THE ASSASSINATION OF ROBERT F. KENNEDY,50 YEARS LATER- Lynette Ray’s mother enters her sleeping daughter’s bedroom, where last night, they sat in front of the black-and-white TV to watch coverage of the last day of the California Democratic presidential primary, and of their hero Robert Kennedy.
The mother holds the morning Oregonian, which she places on the bed. The date is June 5, 1968.
“Lynnie,’’ she says softly, “Bobby’s been shot.’’
Lynnie’s memories of President Kennedy’s assassination five years earlier are vivid. After the first reports from Dallas, the principal at her Catholic elementary school told everyone to get on their knees. She can still hear the prayers, and the sobs, from each classroom echoing in the hallway.
She does not want Bobby to die, too. Especially not today. Today is her 11th birthday.
The assassination 50 years ago of Robert F. Kennedy, junior U.S. senator from New York, produced memorable images and moments: Kennedy lying wounded on the floor of a Los Angeles hotel; his brother Ted’s eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral; the huge trackside crowds as a train carried the body from New York to Washington.
But the interval between RFK’s shooting and his death is all but forgotten.
John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King (shot by an assassin two months earlier) died almost immediately. Robert Kennedy lingered for almost 26 hours. Americans awoke on Wednesday to find he’d been shot and on Thursday to learn he had died.
A lawyer in Fullerton, Pa., said it was like awakening not from a nightmare but into one.
For almost 26 hours, much of the nation, including the presidential campaign, was in limbo. Patrick Mazor, a high school sophomore in Ellensburg, Wash., was struck by the utter, awful silence at a special assembly in the school gym. “Not again,” he thought. “Please not again.”
Americans old enough to remember generally report less precise or vivid memories of 6/5/68 than of 11/22/63. But many, like Mazor, recall wishing for the best, expecting the worst and thinking that, whether Kennedy lived or not, something in America had died.
The last campaign
In a time filled with them, Robert Kennedy was America’s most fascinating public figure. At once tough and vulnerable, he was a rich man’s son who doted on the poor. He started out as a Senate aide to the witch-hunting Republican Joe McCarthy and wound up as a civil rights advocate.
In 1968, he challenged his party’s president for re-election. Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide in 1964 and enacted sweeping civil rights and anti-poverty measures. But his prosecution of the Vietnam War and his poor showing in the New Hampshire primary against another challenger, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, lured Kennedy into the race.
Then, Johnson dropped out, leaving three candidates: McCarthy, Kennedy and Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey.
California’s primary, June 4, was the last before the Democratic convention (although delegates would continue to be selected at various state conventions). After beating McCarthy, Kennedy told supporters at the Ambassador Hotel, “Now, it’s on to Chicago!”
He left the stage around 12:15 a.m. and headed for the exit via the kitchen. He stopped to speak to a busboy when a Palestinian immigrant named Sirhan Sirhan, who hated Kennedy because he supported Israel, fired eight shots from a revolver. Kennedy, hit three times, was rushed to a hospital.
A day to remember
At her home outside Portland, Ore., Lynette Ray, watching the news on television, began to believe Bobby would live. His press secretary, Frank Mankiewicz, had been mildly encouraging, saying his “life signs remain good — respiration, pulse, blood pressure.”
After Kennedy underwent a four-hour operation, Mankiewicz said the patient’s “condition is described as extremely critical,” but his “vital signs remain about as they were, except that he is now breathing on his own, which he was not prior to the surgery. … The next 12 to 36 hours will be very critical.”
That was vague enough to encourage some optimism. “I thank God that he is apparently going to live,” blurted Daniel Boyle, chairman of the Johnson County, Iowa, Democratic committee.
“As long as he was still alive,” Lynnette recalled years later, “I was OK with that.”
As the TV news played in the background, Lynette and her mother focused on plans for her special day. First, a trip to “the Coney Island of the West” — Jantzen Beach Amusement Park on an island in the Columbia River. Then a stop at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, famous for giving customers a free ice cream sundae on their birthday.
At the amusement park, Lynette and her friends went from ride to ride, including a carousel built for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. They played and lost games to win stuffed animals. They ate cotton candy and hot dogs. The park’s sound system played the Beatles’ Yesterday.
Ray’s mom and another mother who’d come along sat on a bench and looked worriedly at the afternoon paper, The Oregon Journal.
The other presidential candidates had suspended their campaigns (“none are sure how to proceed anyway,” wrote columnist Tom Wicker) and received Secret Service protection, previously not provided as a matter of course.
Thousands of soldiers and Marines were on alert in case of the kind of rioting that followed King’s death.
Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, pregnant with their 11th child, received telegrams from men history would list as her husband’s biggest enemies: Lyndon Johnson (“We grieve and pray with you”) and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
In Boston, Cardinal Richard Cushing said a Mass for Kennedy at the palatial archbishop’s residence. In Washington, there was a prayer service in muddy Resurrection City, the shanty town erected by Martin Luther King Jr.’s successors to call attention to poverty.
