To understand this response, the best place to start is on June 4, 1968, when California hosted a bare knuckle presidential primary that Bobby knew would determine its political future. As the polling stations stayed open until 8, the election results came slowly and differently in each network. CBS was ahead of Kennedy. NBC was less sure. But supported by unprecedented turnout and majorities in black and Mexican-American districts, Bobby scored a clear victory with 46.3 percent of the vote, compared with 41.8 percent for Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and 12 percent for unsolicited delegates. That was enough for Bobby to go on TV and quietly claim victory, and for journalists and friends who gathered across the room to start the party.
For the first time since jumping in late for the race, Bobby believed he would make it. The dream – “make way for the next leader of the free world,” he teased as he sprinted out of the hotel shower wrapped in a towel – seemed less distant after the victory in California and another that day in South Dakota. That night battle plans for the upcoming campaign were drawn up. In his adopted home, New York, there would be a determined press. A full-page ad in the New York Times would show photos of AFL-CIO chief George Meany and segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox of Georgia – both strongly against Bobby – and rhetorically asked if insiders like her could choose the next president. The candidate would next travel overseas and show his seriousness by meeting with the Pope and foreign leaders. Nobody, least of all Bobby, minimized the remaining obstacles. But he knew that the threat to McCarthy, whose sole concern was to oppose the Vietnam War, was over. The only one who could deny him the nomination was Vice President Hubert Humphrey or, as comedian and mock presidential candidate Pat Paulsen had called him the previous evening, Herbert Humphrey. “I’ll chase Herbert’s ass all over the country,” Bobby swore.
Before going anywhere, Bobby took a moment of silence. Sitting on the floor of his hotel room with his arms around his knees, he lit a victory cigar and thought. At first he wasn’t sure if he was running as Joe Kennedy’s son, Jack’s brother, or as a declared enemy of President Lyndon Johnson. He was still all that, but had found a voice of his own and two straightforward motivations: to end the war and end poverty. Either way, he told himself as the aides urged him to go to the ballroom. Legions of restless believers sang “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s ballad that Bobby had promised to make America’s anthem.
His farewell speech began with a reference to Don Drysdale, the ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers, “who put up his sixth straight shutout tonight, and I hope we’re just as lucky in our campaign.” (Bobby was one of the few men in America who didn’t really know who the future Hall of Famer was.) Then he got serious: “I think we can end the divisions within the United States. . . be it between blacks and whites, between poor and wealthy, between age groups or about the war in Vietnam. “The crowd loved it and shouted” Bobby Power! ” He ended on another light note and said, “Mayor Yorty just sent me a message that we have been here too long. So thanks to all of you and on to Chicago and let’s win there. ”He put his thumb up and then flashed the V for Victory sign, then turned to go to a reception on a lower one Level to go followed by a press conference.
But the plans had changed. Aides chose to skip the reception and go straight to the press conference where reporters were eager to submit their stories. The shortest route was the route he had come in, through the swinging doors of the waiters and into the kitchen and pantry. Under pressure from the crowd, Bobby was separated from ex-FBI agent Bill Barry, his dedicated and lonely bodyguard who helped Kennedy’s pregnant wife, Ethel, off the podium. Nobody worried as the candidate was among friends, with a busboy grabbing his hand while a group of reporters, photographers and helpers followed. Past the rusty ice machine, 10 meters from the media room, a young man with curly hair in a light blue sweatshirt was standing unnoticed on a low tray stacker waiting for it to be opened. It was just after midnight and Andrew West, a reporter for the Mutual Radio Network, asked Bobby about his plans to catch up with Humphrey’s head of delegation. Bobby: “It just goes back to the fight for it. . . “
That was how far he had come. The gunman stepped out of hiding, reached straight ahead with his right arm, and began firing a .22 caliber revolver. A single shot was followed by a volley – pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. How many shots were fired at what distance and at what angle would turn into scraps for another conspiracy mill for an assassination attempt. Bobby staggered against the ice machine, then sank to the floor and was face up on the dirty concrete floor. He was conscious, eyes wide, as blood oozed from behind his right ear. “Is everybody fine?” he whispered. The busboy, Juan Romero, put a rosary in Bobby’s hand and tried to cushion his head when Ethel pleaded with the urging crowd to “give him room to breathe.” Then she turned to her husband and said quietly, “I’m with you, my baby.” The scene was chaos. “Get the gun,” pleaded West, the radio operator. “You monster! You will die for this!” Yelled a kitchen worker from his place on the steam table. The only one who looked relaxed was Bobby himself – “a kind of sweet, accepting smile on his face,” recalled the journalist and Kennedy- Friend Pete Hamill, “as if he knew it would all end like this.”
