Robert F. Kennedy: November 20, 1925 – June 6, 1968

Today is June 6. Many people will remember the events of that day in 1944, and rightfully so … although for most of us that is a matter of memory now, brought to us through newsreels, films, interviews, and even video games.

I can recall reflecting on the anniversary of D-Day as a child, but it was already part of history (even if it was very recent history … closer to me then than Desert Shield and Storm are to me now). But it was 1968 when I realized in a way I had never understood before how history was unfolding before my eyes. Eugene McCarthy’s presidential candidacy … the Tet Offensive … LBJ’s decision not to run … the assassination of Martin Luther King … the Prague Spring … peace talks and table shapes in Paris … the new Nixon … the Chicago convention … the Soviets rolling into Prague … the presidential election … Apollo 8 … it’s all fresh in my memory, reinforced by personal experiences that brought me even closer to some of these events.

I had some cause to reflect on 1968 during my time in Europe these past two weeks, spent in Paris and Prague. As in 1968, there were riots in Paris; as I walked the streets of Prague, I remembered Alexander Dubček and the promise of democracy that was crushed … but only for a generation … by Soviet tanks in August (now you know why Boston Bruins forward Jaromir Jagr wears #68).

But yesterday and today I’m reflecting on another event that left a lasting impression on a certain ten-year-old boy: the assassination and death of Robert F. Kennedy.

You see, Robert F. Kennedy was my senator in 1968 as well as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president that year. Although I had followed at great distance the presidential election of 1964, I was very much engaged in tracking politics during 1968. My dream contest would have pitted Kennedy against New York governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.

I didn’t follow Bobby Kennedy because he was the brother of a late president. Nor did I then understand much about the road that brought him to 1968. What I saw was someone who was trying to understand what was going on and trying the deal with the challenges before him, and that was enough. I had heard much about how a torch had been passed to a new generation, but LBJ seemed part of a previous generation, as did French president Charles de Gaulle, who was dealing with his own troubles in 1968. Bobby Kennedy seemed to me to be part of the present and the future. And so I went to bed on the night of June 4, 1968, aware that the fate of Kennedy’s presidential bid rested on whether he would capture the California primary.

On the morning of June 5, 1968, both of my parents came into my bedroom to wake me up. This was terribly unusual. Both of them, dedicated Republicans, had somber looks on their faces. They knew of my interest in politics, and they had something to tell me. Bobby Kennedy had been shot, just monents after declaring victory in California. Right now he was fighting for his life in a hospital.

Reflecting on this moment some forty-five years later, I remain touched that my parents chose to break the news to me as they did. They knew of my interest in politics and my admiration for Kennedy (an admiration I don’t think they shared, at least not to the same degree).

June 5 proved a long day, with reports coming in about the senator’s struggle to live. Early on the morning of June 6, that struggle ceased as Kennedy passed away.

I remember well the events of the next several days, as Kennedy’s body was taken to New York, then rode the rails to Washington before being interred at Arlington a short distance from where his brother had been buried nearly five years before. Edward Kennedy’s eulogy (above) remains a moving tribute.

In years to come, I learned more and more about Kennedy, and not everything sat well with me. Such is usually the case with childhood heroes (see Mickey Mantle). And yet I never lost the feeling of inspiration that Kennedy had helped ignite within me, or the way in which he reflected on the deeper meanings of politics, society, and life. For that, I ask that you recall a eulogy that he gave, on the spot, just two months before he was shot:

Bobby, we hardly knew ye.

19 thoughts on “Robert F. Kennedy: November 20, 1925 – June 6, 1968

  1. Bummer June 6, 2013 / 8:27 am

    Still reeling from the previous assassinations of JFK and MLK, glued to the TV watching RFK give his victory speech at the Ambassador Ballroom in Los Angeles. Hopes and dreams, of a better tomorrow shattered in an instant. Only one national leader has solidified the country since 1968 and there doesn’t appear to be another in the near future. Here’s to the best and the brightest!

    Bummer

  2. Robert June 6, 2013 / 8:41 am

    The assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy was the closing bracket of the major political assassinations of the 1960’s; the opening bracket was the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy–the pivotal event in American and even World History since 1945. The assassinations of Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King were the intervening events.

