On the night of June 4, 1968, Sirhan Sirhan shot and killed Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in a steamy pantry of the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel. Kennedy and his entourage had been celebrating his victory in the California primary for the Democratic nomination for president.
Everybody knew that Sirhan was the assassin. But was there a wider conspiracy? Did the FBI truly solve the crime? After working his way deep inside the investigation—and spending more than two hundred hours in direct conversation with Sirhan—Robert Blair Kaiser wrote the quintessential book on Robert Kennedy’s murder.
Then, forty years later, Kaiser returned to the evidence, revising his original text as he probed even further into this mystifying tragedy. Widely recognized as an important contribution to the literature of political assassinations and as a primary document on the tragedy of Kennedy’s death, “R.F.K. Must Die!” is more than ever a stunning look into the mind of a killer and the substance of an assassination.
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"God! Not again!"
On the Santa Monica Freeway, John Frankenheimer Accelerated his Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud to sixty-five, glad now to have gotten Senator Robert Francis Kennedy out of the house and on his way to the Ambassador Hotel. Kennedy had been edgy that evening, unable to sit still during supper, preoccupied about the outcome of the California primary. No wonder Bobby was preoccupied, thought Frankenheimer, after this most fevered campaign. For seventy-one days Frankenheimer, one of Hollywood's better movie directors, had followed Kennedy and shot thousands of feet of film for a new, ambitious documentary that could help beat Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election.
Kennedy had sagged the night before in San Diego, too exhausted to finish his last speech. Frankenheimer knew what a toll this kind of campaign had taken on the candidate. He and his wife had given Bobby and Ethel their bedroom at Malibu and tried to provide them both with some respite from the crowds and the clamor that had brought Bob close to collapse. Indeed, there was something different, even frenzied about the people who swarmed over Robert Kennedy in the spring of 1968, something not seen, according to the NBC reporter Sander Vanocur, since the very last week of John F. Kennedy's campaign in 1960.
Frankenheimer realized now that it was a mistake to have invited those people over for supper. Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon, Frank Wells and his wife, Luanne, Brian Morris and Anjanette Comer, Dick Sylbert and Sarah Hudson were showbiz — too distracting and wrong for Bob Kennedy on this election night. Angry with himself for having so little foresight, Frankenheimer sped right by the Vermont off-ramp and got tangled up in the Harbor Freeway interchange. He cursed as he tried to get the Rolls headed back toward the Ambassador.
"Take it easy, John," said Bob Kennedy with a gentle touch. "Life is too short."
Senator Kennedy frowned at the image on his hotel room's seemingly unadjustable color TV and studied the tops of his shoes while Anchorman Walter Cronkite explained to his CBS viewers about the news delay in California. The old-fashioned ways of counting votes were good enough in Mendocino and Modesto and Riverside and San Diego. Election officials there, and from all over the state, had hustled their returns to the news services and networks within an hour after the polls had closed.
The trouble lay in Los Angeles, the land of instant everything, where the powers that run the county had decided to let IBM tabulate the returns in a few milliseconds. To the delight of the children smoking grass on the Sunset Strip, the computers of Los Angeles, ones that controlled billion-mile space flights to the moon and to Mars, couldn't seem to count a bunch of punch cards.
Robert F. Kennedy was not amused. Forty-three percent of the vote was here. Everything else depended on the results in Los Angeles: California's 174 delegates, the Democratic National Convention, maybe the presidency of the United States. And now, at ten o'clock on election night, no one knew what the mostly unpredictable voters of Los Angeles County had done that day, except of course in the black and brown communities, where the turnout was high. Those communities were largely Kennedy's.
The senator shook his head, chewed a little more vigorously on a stick of peppermint gum, moved away from the television set in the crowded sitting room of the Royal Suite with an abstracted look on his face, refused a Scotch and water, put his hands in his pants pockets and wandered into a bedroom area in the other half of the suite, where another crowed was gathered in front of an image of NBC's David Brinkley conveying his own unveiled disgust over the computer breakdown. Kennedy smiled, perhaps enjoying the revelation that someone else was as discomfited as he, plopped down on the floor with a sigh, hugged his knees and leaned back against the wall. He accepted a small cigar and a light from someone and turned to Dick Goodwin. Goodwin had served as a speech writer for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and had left the White House in 1967 to become a member of Robert Kennedy's shadow cabinet; then he joined Senator McCarthy when he began his campaign in New Hampshire. After Kennedy beat McCarthy in Indiana, Goodwin came back where he belonged. Kennedy puffed lightly on the cigar. Goodwin started to speak. Some more people piled into the room.
