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June 5, 1968: The Last Hours of RFK

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After The Shots
Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, screaming, “Give him air, give him air.”  

Then, at the end of January, news came about the Tet Offensive. The Communists—North Vietnamese and Vietcong from the south—had risen everywhere in South Vietnam, including Saigon. The great Eddie Adams photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Vietcong suspect in the head on a Saigon street would appear everywhere in the world, including Ireland. My brother John, age 18, was in the Army now, somewhere near Pleiku. I listened to the BBC late into the night and in the morning sat down and wrote a letter to Kennedy.

It said:

Dear Bob:

I had wanted to write you a long letter explaining my reasons for why I thought you should make a run for the Presidency this year. But that’s too late. I read in the Irish Times this a.m. that you had made a hard announcement, and that small hope is gone, along with others that have vanished in the last four years.

I suspect that all nations have their historical moment, some moment when it all seems to have been put together as an idea: our moment was 1960–63. I don’t think it’s nostalgia working or romanticism. I think most Americans feel that way now.

The moment is gone now, and we have grown accustomed to living in a country where nobody would protest very much if Jack Valenti replaced John Gardner.

I wanted to say that the fight you might make would be the fight of honor … I wanted to say that you should run because if you won, the country might be saved … If we have LBJ for another four years, there won’t be much of a country left. I’ve heard the arguments about the practical politics which are involved. You will destroy the Democratic Party, you will destroy yourself. I say that if you don’t run, you might destroy the Democratic Party; it will end up nationally, the way it has in New York, a party filled with decrepit old bastards like Abe Beame, and young hustlers, with blue hair, trying to get their hands on highway contracts, It will be a party that says to millions and millions of people that they don’t count, that the decision of 2,000 hack pols does. They will say that idealism is a cynical joke; that hard-headed pragmatism is the rule, even if the pragmatists rule in the style of Bonnie and Clyde.

I wanted to remind you that in Watts I didn’t see pictures of Malcolm X or Ron Karenga on the walls. I saw pictures of JFK. That is your capital in the most cynical sense; it is your obligation in another, the obligation of staying true to whatever it was that put those pictures on those walls. I don’t think we can afford five summers of blood. I do know this: if a 15-year-old kid is given a choice between Rap Brown and RFK, he might choose the way of sanity. It’s only a possibility, but at least there is that chance. Give that same kid a choice between Rap Brown and LBJ, and he’ll probably reach for his revolver.

Again, forgive the tone of this letter, Bob. But it’s not about five cent cigars and chickens in every pot. It’s about the country. I don’t want to sound like someone telling someone that he should mount the white horse; or that he should destroy his career. I also realize that if you had decided to run, you would face some filthy politics, and that there are plenty of people in the country who resent or dislike you.

With all of that, I still think the move would have been worth making, and I’m sorry you decided not to make it.

I learned later, from Newfield and others, that my letter had been placed intentionally on top of a pile of unread mail by Frank Mankiewicz, Kennedy’s press secretary. He wanted Bob to read it first. Apparently, he was moved and disturbed. For weeks, he carried it around in his briefcase, showed it to others, including those who didn’t want him to run (former Jack Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen and the president’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, among others). I knew nothing of this. I kept writing my novel, often with my daughter Deirdre on my shoulder or my lap as I typed the manuscript. I finished the draft on March 13. It was a thriller about a plot to assassinate the pope.

The next day I received a telegram from Bob Kennedy. He was taking my advice, he said. He wanted me to come home and join his campaign.

I went back to New York the following day, and my wife and children followed me a few days later. Since the California primary would be the most important of all in the time that was left, we took a rented house on top of a hill in Laguna Beach. We bought some furniture and a station wagon and moved in. After the gray damp of Ireland, the kids loved it, with the view of the vast Pacific, the walls of bougainvillea, and color throbbing with life everywhere.


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