The Best That I Can Be: An Autobiographyby Rafer Johnson, Philip Goldberg
Rafer Johnson's story is the classic American dream: hard work leading to success, honor, and glory. Here, he openly writes about his humble beginnings in an obscure African American Texas ghetto, his growing up in the all-white, sun-drenched Californian town of Kingsburg, and his time at UCLA as the president of the student body and an acclaimed athlete. His talents brought him to dramatic athletic duels in Moscow, Melbourne, and Rome, and to the glamour of acting, broadcasting, and politics in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and the rest of the nation.
Structured around the ten events of the decathlon, Rafer's memoir vividly describes an exceptional life. It introduces remarkable people, both unknown and celebrated (the Kennedy family; Gloria Steinem; Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade; Tom Brokaw; and others), who befriended Rafer and affected his life. It tells of obstacles and tragediescrippling injuries, an alcoholic father, the assassination of his close friend Robert F. Kennedyand what it takes to overcome them. With tact, integrity, and acute observation, Rafer Johnson shares the intimate moments that have shaped his life and the lives of others.
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My friendship with the Kennedys had a strong influence on my political views. Knowing that powerful people were willing to put themselves on the line for equality made me confident that working within the system was not a lost cause.
At the time, it was fashionable for commentators and political opponents to call Bobby "ruthless." That quality might have been evident in his earlier years, or behind closed doors in the corridors of power, but I never saw any sign of it. Aggressive, yes; ambitious, yes; combative, yes. But those are traits we like our leaders to have, as long as they stand for what is right, decent, and equitable. Bobby had a quality that great athletes have: He knew how to win. In a small way, I had an early taste of what he could do when he put his power and can-do attitude to work. When People to People was having difficulty moving students into and out of the country due to governmental red tape, I called the attorney general's office. Within hours, the problem was solved. I had no doubt that Bobby could make bigger things happen as well.
Many observers have noted that Bobby changed a great deal during the course of his public career. In fact, one thing that always impressed me was his consistency. His compassion for the less fortunate and his dedication to improving their lot were part of his makeup. Many historians believe that he was the real force behind the civil rights agenda in his brother's administration. Under Bobby's leadership the justice department finally exercised its power on behalf of minorities--enforcing desegregation laws, investigating voting rights violations, and recommending qualified blacks for positions asfederal judges and U.S. marshals.
I never doubted Bobby's sincerity and basic decency. Unlike most politicians, he did not pander to his audience. At times he would even say things that made his supporters uncomfortable. I saw him with rich people and poor, young and old, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives; he always spoke his mind, and he treated everyone, from servants to cabinet members, with respect.
In some ways he did change, though. He grew wiser, better informed, and more decisive about the issues facing the country. I saw him respond to a tour of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant with a major restoration plan that transformed that blighted neighborhood. I saw him fight for Native American rights after observing conditions on reservations. I saw him befriend Cesar Chavez and lend his support to the United Farm Workers after visiting the migrant labor camps in California. I also saw him come out against the Vietnam War, even though he himself had supported military intervention during his brother's administration.
If I needed any further convincing about Bobby's integrity, I got it the night I had dinner with him and Stokely Carmichael. After courageously leading the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's voting rights campaign, Stokely had grown increasingly inflammatory, using "Black Power" as a rallying cry for radical change. The fact that Bobby would invite to his home a man who compared black membership in the Democratic Party to Jews becoming Nazis was a statement in itself. Bobby listened to Stokely's views with interest. Then the subject shifted to an event in the news: A black man had hijacked an American plane and forced it to fly to Cuba. Stokely's position was that the United States was not a true homeland to blacks, and that violent acts like hijacking were justifiable reactions to oppression. Acknowledging the nation's shameful legacy of racism, Bobby spoke the plain and simple truth: The hijacker was a criminal who just happened to be black, and he was endangering the lives of innocent people.
This is a solid man, I said to myself. He has a strong sense of justice, and he tells it like it is without altering his message or manner to suit the occasion. I vowed that if he ever ran for national office, I would do everything I could to help him get elected.
