The last we saw Robert Francis Kennedy he was a 42-year-old presidential candidate a half century ago. One-twentieth of a millennium. Yet the light of his memory still shines.
Most of the world’s population cannot remember back to June 4, 1968, a day that started for Kennedy with a tragedy averted only to culminate in his own slaying just after midnight.
That harrowing day began while staying at Hollywood Director John Frankenheimer’s Malibu beach home. Kennedy, his 12-year-old son David, and three-year-old son Max played at the surf’s edge. David went for a chilly swim in the ocean and became submerged and trapped by a ripping undertow. His father dashed to the shore and dove head-long under the turbulent waves to rescue his son from drowning. Both emerged from the ocean scraped and bruised by the sea’s bottom and the Pacific’s torrent, but tragedy was forestalled.
Frankenheimer, fully experienced in makeup, touched up Kennedy’s forehead before the candidate appeared later in front of the press and national television cameras.
Kennedy’s grueling presidential campaign was in full swing as he watched the results come in from the California primary. It would be a huge victory for the New York senator, and the celebration would be hosted at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. His victory speech was full of vigor, humor and enthusiasm. The all-important Democratic National Convention in Chicago loomed, and Kennedy was emboldened, urging his followers forward: “Now, it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.”
The crushing crowd of the hotel’s Embassy Room continued to swell as the victorious candidate was led down a ramp through double doors of a kitchen. Fifteen minutes after midnight, between the ice machine and stainless steel warming tables, gunfire sounded in rapid pops. Kennedy was struck four times (including a graze) by.22 caliber bullets fired by a 24-year-old Palestinian. Supposedly disgruntled over Kennedy’s vow of support of Israel following the senator’s speech at a Polish synagogue a week earlier, the assassin emptied his gun, wounding five other people in attendance.
Just two months after spontaneously addressing a stunned crowd in Indianapolis right after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, Robert Kennedy himself would be felled by a lone assassin. The tumult of 1968 had hit a crescendo as the Vietnam War raged on and body bags filled with American soldiers continued.
Many historians suggest that this Spring of 1968 was the lowest point in the nation’s collective psyche since the Civil War. Civil Rights progress was disrupted dramatically with the two assassinations, and the prospect of an everlasting war in Indochina seemed assured. The country was coming apart at the seams, it seemed, as racial riots and mass marches were ubiquitous.
The Democratic National Convention that followed Kennedy’s assassination 12 weeks later demonstrated the rift in the country more so than any other event. Anti-war demonstrators clashed with Chicago police and national guardsmen at Chicago’s Grant Park, Michigan Avenue and around the International Amphitheatre in full view of a national television audience.
Kennedy’s long, crawling funeral train that carried his coffin from New York to Washington, D.C. on June 8 recalls Abraham Lincoln’s rail journey more than 100 years before. Thousands of mourners lined the tracks wishing to bid a final farewell to the man who most embodied representation for the poor, under-privileged and disenfranchised.
Always fond of literature and poetry, Robert Kennedy liked to attribute George Bernard Shaw’s words to his own ideals. Many Kennedy speeches included his vision: “Some people see things as they are and say, why. I dream things that never were and say, why not.”
Robert Kennedy’s public service certainly evolved through the years. He began his career in Washington as Chief Counsel of the Senate Labor Rackets Committee where he battled the likes of Jimmy Hoffa and other underworld characters. He left the committee to run his brother’s presidential campaign, when he enhanced his own image as a loyal, ruthless, determined organizer.
After being named United States Attorney General, RFK again turned his attention to battling rampant organized crime, ameliorating the injustice of segregation and addressing widespread poverty in this country. He was a leading catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement and served as President Kennedy’s most trusted and valuable advisor on domestic and global concerns.
It was Robert Kennedy’s sage advice that helped defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962 which threatened the entire world with nuclear warfare.
Kennedy, father to 11 children, was a man of great patience and compassion. He identified and empathized with those who suffered from poverty or illness or oppression despite growing up in a family of exorbitant wealth. He went out into the streets of Mississippi to see close up the impoverished people who had no political voice. Bobby learned people’s sorrows firsthand, whether it was in the slums of America or the apartheid of South Africa, and he took their suffering to heart.
He stood by the side of Civil Rights leaders when it was time for the nation to re-write its policies on segregation and prejudice. He was a primary agent of change that enabled the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to reach fruition.
It was Robert Kennedy who joined sides with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union to give farmers and migrant workers representation and voice as they struggled with low pay, dehumanizing treatment and poor working conditions.
And, of course, he built his political platform around ending the Vietnam War, which waged on nearly five years after his death.
Brother Ted Kennedy in St. Patrick’s Cathedral eulogized his slain brother in understated words that Robert himself might have chosen.
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it; saw suffering and tried to heal it; saw war and tried to stop it.”
Five decades have passed since Robert Francis Kennedy was taken away, and sadly, we haven’t seen the likes of him since.