Kennedy smiled, rose again and motioned for Goodwin to follow into the privacy of the bathroom. In a few minutes he came out again, wandered around the suite and then, for no apparent reason, went out and stood in the corridor, leaned against the wall, folded his arms and looked down at the carpet. Two or three reporters, including Jack Smith of the Los Angeles Times, had been waiting in the hallway on the odd chance that Kennedy would appear. Now that he was there, they were too surprised to ask a question. Finally, someone asked him what he thought of the returns at this point in the evening.
"I can't talk about it now," said Kennedy. Smith observed that his voice was very low, almost inaudible, but tense and tremulous, as if charged with some vital current. "I'm not interested in figures."
One of the reporters started talking about the campaign that lay ahead and about "the politicians."
"I like politicians," Kennedy said quietly. "I like politics. It's an honorable adventure." Kennedy paused. "That was Lord Tweedsmuir." Kennedy paused again. "You don't remember Lord Tweedsmuir?" None of the reporters seemed to remember — if they ever knew. Kennedy was pleased. He delivered a brief lecture on John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, the Scottish author and statesman. "He wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps, you know, and several others. And then he was governor general of Canada. He said, 'Politics is an honorable adventure.'" Kennedy savored the expression again, wanting to remember. Then he went back into the suite, returned to the bedroom and hunched on the edge of the bed, allowing himself to look small, vulnerable, edgy, tired. His eldest son David, in a blue blazer, gray slacks and a striped necktie, walked up to him, bubbling over because everybody said they were winners again, kissed him on the cheek and sat on the bed, close to his dad.
Only a week before, Kennedy had lost the primary election in Oregon, his first defeat after an unbroken series of wins for himself and his brother John, the former president of the United States. Kennedy preferred to win; he played to win, or he didn't play. Most of his older advisers who didn't want him to challenge the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 had insisted this was a fight he couldn't win. Ultimately, he rejected their pragmatic political advice because it was a fight he and his wife Ethel finally decided he had to win. The Johnson Administration was overcommitted in Vietnam and undercommitted in urban America, and only new leadership could turn the country around. He plunged into one of the most tumultuous primary campaigns America has ever seen, becoming Bob Kennedy, the candidate-in-his-own-right (not Bobby Kennedy, the little brother of John) and a surprising new symbol of hope and reconciliation in a time of division and dissolution.
But here now in California in the last of the 1968 primaries, Senator McCarthy, who had beaten him in Oregon, was leading in something called the "raw vote count." That might have depressed the Kennedy camp. But they took heart when the networks, impatient with minor officialdom in Los Angeles, decided to force their pace a little. CBS predicted a Kennedy victory by as much as sixteen percentage points. NBC held out. Its sample was incomplete — its count included no precincts from Los Angeles County. Finally, it took a chance, and announced that its sampling of key election precincts around the state also indicated that Kennedy would win.
Kennedy stalled. What if the projections were wrong? He took some time to talk to Goodwin again, to Pierre Salinger, his brother's former press secretary, to Jesse Unruh, leader of the California campaign, and to Frank Mankiewicz, his own press secretary. He phoned Massachusetts to talk to Kenneth O'Donnell, a longtime Kennedy adviser. O'Donnell said he thought Kennedy could get the nomination. If the predictions were correct in California, if Los Angeles County held up, then some of the McCarthy team were ready to defect to Kennedy. McCarthy would give up, or McCarthy would not give up. It didn't matter. The nomination would go to the man who could squeeze the delegates headed for the convention in Chicago, and the man who could do that best was Kennedy. Only he could call in some of the political debts owed from his brother's administration.