‘A violent people’
As Lynnette enjoyed the amusement park rides, Americans older than she were consumed by anxiety, doubt and confusion.
“I don’t weep often,” said the Rev. Billy Graham, “but today, I wept for my country.”
“What madness is afoot?” asked Bob Considine, Hearst newspapers’ star columnist. “We’re sick. The assassin has 200 million heads. One is yours. One is mine.” Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a Kennedy adviser, was pessimistic: “We are a violent people with a violent history, and the instinct for violence has seeped into our national life.”
There even was shock in the most violent place on the planet. A Marine corporal in Vietnam, Robert Wolfe of Dodge City, Kan., told a reporter, “The guys over here are fighting, and people back there are killing each other. It just ain’t right.’’
Who was Sirhan, and what was his motive? If he wanted to kill a supporter of Israel, there were many more likely targets than Kennedy, whose Israel policy was among his least controversial.
Around the time Lynette Ray got home, Mankiewicz told reporters that Kennedy’s medical team “is concerned over his continuing failure to show improvement.” His condition was described as “extremely critical as to life.”
At the White House that night, waiting to address the nation on television, Johnson kept asking aides, “Is he dead yet?” He finally went on shortly after 10, telling Americans he was “as shocked and dismayed as you are” and announcing a commission to study “the causes and preventions of violence.”
It was still too early for a eulogy. Lynette went to bed happy. It had been a day to remember.
June 5, 1968, is a day lost to history.
Major chronicles either mention the time between Kennedy’s shooting and death briefly, such as Schlesinger’s 1,000-page Robert Kennedy and His Times, or skip it entirely, as in Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1968.
Almost nine in 10 people old enough to remember are still alive. Many conflate the mornings when they learned of the shooting and the death. Those with precise memories of the JFK assassination are apt to forget the details of his brother’s.
Wendy Lee Klenetsky is not unusual in thinking she saw the RFK shooting live on TV, which it was not. She says she recalls it happening after she got home from her high school, even though it was after 3 a.m. in the East, where she lived.
Sid Litke can tell you the number of students (13) in his one-room school in rural Aulne, Kan., when JFK was shot and describe the teacher lowering the flag outside. He has no memory of where he was or what he was doing when he learned about RFK.
One thing has not changed. If the mystery of Sirhan never became a national obsession, it never was satisfactorily explained. Certainly not by the defendant, who pleaded guilty despite claiming not to recall what happened.
This year, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., citing long-disputed forensic evidence, said he believed that more shots were fired in the hotel hallway than the eight from Sirhan’s gun, that there was a second gunman and that Sirhan did not kill his father.
Much of the suspense over Kennedy’s fate was illusory. By the time he arrived at Good Samaritan hospital, he was dying. His heart was beating, but the line on the brain monitor was flat.
After speaking to the head of the surgical team, a Columbia-Presbyterian hospital neurosurgeon told reporters that, given the brain damage caused by one of the bullets, “I fear … the outcome may be extremely tragic.”
Tragic didn’t necessarily mean death. There was also the possibility, as the Associated Press delicately put it, of “an indefinite life of limited usefulness.”
The scene in Kennedy’s room would have dispelled any optimism. His body was covered with tubes and wires; the part of his face not covered with bandages was bruised; his eyes were blackened. One Kennedy biographer described Ethel Kennedy lying on the bed next to her husband, “as if she were dying, too.”
Finally, the family acknowledged the inevitable, and Kennedy was allowed to die. Joseph Kennedy III, his oldest son, went to the ward where his siblings were sleeping. “He’s gone,” he said.
Mankiewicz decided to break the news with a simple statement. “To stick around and answer questions would take away from the import of the moment,” he explained in a memoir.
Shortly after 2 a.m., standing at the lectern of the press center across from the hospital, he read these words: “Sen. Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m., June 6, 1968. With Sen. Kennedy at the time of his death were his wife, Ethel; his sisters, Mrs. Stephen Smith, Mrs. Patricia Lawford; and his brother-in-law, Mr. Stephen Smith. He was 42 years old. Thank you.”
Then he walked away.
After dawn on June 6, Lynette Ray was again awakened by her mother, who again carried the newspaper and again laid it on the bed.
The girl spent the day following events on TV, reading newspapers and researching assassinations in the family’s Encyclopedia Britannica. She would never forget the photo of RFK lying on the floor of the kitchen, his arm outstretched, his face bathed in a halo of light.
Her reaction to this assassination was less emotional than to JFK’s. She was older, more analytical, more self-centered. She didn’t cry, and neither did the adults around her. There was great sadness, but they all had been hardened.
Five months later, on the Wednesday morning after Election Day, Lynette and her mother were in their Buick driving through Lake Oswego, Ore., when word came on the radio that the TV networks finally had called the election for Richard Nixon over Humphrey.
Her mother had not mentioned Kennedy in months. Now she slammed her hand on the steering wheel and shouted a question that had no answer then, and has none now: “Why did we have to lose Bobby?”