer daubed Kennedy's scraped and bruised forehead with some actor's makeup and Kennedy put on a blue pin-striped suit and a white shirt that made him look dashing presidential.
The Royal Suite at the Ambassador was a jolly, noisy cocktail party of the favored. There were entertainers and celebrities and authors and journalists, on their second and third drinks. Kennedy learned that he had that day won a primary in South Dakota Humphrey's native state by over 50 percent. He was happy about the results in an Indian precinct: 878 votes for him, 9 for a Humphrey-Johnson slate, 2 for McCarthy. "Did you hear about the Indians?" he asked reporters.
Kennedy had won four out of five primaries, and he was about to win a fifth, with the second-largest number of delegates. He was expected to win the largest, his home state of New York, two weeks later. The inevitability of Kennedy's triumph at the Democratic convention in August and in the presidential election in November has long since hardened into myth. Robert Kennedy himself was more realistic. As the victory party roared on towards midnight in the Royal Suite, the candidate summoned Goodwin into the bathroom, where they could talk privately about the formidable challenges ahead.
"I've got to get free of McCarthy," Kennedy said. Kennedy knew that there was a risk of being embarrassed in the Empire State. The peace movement was strong in New York, and so was resentment against Kennedy, who was regarded by many party regulars as an inattentive senator. Kennedy was confident of winning in New York, but he needed to win overwhelmingly. He didn't want to have to spend the next two weeks, he told Goodwin, "on every street corner in New York" trying to shore up his support. Vice President Humphrey, not McCarthy, was the man he had to beat. In June and July, Kennedy wanted to be on the road, he said, chasing "Hubert's ass all over the country." Larry O'Brien, a true pragmatist and the most reliable delegate counter, had told Kennedy that winning the nomination would be an uphill struggle. While Kennedy had been getting his cuff links torn off in close primary battles in mostly small states, Humphrey had been methodically lining up delegates in big states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio enough to secure the nomination, unless Kennedy could somehow shake them free.
Unfortunately for Kennedy, McCarthy showed no signs of wanting to abandon the field to his rival. If anything, the senator from Minnesota was likely to stay in the race just to spite Kennedy, whom he had come to despise. The time had come, Kennedy understood, for some more Old Politics. He had an audacious deal in mind. Goodwin still had ties to McCarthy, who had been reasonably understanding when Goodwin quit his campaign to rejoin Kennedy in April. Standing in the bathroom as the revelers caroused outside, Kennedy whispered to Goodwin, "I think we should tell him if he withdraws now and supports me, I'll make him secretary of state."
This was the sort of realpolitik that Mayor Daley (or Joe Kennedy) would understand and approve of. Kennedy called the Chicago mayor sometime before midnight, when the networks were projecting Kennedy with more than 50 percent of the vote (the final total Kennedy 46, McCarthy 42 turned out to be closer). Some of the Kennedy faithful later reported that Daley at least "hinted" that he would throw his support to Kennedy. Kenny O'Donnell later told colleagues that he had made a promise to "Da Mare" that the campaign would not go into Cook County in return for the "understanding" that Daley would be with Kennedy "when it mattered." But it would have been uncharacteristic for the shrewd and cautious Daley to commit himself until he had a better fix on the odds.
Kennedy was much too honest with himself to believe that he had sewn up the nomination. But he was alive, he had survived defeat in Oregon, and he had won in a huge state that was a true cross section of the nation. Blacks and Hispanics had turned out overwhelmingly for Kennedy, voting in much greater numbers than usual. He had lost the suburbs (and, despite his debate pander, Orange County), but he had generated tremendous crowds and momentum. Nineteen sixty-eight was not an ordinary year in any sense. If he could continue to draw fervent crowds and start massaging the bosses Kennedy believed he could win.
He was upbeat when he called Kenny O'Donnell, who was back in Washington. "You know, Kenny, I feel now for the first time that I've shaken off the shadow of my brother. I feel I made it on my own," he said, according to O'Donnell. Others, too, noticed that Kennedy seemed "liberated," as Jack Newfield put it. "He was witty, relaxed, in control," wrote Newfield. Kennedy was "puckish" that evening with Jules Witcover and Bob Healy of the Boston Globe, as "elated as either of us had seen him anytime during the campaign," recorded Witcover. Dick Goodwin wrote:
The change in Kennedy was startling. The frantic sense of the early campaign, the harsh, punched lines, defensively seeking assurance in assertion and command of fact, were gone. There was now an easy grace, a strength that was unafraid of softness. For the first time since he had announced his candidacy, Robert Kennedy reminded me of his slain brother.
