By Hank Boerner
The awful memories are awakened…again.
The call came at 3:00 a.m. from my close friend and colleague at American Airlines, the late Harry Parson. I was awakened and stumbled to the phone at that wee hour in New York City in June of that fateful year, 1968.
It was very sad news he had to share: U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just won the California Democratic Party nomination for his candidacy for the presidency and was celebrating with the 2,000 supporters in the hotel’s Embassy Room.
The senator was just 48 years old. His older brother, President of the United States John F. Kennedy, was tragically slain in Dallas, Texas just five years earlier (in November 1963). The slaying of JFK cast a dark pall over the United States in the months that followed.
Now it was 1968 and more sad news.
A 23-year old Palestinian born in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and now working in the hotel kitchen in California used a .22 caliber pistol to shoot the senator several times in the head and wounded five others. That man, Sirhan Sirhan, sits in jail today.
The wound caused grievous damage to Senator Kennedy’s brain. There was no coming back.
As the senator lay on the hotel kitchen floor, one of his close friends, Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier pried the gun out of Sirhan’s grip. Rosey was a football great, a huge tackle for the Los Angeles Rams football club. Rosey and Olympian champion Rafer Johnson held the gunman down.
Senator Kennedy’s wife, Ethyl, mother to their 10 children, was with her husband. (Another child was on the way – a daughter. Rory Elizabeth, was born in December, after his death. She is a well-regarded documentary filmmaker, including Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Last Days in Vietnam.)
A devout man, he was given the Roman Catholic Church last rites and rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital where a team of surgeons worked on him for several hours. He passed in the intensive care unit a day later (at 1:44 a.m., June 6, 1968).
The media reported that night the third Kennedy brother – the youngest, Senator Teddy – was at the LAX airport and being rushed to the hospital.
The American Nation Grieved
The grief felt on his passing wide deep and wide. I stood on Fifth Avenue at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the funeral. I remember looking up at tall buildings all around and wondering if perhaps there was a shooter that would target one or more of the dignitaries outside of the massive church.
So much was unknown about the killing of the senator. And his brother, the president, was shot at a distance from a tall building in Dallas.
I returned home and watched TV in silence and sadness, as the days’ events were reviewed again and again. The train carrying the senator casket moved slowly from New York City through New Jersey, Philadelphia, Maryland, into Washington DC.
Two million people lined the route to pay respects and say goodbye. His 14 year old son Robert, Jr. moved through the train thanking people for being there and helping the family to cope with the loss.
Back in 1964, as a young reporter, I covered the former attorney general when he ran for office in New York State (he was not a resident, which caused some issues). He challenged popular, long-time Senator Kenneth Keating (Republican) and won.
He became a prominent advocate on key societal issues, including ending the war in Vietnam, human rights issues, ending poverty, addressing the needs of African-Americans and minorities, labor rights issues, and other social justice concerns.
I had numerous interactions with Senator Kennedy over the following years. In 1967 he intervened to help the Stony Brook NY Jaycees and me bring a 13 year old Montagnard to America for education. When I explained the situation, Senator Kennedy had to threaten the reluctant South Vietnamese government to let the boy come to our country – and he did that with great vigor.
That boy from the Highlands of Vietnam got to the U.S.A., got his education and today is a social counselor in Rhode Island – he is my friend, Ha Kin Lieng.
Senator Kennedy took on tough issues that were at that time – and some, still boiling in this country – such as racial discrimination, inequality, conditions in inner cities and in Appalachia, immigration, the war in Southeast Asia.
The roots of the events of 1968 are again in focus with the 50 year point reached (1968-2018). The killing of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy set the course for riots in many inner cities that year, a tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago, escalation of the war in Asia, draft protests, campus takeovers by students…and in November, the election of the right-leaning “law and order” candidate, Richard M. Nixon.
Four years later, during the 1972 campaign, D.J.R. Bruckner, writing in The Los Angeles Times, would comment on January 6, 1972: “…what is gone [now] is the popular passion for [dealing with] issues. Possibly, hope is gone. The failure of hope would be a terrible event; blacks have never been cynical about America. But conversations you hear among the young now, suggests the birth of a new cynicism.
“…you might expect young blacks to lose hope in the power elite, but this is different. A cold, personal indifference, a separation of man from man. What you hear and see is not rage, but injury, a withering of expectations…” (Bruckner was a columnist and social critic; he was on the list of President Nixon’s “enemies”.)
The Vietnam war would drag on until the last of the U.S. troops left the field in March 1973, five years after Senator Kennedy raised the issue of American involvement. Two years after that, South Vietnam would fall to the Northern communists, to become today’s “one nation”.
There has been much speculation about “what if” Robert Kennedy had become president in 1969.
Would the war have ended sooner, saving the lives of many young Americans? Would the nation have veered right socially and politically?
Would he have defeated Richard Nixon in November 1968? (The nation would have avoided Watergate and the fallout from that scandal and the diminishing trust in government.)
The Watergate scandal and Nixon resignation led to election of Governor Jimmy Carter to the presidency. With Bobby in the White House would we have seen turmoil in the Middle East (including the fall of Iran) and perhaps a lasting peace in the Holy Land? (Bobby was a tough negotiator.)
Perhaps…the civil upheaval in the U.S.A. that we see today might have followed a different course.
We can only wonder. But today, we should say a prayer in remembrance of a peacemaker, Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He is missed. He made a difference. One day another man or woman will be inspired by his example and take up the torch for social justice as Bobby did. He or she may be among us right now.
Thank you, Hank, for the detail, personality, and poignancy of these reflections!
I was on my way to adding that I’m certain I know or have known people who will someday be considered “famous“. But I don’t think I’ve much been around people for whom it was clear in that moment that they would rise to great prominence.
Sounds like you’ve had a life of both prominence and contribution, for which I thank you !
All the best, . . . Bruce
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