    With RFK”s death, the national security state had eliminated its major enemies and secured a American Presidency as its territory, subject to influence of players such as the industrial-financial complex. Especially with JFK’s death it meant that Israel would be assured of uncritical and generous American support.

    Of course, the rest of us have not done so well since then.

    RIP: President John F. Kennedy;
    RIP: Senator Robert F. Kennedy
    RIP: USA

  3. Buck Buchanan June 6, 2013 / 9:31 am

    Brooks,

    I too shared your love of politics at a young age…my parents were committed Democrats from South Boston and there were ALWAYS a photo of JFK and the Pope on the wall of our front hallway….no matter where we live.

    I lived in Buffalo at the time of Bobby’s shooting and can recall the shock I felt when I went to do my paper route on 5 June 1968 and the headliens screaming about the shooting.

    I walked into the house after ripping through my route as fast as I could and handing the paper to Dad. He had already heard…we sat down together at the kitchen table together and cried. In school that day Sister Dorothy Claire brought a television intot eh room and we watched updates all day.

    Nice rememberance.

  4. Louis Burklow June 6, 2013 / 10:57 am

    Like you, Brooks, I remember Bobby Kennedy’s death through the eyes of a little boy. I was not quite 6 and just making sense of the wider world. I already knew how to read and remember looking over and over at the Nashville Tennessean (the morning paper) my father brought home with the news the day between the shooting and his death. I think it was hard on my parents trying to answer their son’s questions when it couldn’t have made much sense to them either.

  5. Michael Confoy June 6, 2013 / 11:43 am

    I was a year younger and watching his speech on CBS. Why? Mainly because there were only 3 or 4 TV channels to choose from! I saw though whole thing and was quite traumatized. Even today when I go to Arlington National Cemetery to JFK’s and his grave, when I read RFK’s words I cannot stop tears from coming to my eyes.

    “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice. He sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.”

    “Aeschylus…wrote, “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’ What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness; but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

  6. M.D. Blough June 6, 2013 / 12:12 pm

    Robert F. Kennedy was the last political candidate I ever loved. I never thought he was a saint, even when I was 17, which is what I was when he died. I responded to the man who went through a crucible when his brother was assassinated that left him an original in American politics. In today’s politics where everything is managed and analyzed with focus groups, he’d not fit in at all.

    I’m glad you included the Martin Luther King eulogy but it also should be remembered that it was given to a crowd, many of whom had not gotten the word yet. It was given against security advice and, as you said, was given off the cuff. It’s the only known occasion when he spoke publicly about his brother’s assassination. Indianapolis, where he gave it, was one of the few major cities that didn’t explode after King’s assassination. I know the rough spots in his career, not just the rumors but the one’s that are proven, but I also remember him touring the poorest areas of Mississippi when there were no votes to be gained in it and lovingly holding the very poorest of the children.As Evan Thomas said in his biography of Kennedy, “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.”” I think he learned and he grew. I remember the crowds lining the railroad tracks as his funeral train passed and how those crowds were made up of all races and ethnicities and across the economic spectrum.

    Thank you for so movingly remembering Robert F. Kennedy.

  7. Ethan Rafuse June 6, 2013 / 8:11 pm

    In a triumph of hope over despair, TIME Magazine selected Borman, Lovell, and Anders as its men of the year for 1968.

    • SF Walker June 7, 2013 / 7:59 am

      That was a good move on TIME’s part. Once NASA got back on its feet after the setback of the Apollo 1 fire, it became a reliable source for good news from 1968 through the end of the lunar missions. Truly amazing, since all that technology had to be invented as they went along—going to the Moon proved that the USA could still do something together and succeed.

      • John Foskett June 7, 2013 / 1:31 pm

        I remember watching the broadcast of that flight. If I recall correctly, it was Christmas Eve and Jim Lovell delivered an inspiring message, including reading from Genesis. For some reason, with all of the other big events which came into our living rooms in the mid-late ’60’s, that left as lasting an impression on me as any.

        • SF Walker June 9, 2013 / 5:52 am

          You saw the Apollo 8 broadcast on live TV? I’m envious–that was two years before I was born, but both my parents were big fans of the space program; they got to see it, as well as the later missions that landed on the Moon.