Many of the leading lights of the John Kennedy team had, in fact, flocked into L.A. to be with Bobby and his wife Ethel. Old faces. Bob's sister Pat Lawford and his sister Jean, and Jean's husband, Steve Smith; Pierre Salinger, Fred Dutton, Richard Goodwin, Ted Sorensen, Larry O'Brien, who had all worked with John Kennedy. And some new faces too. There were the black faces of Roosevelt Grier, the gigantic tackle of the Los Angeles Rams football team; and Rafer Johnson, the decathlon champion of the 1964 Olympics from UCLA, who had quit a lucrative sportscasting job with NBC Television News to help Kennedy. There were the brown faces of César Chàvez, the unassuming organizer who had pulled together the grape pickers of California's central valleys and was here in Los Angeles, getting out the massive Mexican-American vote in East L.A., and his petite lieutenant, Dolores Huerta, a mother of three and the farmworkers' chief labor negotiator. There were the alert faces of writers like Theodore White, Warren Rogers of Look magazine and Budd Schulberg, the novelist; the searching faces of Life photographer Bill Eppridge and Look photographer Stanley Tretick; the merry face of Richard Tuck, the political prankster, itching for another chance to needle Richard Nixon; the earnest face of Paul Schrade, a socially crusading leader in Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers; the patrician faces of George Plimpton and his bride, Freddy; and the strong face of John Glenn, America's first astronaut. On this night, June 4, 1968, all of the faces were happy faces. They were part of the team, almost as much a part of the family as young David, Michael, Courtney and Kerry Kennedy who were there with their springer spaniel, Freckles.
Downstairs in the Embassy Room, where Kennedy would speak when it was time to claim victory, the crowd had gone beyond capacity to an estimated 1,800 persons. Security officers and Los Angeles firemen were turning campaign workers away and sending them down one floor to the Ambassador Ballroom. Gabor Kadar, a Hungarian refugee with absolutely no credentials at all but more than enough enterprise, was turned away from the Embassy Room, went outside, made an unsuccessful try to go up the fire escape, finally found a clothes hamper on the west side of the building filled with soiled white cooks' uniforms. He took one of the uniforms out of the hamper, put it on over his suit, picked up two empty milk cans and carried them up a stairway to the kitchen. He dropped the cans in the kitchen and proceeded on to the Embassy Room from there, doffed his uniform in a corner, and squeezed up to the right side of the platform where Senator Kennedy was scheduled to appear.
Michael Wayner, a slight twenty-one-year-old with dark curly hair, A clerk at the Pickwick Book Store in Hollywood, had as much moxie as Kadar. He'd spent the earlier part of the evening picking up political mementos at the Rafferty headquarters on Wilshire and the McCarthy headquarters in Westwood, where he gathered such souvenirs as a hardcover edition of Senator McCarthy's Limits of Power. He then hitchhiked to the Beverly Hilton Hotel and talked his way into a seventh-floor TV room where he watched McCarthy being interviewed by David Schoumacher of CBS.
McCarthy wasn't contesting the network predictions but trying to undersell California's significance. "We made our real test in Oregon," said McCarthy. The idea was that in a June primary many a Democrat could pull in the minority blocs. In November, he argued, he'd get those bloc votes and a lot of independents who wouldn't come near Robert Kennedy. The reasoning was strained but it was the best McCarthy could do. Robert Kennedy had the momentum now. Michael Wayne got McCarthy's signature on the book, then followed McCarthy down to the Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton where a subdued crowd waited to find out where they would go from here. "Go on and sing and have a pleasant time tonight," McCarthy told the crowd, "because we've just begun to fight." As he spoke, the running tabulation of vote totals still showed Senator McCarthy in front, forty-six percent to Kennedy's forty-one. But his followers had seen the predictions on television. Some of them didn't feel like singing. Young Mike Wayne decided to hitchhike back down Wilshire to Senator Kennedy's party at the Ambassador where he knew there would be more action.
Now Kennedy was ready to move to live interviews with the TV networks. Though he was eager for the exposure on national television, he was equally anxious to avoid saying anything which would make his victory seem "ruthless." Kennedy was the epitome of grace, while both Sander Vanocur of NBC and Roger Mudd of CBS tried to draw him into spilling out his future battle plans to the world. Mudd came out with an expression he had obviously heard from Kennedy: "Are some of the delegates that are listed as leaning or even committed to the vice-president, are they squeezable? Are they solid?"
"Roger!" chided Kennedy, blinking hard. "Your language!"
Mudd laughed. "Well, that ... you ... isn't that the way you talk about it behind closed doors?"
Kennedy knew Mudd was aware that "squeezing" the Humphrey delegates was the only real job that lay ahead. Mudd's choice of words was if anything too precise. "No, I don't go that far," laughed Kennedy. "I don't. I don't."
Mudd stammered. "Well, I ..." Before he could say too much, Kennedy gave him an out. "Probably somebody else does."