The paramedics finally arrived, and as the ambulance drove away, campaign workers sobbed and prayed while a tall man hit a hotel pillar with his bloody right fist, shouting questions that echoed across America, “Why, God, why? Why again? Why another Kennedy? “
The next 25 hours were one hell of a whirlwind. Police, who showed up at the hotel about fifteen minutes after the shooting, quickly gathered evidence that the shooter was a 24-year-old Palestinian by the improbable name of Sirhan Sirhan who hated Israel and hated the Kennedys for targeting Israel support. His rampage wounded five others along with Bobby, whose wounds were recognized as life-threatening from the start. Friends rounded up the children. 12-year-old son David, who had always feared to death that his father would be shot like Uncle Jack, learned from television on election night that his nightmare had come true. Kerry, who was only 8 years old, woke up early the next morning to watch Bugs Bunny; “A flash of news broke the cartoon,” she recalled. “That’s how I found out that my father was shot.”
The next morning at two o’clock, campaign spokesman Frank Mankiewicz appeared in the media room across from the hospital with the announcement that everyone feared. “Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died today, June 6, 1968, at 1:44 am … He was 42 years old.” Back at the Ambassador Hotel, a red rose marked the spot on the bloodstained pantry floor where the Senator was felled. On the wall above was a hand-written cardboard sign that might have been hung for weeks but now seemed particularly appropriate: “The King of Yesterday and the Future”.
53 years later, the question still arises: Bobby was never king, but could he have been? Research I’ve done for my biography of this iconic Kennedy convinces me the answer is a resounding yes.
This evidence begins with what Bobby really meant that night when he said “on to Chicago”. Journalists and almost everyone else assumed he was referring to the Democratic Congress that summer in the Windy City, but this final progressive icon was a masterful political maestro and he wouldn’t wait until August. What he was actually signaling was that he wanted to stop in Chicago on his way east from Los Angeles and quietly meet with Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was supposed to help Jack Kennedy win the White House eight years ago. “I would say there is a 70 percent chance he would support him,” says Bill Daley, son of the legendary mayor and chief of staff of President Obama, who was privy to the event and told me about the planned rendezvous. “Then the momentum would have shifted to where other people like my father who were left would have found it difficult not to go there.”
Bobby knew that Humphrey wasn’t counting on top voters, but on kingmakers like Daley to nominate him as a candidate. I think RFK was right to turn the vice president’s plans upside down and nail the nomination for himself. Daley would lure other Democratic leaders into the Kennedy camp and justify the move by pointing to Bobby’s huge lead over Humphrey among actual voters. The party would then unite behind a Kennedy-Humphrey ticket, much like it had done four years earlier behind former adversaries JFK and LBJ. And Congress in Chicago would not have had any of the angry left-wing unrest that doomed Humphrey’s campaign and resulted in a bitter third-party bid from George Wallace, who received 13.5 percent of the vote in an election that narrowly left Nixon Humphrey behind 0.7 percent.
This isn’t the conventional version of the story of what would have come next, but it’s the reading of important insiders from back then. “Had Bobby lived,” said Humphrey, “there would have been a Democrat in the White House.” And that night in the California primary, Nixon told his family, “It sure looks like we’re going to play against Bobby.” Nixon knew that it was even more Bobby than Jack who orchestrated the Kennedy victory over him in 1960, and that none better than Bobby was able to answer Nixon and Wallace when it came to crime fighting and recovery of the social safety net goes to a trampoline.
Michael Harrington pondered this and more as he looked out the window of the twenty-one-car train that carried Robert F. Kennedy’s body from his funeral in New York to his funeral in Washington on that sticky Saturday afternoon in June 1968. Girl Scouts lined the Penn Central Tracks next to Little Leaguers. Factory workers stood next to rag pickers and nuns, stretching on tiptoe to see. Husbands hugged sobbing wives. They arrived in yellow pick-up trucks and boat flotillas, wearing Bermuda shorts and curlers, and throwing roses. Outside Newark, three firefighters saluted from the deck of their ship, the John F. Kennedy. There were marching bands, police bands, school bands and Catholic music bands. Hands were folded in prayer or held over hearts, hats off.
It was Bobby’s America and Harrington couldn’t help but stare at him. “Every time I did this, I started to cry. The sad faces along the way were a reflection of my own feelings, ”said the author, whose writings helped start the war on poverty, and who saw Bobby as“ the man who could actually have changed the course of American history “. Those who sat in the cars with him – old and new school politicians, intellectuals and trade unionists, blacks, Irish, Chicano and Jewish citizens – were, according to Harrington, “the administration of Robert Kennedy that will never … be.”