Goodwin, too, felt that Kennedy had been freed first by defeat in Oregon, then by winning on his own in California. "He looked like a president," Goodwin wrote. "And once a man had begun to look like a president, he has doubled his chances to be one."
Perhaps. But there is a rosy haze of nostalgia over these accounts by men whose memoirs helped create the Kennedy legend. A different picture of Kennedy in his hour of triumph was painted by Warren Rogers, the Look magazine reporter who had been granted near-complete access by Kennedy for a Teddy White-like treatment "in words and pictures" of the campaign. Rogers described Kennedy pacing about the suite "like a caged panther.
For a while, he would sit on his haunches in a corner, scrunched into the angle of the walls and floor like a child being punished, and the people there, all close friends, would go to him one or two at a time, bend over and chat. And then he would bound up, holding his victory cigar at an awkward, unpracticed angle. He would prowl in circles around the room, punching a fist into a palm and announcing, to no one in particular, over and over: "I'm going to get Humphrey. I'm going to make him debate me! I'm going to chase his ass all around the country...."
Hardly a picture of command presence. Rogers no Kennedy detractor, by a long shot observed that it was unusual for Kennedy to use a word like "ass" except in private. The newsman figured Kennedy was just "uncertain about how he was going to cope with the enormous tasks that still lay ahead." Kennedy was right to be worried and true to his character to show it. He would have been putting up a façade if he glided about the room coolly and wittily taking congratulations, the way his brother might have.
Robert Kennedy was not Jack Kennedy. But in an era of profound anxiety and disillusionment with politicians and all authority figures, Kennedy's questing, sensitive persona had the ring of truth. Kennedy's greatest strength his connection with voters and his hope to be the man for his confused time came from the very qualities that were not presidential, at least in the way John F. Kennedy projected leadership. John Bartlow Martin came closest to capturing these ineffable virtues and how they set RFK apart from JFK. "They were very different men," Martin wrote.
Jack Kennedy was more the politician, saying things publicly that he privately scoffed at. Robert Kennedy was more himself. Jack gave the impression of decisive leadership, the man with all the answers. Robert seemed more hesitant, less sure he was right, more tentative, more questioning, and completely honest about it. Leadership he showed; but it had a different quality, an off-trail unorthodox quality, to some extent a quality of searching for answers to hard questions in company with his bewildered audience, trying to work things out with their help.
Americans were afraid in 1968, and they eventually voted their fears and elected Richard Nixon. But Kennedy offered them a different vision: of honest courage, the willingness to face up to that which is most troubling social unrest, racial inequality, war. His life and bearing showed a willingness to keep on trying while knowing that real answers to hard problems are not easy and may never be found. We will never know what kind of president Robert Kennedy might have been. He might have been rash, he might have tried to do too much, and he might have blundered. He would have pushed some ambitious programs, like national health care and a gargantuan jobs bill that might easily have been blocked or badly distorted by lobbyists and lawmakers. While candid, Kennedy could also be canny he had learned to be, to survive as an underdog. He probably would have been devious in some ways, and it is not impossible to imagine him abusing the power of his office. But he would have surely tried to tackle the problems of poverty and discrimination, and he would have tried to end the killing in Vietnam long before President Nixon did. RFK could be cautious, out of prudence, cunning, or fear. Possibly, the clash of politics, of trying to seek radical solutions in a country that was more conservative than liberal in 1969, would have paralyzed Kennedy or made him more timid in deeds than words. Failure, in a divided country in a confused time, was probably more likely than not. Nonetheless, Kennedy's life story suggests that had he failed, he would have failed trying his utmost to lift up the poor and the weak.