When Bobby declared himself a candidate for president in 1968, I was overjoyed. Like many others, I had come to see him as the one person who could keep the country from tearing itself apart. The Democratic Party and the nation needed a peace candidate, and Bobby was the logical choice. He had hesitated to enter the race, though, and Senator Eugene McCarthy had filled the void, demonstrating that President Lyndon B. Johnson was vulnerable by scoring big in the New Hampshire primary. Then Bobby joined the fray and President Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election. It was a three-way race for the Democratic nomination between Senator Kennedy, Senator McCarthy, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
I immediately geared up to help my friend win the all-important California primary. Each step of his campaign strengthened my conviction that he was the right man at the right time. His speeches were not only galvanizing, they were unlike politics as usual: He spoke his heart, telling audiences what he felt they needed to hear, not what would win him votes. Then came his defining moment as a candidate--the devastating night that Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Bobby was on his way to a campaign stop in Indianapolis when he heard the news. Instead of cancelling his speech, as his handlers and police advised, he stood before a mostly black crowd of about a thousand and told them what had taken place. With his voice cracking, he kept the shaken audience calm and urged them to "make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love." In the following days, riots erupted in 167 American cities. Indianapolis was not one of them.
Named an official delegate for the Kennedy ticket, I immediately began to devote all my spare time to the campaign. Shirley MacLaine, Andy Williams, and I organized a "Hollywood for Kennedy" fund-raising gala at the L.A. Sports Arena. I flew to wherever in the state I was needed, addressing rallies, speaking at press conferences, trying to convince voters that Senator Kennedy was someone who could bring the fractured nation together and deliver on his promises.
All of which made my employer, KNBC, nervous. Management feared that if a member of the station's news division was too closely identified with a candidate for office, other candidates would demand equal time and the station might be penalized by the Federal Communications Commission. They told me I would have to stop making public appearances. I refused. Their position seemed absurd to me. I never uttered a word about politics on the air, and I wasn't about to wear RFK buttons on my blazer or insert campaign slogans into the football scores. Nevertheless, I was taken off the air. I remained on the payroll and was given writing assignments, but I was not allowed on camera.
My lawyer, Donald Dell, filed a complaint. The FCC ruled in my favor; my political activities did not violate the equal time regulations. But then my relationship with management--which had not been ideal in the first place--had chilled. In addition, the primary was only weeks away and the race was close. At that crucial time I wanted to contribute as much as I could. I had to choose between staying on my job or working full-time for the campaign: a salaried position with a future versus volunteer work for a cause that would either end in defeat or launch the nation--and probably my life--on a new path.
In my heart, the choice was easy. To reassure my mind I asked the advice of friends and colleagues. Tom Brokaw remembers it this way: "I said, 'Gosh, Rafer, you're just starting to get your career going. I'd think long and hard about it if I were you.' The next day, Bobby Kennedy came into the studio to be interviewed. The bond between him and Rafer was so deep, so meaningful, so rich, there was so much love and respect between them, that I said to Rafer afterward, "You've got to follow your heart on this one. '"
The next few weeks were a sleepless frenzy. From one end of California to the other we campaigned nonstop. Rosey Grier and I stayed so close to Bobby that people thought we were bodyguards. We weren't. Officially, that job belonged to an experienced security man named Bill Barry. But big, athletic guys like Rosey and me came in handy. Bobby's charisma and ability to connect with people inspired fervent responses from the mobs that flocked to his rallies. We tried to keep the senator and Ethel from being overwhelmed by admirers.
At times the atmosphere was so delirious that supporters would fight for position just to be able to touch the candidate's hand or tousle his hair. Some tried to steal his cuff links or tear off pieces of his shirt or jacket. On one occasion I had to chase down a man who ripped Bobby's shoes off his feet and ran away with them. Another time, in Riverside, Bobby took off his jacket to work the crowd in rolled-up shirt-sleeves. Someone tore the jacket from his hands. I had to run through the crowd like a defensive back to catch him.
Oddly enough, even with JFK's assassination fresh in memory, I never gave much thought to the possibility of violence. The immediate danger was of Bobby or Ethel getting knocked down or crushed, or that the candidate would fall from a moving convertible while trying to shake hands. Often, we'd ride in open cars with me holding onto Bobby and somebody else holding onto me.
At times the mobs were more hostile than adoring. One evening in Oakland stands out. The packed auditorium was dominated by Black Panthers. Bobby was sincere and forthright in asking for their support. Justifiably suspicious of all white politicians, the people in the audience asked tough, sometimes belligerent questions, which boiled down to: "Why should we trust you?" Bobby answered patiently. At one point he asked me to speak. I told the crowd, essentially, that RFK would serve them well, that I had been with him in every kind of community and the words he'd spoken that night he'd also spoken in Beverly Hills and Brentwood. I was booed. Cries of "Uncle Tom!" rang out.