          Can you imagine what it must have been like for Lovell, Borman, and Anders to have been the first people to see the lunar surface in person from only 60 nm away? I believe all three astronauts took turns reading from Genesis that day. I loved Tom Hanks’ “From the Earth to the Moon” on HBO; he did a really good job on the Apollo 8 installment, showing it in the context of all the tragic events of 1968.

  8. Pat Young June 7, 2013 / 5:03 am

    I too was a ten year old Long Island boy when he was killed. I remember going to class at St. Brigid’s Catholic School the next day and the other kids saying “You see, a Catholic can’t be President.”

  9. Norm Crosby June 7, 2013 / 5:23 am

    One of my Professors at U Mass, Sheldon Stern, was with RFK that night in Indianapollis. He said Kennedy’s speech was the most amazing thing he ever witnessed in a campaign, and that no other white man in America could have given it, or brought peace to a potentially explosive situation. It was something he always remembered.

    In my classroom there are two large posters that hang on the wall over my desk: Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. I often think of RFK as the last best hope of the last best hope of mankind.

    Thank you Brooks for your remembrances.

  10. John Hennessy June 7, 2013 / 9:53 am

    1968 is why I encourage my kids and young people to be aware–to know something about the world. Like Brooks, I was a boy (nine) in 1968, the product of an Irish-Catholic family from Boston with real connections to the Kennedys (I suppose most Boston families of the time made that claim, but my uncle worked for the Kennedys in the 1960s). In June 1968, I was finishing 4th grade at Foxhill Elementary School in Bowie, MD (a dreadful contrast to my small-town Massachusetts birthplace near Worcester). I was completely absorbed by the space program and scared witless by the rioting tearing through American cities. From the hill at the end of my street in Bowie, we could see the smoke rising over Washington. I was sure the riots in nearby Columbia would spread to Filbert Lane. (I was also, by the way, virtually certain that I would not live to adulthood because the soviets would kill us all with nuclear bombs).

    My experience was much like Brooks’s (despite the fact that I was raised in a civilized world, while he was raised on Long Island). I remember my mother waiting for me in the kitchen as I came downstairs for breakfast. She stood at the counter and told me that Bobby Kennedy had been shot. I was aware enough to know this was a big deal…but I knew not what to do with it. I walked to school and stopped by Bobby Amaruso’s house to pick him up. I asked him if he had heard. He had. I remember being glad of that.

    During the funeral procession, I recall vividly the scene on TV as the procession stopped in front of the Lincoln Memorial and the Marine Corps Band played the Battle Hymn of the Republic from the steps. The scene gave me chills–I think even made me cry. Somehow in that 4th grader that scene germinated an interest in history. Lincoln…the song…the world’s turmoil…and RFK–from that point on, I was always interested in history and the world.

    There is a special power in things that happen to children 8-12 years old–be it exposure to a sports team, a place, or a moment. I find in my life any number of interests, inclinations, or habits that I can trace directly to that time.

  11. rcocean June 8, 2013 / 8:07 pm

    Sad that the man was killed by a Palestinian, Bobby was a strong supporter of Israel and the 1965 immigration reform act. In the case, of Sirhan Sirhan it resulted in an assassination. And a tragedy that a wealthy man who devoted himself to public service – instead a life of ease – was killed, just like his brother JFK, and his brother Joe, (KIA in WW II).

    • Robert June 8, 2013 / 9:23 pm

      You understand that Sirhan could not possibly have shot Senator Kennedy as he was never behind him and the autopsy conclusively demonstrated that RFK was shot from behind?

      How was Joe Kennedy’s death in WW2 at all like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy?

      Ok-I hate to believe that you think Lee Harvey Oswald did it?

    • Pat Young June 10, 2013 / 8:41 am

      rcocean, my understanding is that Sirhan came to the US years before the passage of the 1965 immigration act.

  12. rcocean June 9, 2013 / 5:55 pm

    “How was Joe Kennedy’s death in WW2 at all like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy?”

    What was your score on the SAT reading comprehension test?

    Just wondering.

    • Robert June 9, 2013 / 8:59 pm

      I had a 1400 score on the verbal part of the SAT, you dork. What is your point beside that on top of your head?

      Are you implying Joe could have avoided service in WW2? I know you are not happy that I called you on your bogus ideas about the assassination of Sen. Kennedy.

      There is, although you did not think of it, a valid comparison between the two deaths-they both died defending their country-one from an alien government and the other from its own government.

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