It was just before midnight, time to go down to the ballroom and declare victory. The sweltering crowd erupted, blaring, screaming at Kennedy and Ethel, who looked "little-girlish in an orange and white mini-dress and white stockings," recorded Jules Witcover. Kennedy made the usual jokes, then became serious. He called on his countrymen to end "the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment...." Kennedy, who always told his children to "love our country" and who hated the war but could never understand draft dodgers, was a deeply sentimental patriot. "We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country," he said. To end the divisions, to restore the faith, were his reasons to run for the presidency. "So my thanks to all of you," he wound up, "and now it's on to Chicago, and let's win there."
Kennedy's devoted bodyguard, Bill Barry, moved to clear the way. But Kennedy, with Ethel behind, was boxed in by teenyboppers screaming, "We want Bobby! We want Bobby!" He veered in a different direction, led by the hotel maitre d', through a back entrance into a dark corridor. Seeing his charge diverted, Barry turned and began to push his way through the crowds.
In the passageway, members of the kitchen staff reached out to shake Kennedy's hand. Kennedy, smiling, turned around to look for Ethel. As he did, his assassin, the mentally unstable, unemployed drifter named Sirhan Sirhan, raised a snub-nosed pistol and opened fire. One bullet entered Kennedy's brain through the soft tissue behind the right ear a chance shot. "Pop....Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop...." Sirhan sprayed bullets around the room. Kennedy threw up his hands to his face, staggered, and fell backwards to the concrete floor. People ducked and screamed. Barry caught up, too late. He lunged towards the assailant. Sirhan "was standing with the gun when I hit him," Barry later testified. "I hit him. I hit him with the edge of my hand. He dropped the gun on the table....I swung him around and hit him twice with my fist, two rights high on the cheek....When I hit him the second time, I knew I was going to kill him. So I put a stranglehold on him. Then I wanted to go back to the senator...."
Barry left Sirhan struggling with Roosevelt Grier, the massive former lineman of the Los Angeles Rams, and knelt down beside Kennedy. He put his jacket under his head. "I knew immediately it was a .22, a small caliber, so I hoped it wouldn't be so bad, but then I saw the hole in the senator's head, and I knew."
Sirhan somehow squirmed free and grabbed the gun. A mob tore at him, shouting, "Get the gun! Get the gun!" "Kill him! Kill him!" "No, don't kill him!" Rafer Johnson finally peeled Sirhan's fingers off the shiny black revolver, as if he was peeling a grapefruit. Ethel, who had been yanked back to safety in the melee, emerged from the crowd and knelt beside her husband. "Oh my God," she whispered. She lightly stroked his face and chest. He seemed to turn his head slightly to look at her. "Is everybody else all right?" he whispered. The emergency crew arrived and lifted Kennedy onto a stretcher. "Gently, gently," said Ethel. Kennedy was heard to cry, "Oh, no, no, don't...." Then he passed out, never to awaken.
Back in the ballroom, "an awful sound" rolled "like a moan," recalled Jack Newfield. A woman in a bright red party dress, sobbing uncontrollably, came by him, screaming, "No, God, no. It's happened again." The moan became a wail; it sounded as if, Newfield wrote, a hospital had been bombed: "the sound was somehow the sound of the twice wounded." Inside the corridor where Kennedy had been shot, someone had laid a rose on the bloody floor. A sign reading "The Once and Future King" hung on the wall. It had apparently been left there from some earlier function, but as the death watch began, so did the mythologizing.
All through the night and next day, Frank Mankiewicz delivered desultory progress reports on the surgery and condition of the patient, but few held out any real hope that he would live, or live as more than a vegetable. Inside the hospital room, Kennedy lay unconscious, wreathed in tubes and wires. His eyes were blackened, his face bruised, recalled his heartsick son Robert Jr. Brother Ted knelt at the foot of the bed, praying. Ethel lay beside her husband, as if she were dying, too. The flat line in the monitor showed that his brain had ceased to function, but his fierce heart beat on.
Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1:44 A.M., June 6, 1968, not quite twenty-six hours after he had been shot. At the White House, Lyndon Johnson was pacing, demanding, "I've got to know. Is he dead? Is he dead yet?" Johnson had apparently been pondering another assault on Kennedy's reputation. On Tuesday, June 4, he had written on a slip of paper, "Cosa Nostra. Ed Morgan. Send in to get Castro. Planning ." Ed Morgan was the lawyer for mobster Johnny Rosselli who first approached Drew Pearson with his sensational story about RFK's alleged assassination plots against Castro. As the voters went to the polls in California on June 4, it seems that Johnson was looking for skeletons that he might rattle at the Kennedy campaign. Johnson remained obsessed by the Kennedy administration's anti-Castro plotting. RFK had been "running a damned 'Murder Inc.' in the Caribbean," LBJ told a magazine writer in 1972.
Paranoid as ever about Kennedy's legacy, Johnson showed his worst side and questioned whether RFK was entitled to be buried at Arlington Cemetery. His advisers managed to convince the president that denying Kennedy a final resting place beside his brother was not only "cruel," writes Jeff Shesol, a chronicler of the Kennedy-Johnson feud, but "politically reckless." Kennedy was not accorded a state funeral, unless one considers the Kennedy family a sovereign state.
For two nights and a day, Kennedy's body lay in the vaulted nave of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Lines of mourners snaked for twenty-five blocks outside the cathedral, waiting in the wilting heat to pass by his coffin. On Saturday morning, at a wonderfully eclectic and moving mass, his thousands of odd-lot friends, the entitled and disenfranchised alike, gathered in the cool dimness. Rose Kennedy arrived early and sat alone, lost in thought. She had heard the news of the shooting on the television on Wednesday morning as she arose to attend morning mass. A little later, a photographer had seen her in the driveway of the house at Hyannis Port, bouncing a ball like a small child. Inside the house, Joseph Kennedy had wept uncontrollably. He was too sick and disabled to come to his son's funeral.
Unable to find their seats in the cathedral, Cesar Chavez and a few farmworkers stood directly in front of the congressional delegation, blocking their view (not deliberate, but "just such a nice touch," recalled Peter Edelman). The congregants listened to Leonard Bernstein conduct a Mahler symphony and Andy Williams sing, slowly and with surprising majesty, Kennedy's favorite anthem, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Edward Kennedy rose and gave a simple and powerful eulogy. "My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life," Kennedy said. Rather, he 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
His voice breaking slightly, the only surviving Kennedy brother ended with the quote, loosely borrowed from George Bernard Shaw, that RFK used to conclude his stump speeches:
Some men see things as they are and say, "Why?" I dream of things that never were and say, "Why not?"
On Saturday afternoon, June 8, Kennedy's body, like President Lincoln's 103 years before, was carried by a funeral train from New York to Washington. As they had for Lincoln, many thousands perhaps, for RFK, a million people lined the tracks. The coffin, on a bier close to the floor of the observation car, could not be seen by bystanders. So Kennedy's pallbearers lifted it up and placed it, a bit precariously, on chairs. Along the route of the train, Boy Scouts and firemen braced at attention; nuns, some wearing dark glasses, stood witness; housewives wept. Thousands and thousands of black people waited quietly in the heat, perhaps beca
From Chapter 20: Quest
Kennedy won convincingly in Nebraska, with 51.4 percent of the vote to McCarthy's 31 percent. Again McCarthy airily dismissed the results, "I don't think I have to win all [of the primaries]. Losing one or two doesn't make all that difference." McCarthy knew he was in much better shape in the next contest, in Oregon a week later. Kennedy's moment of realization may have come when one of his strategists reported back on an exchange with Congresswoman Edith Green, who was helping to run the Kennedy campaign in her home state. "Have we got the ghettoes organized?" the strategist asked. Mrs. Green, a bit indignant: "There are no ghettoes in Oregon." There were hardly any blacks about one percent of the population. Oregon is "one giant suburb," Kennedy lamented. He worried to columnist Joe Kraft as he flew into Portland in the third week of May. "It's all white Protestants. There's nothing for me to grab ahold of." There were, on the other hand, Teamsters organizers with bad memories of Kennedy's persecution of Jimmy Hoffa and many gun enthusiasts who regarded Kennedy's support for gun control as subversive. Kennedy's problems were exacerbated by a weak organization in Oregon. Back in 1960, Congresswoman Green, a prickly and territorial local chieftain, had not wanted RFK, whom she regarded with suspicion, to come to Oregon to campaign for his brother. Now she specifically banned from the state RFK's chief advance man, Jerry Bruno, who could be abrasive and had previously tangled with the formidable Mrs. Green. The one time Kennedy could have used some tricks to pep up the crowds, his chief magician was nowhere to be found.
