This week marks the 50th
anniversary of the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. On 5th
June, 1968 he was shot in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just won the California presidential primaries in the 1968 election. He was pronounced dead the following day. It was only two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King (see my blog In Memoriam Dr Martin Luther King Jnr.
) and came as a dreadful shock to America. I was still living there as an AFS International Exchange student and that night my school was holding its annual Prom for the Senior Class. Proms go on late into the night so we were still at the country club dressed up in our tuxedos when the dreadful news arrived and it quickly killed the party spirit. The rest of the night was spent quietly musing over this tragedy and trying to make sense of it, which was of course impossible.
My school mates were not overtly political, far less than my erstwhile colleagues at my English school. Most of them were the sons of wealthy Minnesota business men for whom the Republican Party was the natural political home. Some were more Democratically inclined but favoured Hubert Humphrey, who was a Minnesota Senator from 1949 until 1965 when he became Vice President of the USA under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Humphrey went on to win the nomination but lost heavily to Richard M. Nixon.
Nevertheless, there was sneaking respect for someone who had shown immense bravery in standing up for the downtrodden whether White, Black or Latino, and had asked searching questions about the direction of the Vietnam War despite the fact it had started when his brother Jack was President and he was Attorney General.
Bobby Kennedy was the seventh child of Joseph P. Kennedy Snr and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. He served briefly as a Naval Reserve from 1944 to 1946, returned to Harvard and then took a law degree from the University of Virginia. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1951 but began his political career the following year as campaign manager for his brother Jack in his successful bid to join the US Senate. Bobby was an assistant counsel to the notorious Senate Committee on un-American activities chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
He came to national attention as the chief counsel of the Senate Labor Rackets committee from 1957 to 1959, where on national TV he challenged Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa over the corrupt practices of his union and wrote The Enemy Within
, a book about corruption in organised labor.
Kennedy stepped down from the Committee to again act as his brother’s campaign manager, this time for his successful presidential bid. Despite accusations of nepotism Jack appointed Bobby as Attorney General and treated him as his closest confidant. In this role he became best known for his assistance to the civil rights movement, his fight against organised crime, especially the Mafia, the existence of which had been denied by most of his predecessors, and U.S. foreign policy related to Cuba. He was pivotal in the successful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. He was just 36 years old at the time.
After his brother’s assassination he remained as Attorney General under President Johnson but then ran successfully for the US Senate for the state of New York in 1964. In office he vigorously opposed racial discrimination and continued U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He was a passionate, even charismatic advocate for human rights and social justice and developed working relationships with Martin Luther King and the campaigner for workers’ rights, Cesar Chavez.
In 1968 Bobby Kennedy was a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency; he appealed especially to the poor, African American, Hispanic, Catholic and young voters. He had defeated Senator Eugene McCarthy in the California and South Dakota presidential primaries, even though McCarthy was at least as strong an opponent of the war. However, it is unlikely that had he lived Bobby Kennedy would have gone on to win the presidency, indeed he was almost certain to lose his party’s nomination. In 1968 only 15 of the 50 states chose their delegates by primary. About 60% of convention delegates were selected by county committeemen, state party officers and elected officials, and that lot was firmly behind Humphrey.
In his political career Bobby had made many enemies or at least opponents and some of those should have been natural Democrat supporters. In those days the Democrats controlled the South but Southern Democrats bitterly resented his advocacy for Civil Rights; labor leaders should vote Democrat but they also remembered his harassment of their colleagues, particular Jimmy Hoffa and his cronies; and his steady drift to the left during his time in the Senate had alienated big business despite his Daddy’s background as a stock market player.
Bobby had been a brilliant campaign manager for his brother both for the Senate in 1952 and for the presidency in 1960 but his own campaign was simply inept. He could not balance the needs to manage the party machine with the crowds of dispossessed who would follow his campaign trail and literally tear his clothing off him for souvenirs. If he had reached Chicago later that summer for the convention it is doubtful that he could have managed the process and come out ahead, even if he was a far better orator than the somewhat pedestrian Humphrey.
His aides advised him to turn down the rhetoric that excited the under privileged but alarmed more conventional white democratic professionals. He told them it was too late. And it was.
There are many conspiracy theories about his death as there are about his brother’s, and in some ways for the same reasons. It is not my purpose to try to investigate conspiracy theories, a fruitless task. But there are one or two uncomfortable facts about Bobby Kennedy’s death, just as there were about Jack’s. The official findings about the assassination of President Kennedy in the Warren Commission report were that he was killed by a single gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald who then days later was murdered by Jack Ruby while in police custody. But then later investigations seemed to show evidence of shots coming from a different direction. Oswald was behind Kennedy’s vehicle high up in the Book Depository while other shots were heard or seen coming from in front of him from the famous grassy knoll.
The official version of Bobby Kennedy’s death is that he was shot by a 24 year old Jordanian Sirhan Sirhan who had lived in the U.S. since 1957 but not as a U.S. citizen. Apparently inflamed by Kennedy’s support of Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War he had written in notebooks that RFK must die. He was found in front of Kennedy with a gun that had fired eight shots and five other people were injured, though not fatally. He was found guilty after an inept defence and was sentenced to death, but in 1972 the State of California ended the death penalty and Sirhan’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he still serves it.
But the medical evidence stated that Kennedy was killed by a shot just a few inches behind his ear, not from in front. Los Angeles Police are known to have destroyed piles of evidence. There are still friends of Bobby seeking to find the truth, not motivated by conspiracy theories, but by a desire to know what happened. They have been turned down at every attempt.
I went back to live in the US in 1980, this time in Los Angeles. I only stayed there a year as my employer Mars Inc. wanted me to go to Chile to open up that market. It was a seminal move for me as it was in Chile that I met and married my wife. But first I needed to learn Spanish. Before I left Los Angeles I took four weeks of an immersive course at Berlitz. Their location was in Wilshire Boulevard just across the street from the Ambassador Hotel. We often went there for coffee or a sandwich. In 2005 it was demolished and has since been redeveloped as a campus known as the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, designed primarily for ethnic minority pupils with many memorials to Bobby Kennedy’s legacy.
So what is that legacy?
I have recorded his bravery in trying to deal with corruption in organised labor and crime. I have described his courage in advocating unpopular causes like civil rights and the needs of the poor. There is his central role in resolving the Cuban missile crisis. Cut down at the premature age of just 42 we can only speculate as to what he might have achieved if he’d lived. I have suggested that he would probably not have even got his party’s nomination in 1968 but what about 1972 when Nixon won 49 states against an ineffective Senator McGovern? What if it had been Bobby Kennedy fighting Nixon? While this is all speculation I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Bobby Kennedy had as much influence in death as he had in life. But in life he had achieved far more than most politicians by the time he died at the age of 42.
But there is one other thing I like to remember him for. Regular readers of my blogs will know how unhappy I am with conventional measures of Gross National Product. But Robert F. Kennedy expressed it much better than me in a speech he gave at the University of Kansas on March 18th
, 1968, less than three months before he was gunned down.
‘Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our streets in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.’[ii]