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June 5, 1968: The Last Hours of RFK

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Kennedy, live at the Ambassador Hotel, just before he was shot.  

At the same time, things were darkening in the United States. James Meredith was shot by a sniper while engaged in a lonesome march down a road in Mississippi. He lived. And I joined dozens of reporters following Martin Luther King Jr. on the intended route of Meredith’s march to Jackson, Mississippi. The following month, I was in Chicago, where a man named Richard Speck had murdered eight nurses. The next month, I was in Texas to report on a former altar boy named Charles Whitman who had carried a trunk full of rifles and ammo to the top of a tower at the university in Austin and shot sixteen people dead and wounded more than 30 others before he was killed by the police. In New York, I covered the first deaths of several people who had tried to fly like Superman from the rooftops on New York’s Lower East Side while blitzed on acid. Now heroin seemed to be everywhere in New York, and the crime rates began to soar. In October, I was off again to Asia. We were told off the record that William Westmoreland wanted troop strength to surge to 700,000. I had begun to feel on that trip that this part of the story was being written by the Evelyn Waugh who gave us Scoop.

In between, every month or so, I would speak to Kennedy on the telephone, or visit him in his apartment near the United Nations. We talked about the world and human folly and almost everything else, except Jack. Bob had that Irish gift for making laughter out of a dreadful world. Then in the fall of 1967, I moved my column to Newsday, where Bill Moyers was the publisher. I also moved my family and my books to Washington. Or more precisely, to a rented house in McLean, Virginia, not far from the Kennedys. Now we saw them both, along with the kids, and Brumus the big dog, and Freckles the smaller one. I started to look at Washington in a more sustained way. What I saw repelled me. On all sides, positions were hardening. Those who supported the war sneered at those who opposed it. Each side demonized the other. Some of the antiwar demonstrators were repulsive: self-righteous, snarling, judgmental in the worst way. The supporters of the war were repulsive in a different way, prepared to fight to the last young man. At the same time, the usual Washington hustlers kept hustling, working the lobbies of power, corrupting politicians, preventing all political movement that was not intended to put money into bank accounts. On day after day, it felt as if the country was coming apart.

Kennedy sensed this too, but was frozen. He should have been shaping a run against Lyndon Johnson. But all the political Kennedys were a combination of reform and regular Democrats. Their mother, after all, was the daughter of Honey Fitz from Boston. And it would have been a violation of all the rules to turn publicly against your own party. Kennedy also knew (as Newfield once pointed out) that Vietnam was “liberalism’s war.” Put together by liberals. Defended by liberals. Sold by liberals. Including Jack Kennedy.

A few times I ranted about where the Goddamn War was taking us.

“I know, I know,” he said, with anguish on his face, and I knew it was time to change the subject.

In the last weeks of 1967, I gave up the column and resigned from Newsday. I hated what I’d been writing, for its bitterness and darkness. I was a natural optimist, a son of Irish immigrants who had come through the Depression and the War without giving up their belief that things would soon be better. If not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow.

I had written part of a novel set in Rome, and decided that we would go to Ireland for as long as it would take to finish it. I went to tell Bob Kennedy. He kept shaking his head, saying little, holding his chin with his bony hands. “Goddamn it,” he said. “Goddamn it all to hell.”

We found a nice small house in Howth just north of Dublin, with hills behind us, and the sea a short walk from the front door. I was relieved to be away from the States and threw myself into the novel. This worked for about a week. The war would not go away. It was on the front pages of the Paris Herald Tribune and the serious British and Irish papers. It was on the Irish radio too, and the BBC. Eugene McCarthy was making his own run for the presidency now but was given no chance by the experts. In late January, Kennedy said again, very clearly, that he would not run against Lyndon Johnson.


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