Kennedy had another worry, a threat he had long awaited. Lyndon Johnson had been quiet through the primary season, publicly sworn to impartiality. He was not a great fan of Hubert Humphrey's, whom he regarded as weak. He actually preferred Republican Nelson Rockefeller, chiefly because he regarded Rockefeller as the best hope to "stop Bobby." For weeks, Kennedy's traveling companion, Fred Dutton, had been waiting for Johnson to strike, expecting to see his fingerprints on a scurrilous report about RFK. Dutton knew Johnson's ways from firsthand experience. In 1964, while Dutton was the congressional liaison at the State Department, President Johnson had requested Dutton to put together a file of derogatory information on Barry Goldwater, LBJ's Republican opponent in November. Dutton delivered a packet of information, mostly about Goldwater's intemperate remarks, to the Oval Office. Johnson thumbed through the information and complained, "There's nothing about Las Vegas [where Goldwater supposedly had ties to gambling interests] or Goldwater's girls."
Dutton knew that LBJ had long kept a file on Robert Kennedy. Indeed, Johnson had been in the Oval Office less than two months when his lieutenants began asking the FBI for more information about the Ellen Rometsch case. Johnson had always been restrained from using this information on the assumption, probably correct, that Kennedy was keeping a file on him. Still, there was always the risk that mutual deterrence would break down, and that Johnson would succumb to the temptation to start lobbing small bombshells into the Kennedy camp. The first hints that Johnson might be stirring began in the nationally syndicated columns of Drew Pearson, LBJ's hatchetman, in early May, just before the Indiana primary. On May 3, Pearson rehearsed RFK's reputation for ruthlessness, dredging up an old (and probably apocryphal) quote from Father Joe that "Bobby hates the way I do." On May 22 came an allegation that RFK had paid off a witness in one of the Hoffa cases. Then on May 24 came the column intended to do real damage: for the first time, Pearson revealed that RFK, as attorney general, had authorized wiretaps on Martin Luther King. The timing the weekend before a primary in a state with a strong civil liberties tradition, ten days before the climactic California primary that would require a massive black turnout to secure victory for RFK was clearly mischievous.
The column was apparently a setup, a straight feed from the Oval Office. "Drew got it from Lyndon," said Jack Anderson, the investigative reporter who was Pearson's chief legman. "Drew got me to confirm it with the FBI. Of course it was timed." The paper trail circumstantially supports Anderson's account: FBI files show a Johnson go-between first asking Cartha DeLoach, J. Edgar Hoover's top assistant for public affairs, about rumors that Kennedy had tapped King on May 17; a Drew Pearson meeting with Johnson on May 18; and DeLoach speaking to Johnson on May 23, the day before the column appeared.
It is clear from the column that Pearson and Anderson were shown FBI documents detailing Kennedy's role in first asking for the taps in July 1963 and then signing off on them in October. But the muckrakers made one small, sloppy mistake that the Kennedy defenders were able to seize upon to cloud the issue. At one point in the column, the word "bugging" was used. Wiretaps on phones are different from "bugs," electronic eavesdropping devices planted in a room. Hoover was careful to get Kennedy's permission on specific taps; bugging was done without informing the attorney general. Hoover had bugged and tapped King (bugs in his hotel rooms, taps on his phones), but only the taps were authorized by RFK.
Pearson called the Kennedy campaign for a response to the column on Thursday, May 23, just before it went to press. A very anxious Peter Edelman delivered the news to Kennedy, who seemed reasonably unperturbed. He told Edelman not to worry: "There'll be a lot of that," he predicted. "I was on the cover of Time and now [Time-Life founder Henry] Luce is turning over in his grave. It's not so bad." But Kennedy moved quickly to try to defuse the bomb. He called his wisest legal adviser, Burke Marshall, the former head of the civil rights division, who had gone on to work for Tom Watson at IBM. A brilliant Yale-educated lawyer, Marshall pounced on the columnists' careless use of the word "bugging." He dictated some very lawyerly talking points emphatically denying that Kennedy had ever permitted the FBI to "illegally bug" anyone, while allowing that "in cases affecting the national security" the attorney general did follow long-established precedent and sometimes authorize wiretaps.
