1968 Twenty-five Years Ago

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On June 5, after accepting his triumph in the California primary and promising “on to Chicago” to his supporters, Robert Kennedy exited the Embassy Ballroom toward the serving pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and was shot by a young man with a .22-caliber pistol. The assailant, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, was a Jordanian by birth who later claimed that Kennedy’s strong statements in support of Israel had driven him to attack the senator. Twenty-five hours later Kennedy died in the early morning of June 6.

Reporters who had traveled with Bobby Kennedy through his clumsy, halting, and finally passionate run for the Democratic nomination in 1968 often spoke of him as the underwhelmed members of their profession seldom do: with excitement and more than a little affection. “It was not that he sought the danger,” wrote Loudon Wainwright in Life , “rather it was that he seemed very much to need the actual physical contact with great masses of people.” On college campuses women screamed for a chance to touch his hair; in Watts the wiry senator had to be held in place by three large bodyguards against the crowds surrounding his open convertible. “The smack of hands against Kennedy’s was constant,” recalled Wainwright, “and his body shook under the impacts.”

Robert Kennedy seemed to strike some nerve with nearly everyone—from youth opposed to the war to the admirers of his murdered brother the President, from critics who still called him ruthless to the young man who eventually shot him. “It frightened one to ride in the open car with him,” Theodore White wrote, “—the screaming, the ecstasy, the hands grabbing, pulling, tearing, snatching him apart. To them he was The Liberator.…His staff insisted that he cool it; they, too, were frightened by the emotions he raised.”

During the Indiana primary Kennedy rode through the streets of Gary flanked in his convertible by the town’s black mayor, Richard Hatcher, and the Slavic hometown hero Tony Zale, who had twice won the middleweight-boxing title. “The open cars rode through the white part of Gary,” recalled Jack Newfield, “and then the black part, and Kennedy said precisely the same thing to both races”—about welfare dependency and the dignity of work, about the need to be tough on crime and to negotiate an end to the war in Vietnam, and about the hopelessness of riots. “The reaction was equally enthusiastic in each half of the city.” In the California primary turnout for the Irish millionaire was greater in Watts than in Beverly Hills. “I’m going to chase Hubert’s [Humphrey’s] ass all over the country,” Kennedy bragged in private, flush with his California win. “I’ll go wherever he goes.”