By now the Embassy Room five floors below was jammed with a singing, boisterous, laughing crowd. A security guard blocked the way of Michael Wayne, but that didn't stop him. He got into the press room through the kitchen, begged a rectangular blue and white badge that read "Kennedy Election Night Press" and a green badge reading "Kennedy for President — Press." He clipped the two badges together with his PT109 tie clasp, a memento he had picked up two weeks earlier from Senator Kennedy himself at the Ambassador. Armed with these "credentials," he drifted into the hotel lobby.
He grabbed two rolled Kennedy posters and several Rafferty buttons, then went up, unimpeded, to the Kennedy wing of the fifth floor, found the Presidential Suite open, ordered a Scotch and water at the bar and begged another PT-109 tie clasp from a Kennedy worker.
In a small bedroom of the Royal Suite, Bob Kennedy was asking Budd Schulberg what he ought to say to the workers down below. Schulberg reminded him of the blacks and the Chicanos who had helped him win in California. "Bob," he said, "you're the only white man in this country they trust." Kennedy smiled his small, shy, rabbity smile.
Ethel Kennedy opened the door. "Can't even get in my own bedroom," she cried in mock anger, really very pleased now that things were going well again.
The senator went into the bathroom, this time with Sorensen, talked, fiddled nervously with the electric typewriter sitting next to the sink, came out into the sitting room, and lit a long cigar while he watched Frank McGee, who had taken over on NBC for the nettled Mr. Brinkley. The cigar hung from his hand, growing a fine ash, and then someone came up and gave him a ginger ale. He drank it down in one lusty gulp.
Press Secretary Frank Mankiewicz rushed in to say that it was time to move toward the Embassy Room. "Do we know enough about it yet?" asked Kennedy. He went back into the small bedroom to make one last check with Dutton — the points he ought to make, the names of the people he ought to thank.
Ethel Kennedy, three months' pregnant with her eleventh child, was lying down for a moment of rest. It would be her last calm moment for some time to come. "Ready?" said Bob.
"Ready!" said Ethel, rising brightly.
"Do you think we ought to take Freckles down? You know they say I win with an astronaut and a dog." It was a question that needed no answer. Things would be hectic enough downstairs without Freckles. They passed through the sitting room, into the hallway. Newsman Smith saw them stop in front of a long mirror. Ethel smiled at herself, suntanned and pretty in a white, sleeveless summer dress designed by Courrèges. Kennedy adjusted his necktie and make a final pass at his hair. "Then," said Smith, "he went down to pursue his honorable adventure."(Continues…)
Excerpted from ""R.F.K. Must Die!""
Copyright © 2008 Robert Blair Kaiser.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Also by Robert Blair Kaiser,
PREFACE: Getting Into the Mystery,
CHAPTER ONE: "God! Not again!",
CHAPTER TWO: "We're all puppets.",
CHAPTER THREE: "Tell my mother to clean up my room. It's a mess.",
CHAPTER FOUR: "The question of a conspiracy has come up. The public, the Congress and the president of the United States want to know. They have a right to know.",
CHAPTER FIVE: "Monsters. Wickedness. Too many entanglements. Blood.",
CHAPTER SIX: "I didn't know he had that many children. I didn't know he had so many children.",
CHAPTER SEVEN: "With that power, I could have been a millionaire.",
CHAPTER EIGHT: "Lawyers are not magicians. We should enter a plea of guilty.",
CHAPTER NINE: "This is political. This is politically motivated — this is, heh heh, political, heh heh, politically motivated.",
CHAPTER TEN: "Sirhan, did anybody pay you to shoot Kennedy?",
CHAPTER ELEVEN: "We're doctors, Sirhan, and we want to help you. We're Jews, Sirhan, but we want to help you.",
CHAPTER TWELVE: "You can't conscientiously ask for the death penalty, anyway.",
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: "Kennedy was doing a lot of things behind my back.",
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: "People take lives in warfare, don't they?",
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: "Too illogical even for the theater of the absurd.",
CHAPTER SIXTEEN: "Could the nation survive two hundred assassins?",
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: "He has no special claim to further preservation.",
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: "Robert Kennedy was a Fascist pig. Eldridge Cleaver said so.",
EPILOGUE: "The case is still open. I'm not rejecting the Manchurian Candidate aspect of it.",