When the meeting ended I tried to reason informally with people. Some listened, some argued, some stood defiantly silent, some made threatening remarks. I responded cautiously, knowing that any careless statement could ignite a violent outburst. At one point I realized, to my horror, that the entire campaign staff had left without me. This was more than an inconvenience; the atmosphere was so tense that anything could happen. Fortunately, Bobby discovered my absence while crossing the Bay Bridge and sent a car back to get me. I was never so relieved in my life.
The next day, against the advice of his handlers, the senator returned to Oakland for a ride-through. To my surprise, I saw some of the same people who had been antagonistic the night before run up to the motorcade and reach for Bobby's hand. Either they had been posturing at the rally or they had reconsidered their attitudes overnight.
My fondest memory of the campaign trail is of the final swing through the San Joaquin Valley. There was magic in the air, not just because it was my home territory, but because it was where Cesar Chavez had mobilized migrant farm workers into a force to be reckoned with--and into Kennedy supporters. Tens of thousands, including many of my Kingsburg friends, turned out to hear Bobby speak about his vision for the nation. They lined the train tracks between Fresno and Sacramento to greet the campaign on its whistle-stop tour through the valley. It was just the emotional high we needed after losing to McCarthy in Oregon. Then it was on to Los Angeles for the final days before the primary.
On the night of June 5, the campaign staff assembled in the senator's suite at the Ambassador Hotel to watch the primary election returns on television. Shortly before midnight it became clear that he had won. Euphorically, we piled into elevators to join the celebration downstairs. Outside the Embassy Room, where about two thousand jubilant supporters were partying, I found myself, for one quiet moment, alone with the candidate and his wife. I wish I could remember exactly what was said; it was the last conversation I ever had with my friend Bobby.
A moment later we were inside the ballroom, where bedlam reigned. I stood on the small stage, about ten feet from the senator. The space between us was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with politicians and staffers. In his victory speech, Bobby thanked by name everyone who had made a significant contribution: press secretary Frank Mankiewicz, campaign manager Fred Dutton, speech-writer Jeff Greenfield, Rosey Grier, Cesar Chavez, Ethel and the family and so on, even Don Drysdale who had pitched his sixth straight shutout that night. He referred to me as "my old friend, Rafer Johnson." His last public words were, "My thanks to all of you, and now it's on to Chicago, and let's win there." As cheers filled the room, he flashed the thumbs-up sign, then the "V" for victory (or, perhaps, peace). These ordinary words and gestures are frozen into memory now, like the image of JFK in his motorcade, waving to the crowd in Dallas.
From the minute I quit my job to join the campaign, I had not given a thought to myself or my future. Now that we had accomplished our goal, it seemed that nothing could stop the Kennedy tide. Robert F. Kennedy was likely to become the Democratic nominee for president and go on to vanquish Richard Nixon in November, as his brother had done in 1960. I saw myself in Washington, working for the new Kennedy Administration in some capacity, doing whatever I could to bring people together and fulfill Bobby's vision of a peaceful nation where everyone is treated with compassion and dignity. I felt as if I had vaulted to some extraordinary height and was flying, weightless as a feather, over the bar.
The fall was sudden, swift, and devastating.
The senator turned to step down off the back of the platform. This was a surprise. He was supposed to walk through the crowd on his way to the press conference in another room. Why he decided instead to take the shortcut through the kitchen we'll never know. I assumed it was because he was too exhausted to work his way through the pandemonium. The campaign had been so grueling it made a decathlon seem like a stroll through a garden. Bobby was visibly drained.
Throughout the campaign the Kennedys had turned down offers from local police to provide protection. They did not want a uniformed presence, preferring to leave security matters in the hands of Bill Barry and their friends. I had taken it upon myself to look after Ethel, who was pregnant and often ignored in the commotion surrounding the senator. When Bobby changed his route that night, I pushed my way through the crowd and reached Ethel as she followed him through the curtain to the pantry.
That's when I heard the shots. At first I thought they were balloons bursting, or firecrackers, like the ones that had gone off a f
Meet the Author
Rafer Johnson won the gold medal for the decathlon in the 1960 Olympic Games, posting a new Olympic record in the event. After the Olympics, he devoted his time to his family, his career, and helping others. To this end, he became a sports commentator, worked with Robert F. Kennedy, is President of Rafer Johnson Enterprises, and Chairman of the Board for the Southern California Special Olympics. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, and has two children.
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This book is great--it includes eye-witness accounts of some of the most interesting events and people of our time. I had never even heard of Rafer Johnson before I read the book--just picked it up out of curiosity at the bookstore.