Marshall's talking points were so cleverly drafted and so convincing of Kennedy's essential innocence that they fooled Kenendy's own staff. A Kennedy aide it is not clear which one wrote on them, "Dr. King was never the target of electronic surveillance of any sort. His loyalty to the United States has never been questioned." This was not true, of course. Kennedy tapped King to find out if he was under the influence of the Kremlin. But Kennedy made no effort to set the record straight with his own staff. He simply refused to talk about the King taps, except to complain that the article was "unfair." Kennedy would "tell you about A, B, and C," said Edelman, "but not D, E, and F." Fred Dutton was unable to get Kennedy to tell him anything about the wiretaps. "With Bobby and JFK," he recalled, "you could only go so far, and then they'd clam up." Scrambling to figure out what to say to the press, campaign spokesman Pierre Salinger fuzzed up matters even more. He told reporters that Kennedy had never approved electronic "eavesdropping." Does that include wiretaps? a reporter asked. Salinger fell back on Kennedy's generic defense that he authorized taps only in cases of national security.
Thoroughly muddled by this pettifoggery and confusion of euphemisms and generally sympathetic to Kennedy the political reporters did not follow up on the wiretapping story. But the campaign was concerned that Pearson's column, widely syndicated, would be passed around in black neighborhoods. Kennedy's strategists concocted a back-channel mission to gather intelligence from black civil rights leaders and to soothe any resentment. Through a friend of Steve Smith's who had good contacts in the National Football League, the campaign recruited Buddy Young, a black pro athlete (he had been a running back for the Baltimore Colts), to fly to Memphis, where King's old organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was holding a convention. Young met with the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who had succeeded the fallen King as head of the SCLC. What was the reaction of black leaders to the news that RFK had wiretapped the martyred Dr. King? "It was no surprise to us," recalled Juanita Abernathy, the Reverend Abernathy's wife. "We knew the pressure that Bobby was under from the FBI. I'm not saying it [the taps on King] wasn't a shock. It was. But we understood that people" meaning white politicians "only supported us to a point. His [the Reverend Abernathy's] reaction was, sure it's true, but politics is politics." Inside the campaign, Kennedy's black organizer, John Lewis, who had been beaten and arrested many times marching for civil rights, was sad but philosophical. "It's like someone telling you that your wife is sleeping with someone else," he told Frank Mankiewicz. "You love her so much you don't want to hear about it."
Kennedy had another worry: that McCarthy would try to exploit the issue. Within a couple of days, the McCarthy campaign began airing radio spots with the voice of a black man saying, "I used to be for Robert Kennedy but then I learned about how he bugged my brother Martin Luther King's phone." Kennedy's relations with McCarthy had grown increasingly bitter. Kennedy was determined to ignore McCarthy. Slighted and resentful, McCarthy began to sharply mock Kennedy in his public remarks. Sure of his intellectual superiority, McCarthy was eager to debate Kennedy, confident that he would be at once more facile and substantive than Kennedy in a verbal sparring match.
Kennedy did not want to debate. In part, he was hewing to the well-established political maxim that front-runners can only lose by debating. But personal insecurity was also at work. He feared McCarthy's verbal facility and his own lack of it. Kennedy and McCarthy were not far apart on the issues, but McCarthy had ways to touch Kennedy's sore spots. McCarthy had repeatedly declared that he would fire J. Edgar Hoover. Kennedy had been notably silent on the subject. Asked at a California rally staged by a liberal women's group whether he would sack the FBI director, Kennedy paused for a long time and mumbled that the problem was the institution, not the man. He was just ducking: Kennedy dared not antagonize Hoover. He knew what was in those files.
Kennedy did not like to fear anyone. On Friday, May 24, the day Pearson's column appeared, he went for a walk on the beach with Ethel and his dog Freckles, who had accompanied him everywhere on the campaign. The day was gray and the water temperature was 53 degrees, but Kennedy wanted to go swimming. Stripping to his drawers, he plunged in. Oregonians, who never swam until August, were mystified. They thought he was showing off, not realizing that he was compensating or just swimming.
That same day, McCarthy issued a statement saying that he had bought a half hour of TV time for a debate. Some of Kennedy's staffers strongly urged their candidate to accept the challenge. Kennedy was no longer the front-runner in Oregon; polls showed the race neck and neck. McCarthy's barbs were beginning to sting. The ringleader of the pro-debate faction was Adam Walinsky. On Saturday, he managed to win over at least a partial convert from within the JFK old guard, Larry O'Brien. The normally cautious O'Brien agreed to go talk to the candidate.
It was late Saturday afternoon. Exhausted as usual, Kennedy was trying to take a nap, though apparently not a restful one Peter Edelman, standing outside in the hall, could hear Ethel speaking forcefully to her husband from inside the suite. O'Brien knocked on the door. Kennedy was in a testy mood. Earlier in the day, he had snapped at Edelman for being slow to fetch his shoes in the next room (Kennedy staffers were expected to be valets; one Kennedy aide found himself holding the head of one of Kennedy's dogs as it threw up out the car window). With O'Brien, Kennedy was short tempered. He blamed the old Irish hand for allowing himself to be conned by the rash Young Turks. Debating McCarthy was a bad idea, Kennedy insisted. He specifically brought up Pearson's wiretapping article. What if McCarthy started asking him about that? O'Brien didn't know what to say; Kennedy wouldn't even tell him if the charges were true. Out in the hallway, Kennedy began to hear a commotion. Walinsky, Edelman, and Jeff Greenfield, waiting outside to hear the results of O'Brien's mission, were chatting and laughing. Kennedy flung open the hotel door. Standing in his boxers, he exploded at the young staffers. All they ever did, he shouted, was play the guitar. (Walinsky liked to strum Beatles' songs on the plane.) If they had nothing better to do, he seethed, they should go ring doorbells. Shaken and upset, Walinsky started towards Kennedy to apologize. Kennedy slammed the door in his face.
Kennedy almost ran into McCarthy the next day. Both were looking for voters at the Portland zoo. Bill Barry spotted McCarthy's entourage about fifty yards away and whispered in Kennedy's ear. The candidate said, "Let's get out of here," and he and Barry ran for the candidate's car. In a terrible scene, recorded by TV cameramen, McCarthy supporters ran after them shouting, "Coward! Chicken!" Making the most of Kennedy's embarrassment, McCarthy calmly strolled over to the Kennedy press bus and invited the reporters to follow his campaign.
The next day, election day, Joe Dolan, Kennedy's faithful administrative assistant who had been handling scheduling for the campaign, walked by Kennedy's car. Kennedy leaned out and crooked his finger at Dolan. "I had been avoiding him," Dolan recalled. Kennedy looked Dolan in the eye. "You think I'm going to lose," he said. "I know you are," said Dolan. "We don't have blacks and Chicanos and we do have gun nuts."
Kennedy lost Oregon to McCarthy by six points, 44.7 percent to 38.8 percent. It was the first election ever lost by a son of Joe Kennedy (not counting JFK's first try for the Harvard Board of Overseers). Kennedy might have been crushed, but he was gracious in defeat. He took the blame on himself and congratulated McCarthy (something McCarthy had not done for him after RFK won in Indiana and Nebraska). Arriving at the airport in Los Angeles, Kennedy slid into the front seat of a car alongside his brother-in-law Steve Smith. They had a typically cryptic Kennedy conversation. "What do you think?" said RFK. "I think you're gonna win," said Smith. "But you gotta debate the guy."
Copyright © 2000 by Evan Thomas
Meet the Author
Evan Thomas is the author of The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the C.I.A.; Robert Kennedy: His Life; The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1989; Sea of Thunder: The Last Great Naval Command, 1941-1945; and John Paul Jones. His most recent book is Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World.
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This book is well-written, not fawning, and also a quick-read. for today's political climate it's a must-read. to see how a "civilian" president handled the cuban missle crisis must be exactly how President Obama is being pressured to escalate Iraq and Afganistan. The parallels for todays events is stunning. read this book if you are at all interested in current history as it unfolds.