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June 5, 1968: The Last Hours of RFK

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The Fallen
Kennedy being tended to after being hit by three bullets, including one to the head. He died 26 hours later.  

I didn’t like the life as much as they did. I had never worked for a politician before and had trouble adjusting. I liked many of the people: Adam Wolinsky and Jeff Greenfield, who wrote most of the candidate’s speeches; Mankiewicz, a son of Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote most of Citizen Kane; Fred Dutton, who was intelligent and calming when things got frantic. I wrote some short speeches that Kennedy delivered in various appearances. But the work wasn’t for me. I didn’t like the sharp elbows that were part of the life. I didn’t like the raw ambition of some of the players. I can’t remember how long I lasted. Three weeks? Maybe longer.

Then I went back to work at what I did best. I covered the Kennedy campaign for the Village Voice, and worked on my novel. I wasn’t a politician. I didn’t even want to be an exclusively political journalist. I was a writer. A generalist.

From time to time, I caught up with the campaign when Kennedy came to Los Angeles. I found my way to the campaign headquarters at one hotel or another, talked with Kennedy, or Wolinsky or Greenfield, along with reporter friends, then joined the motor caravans that went to rallies. Sometimes this wasn’t easy. The mayor of Los Angeles, a character named Yorty, seemed to hate Kennedy. And refused him police protection, in a time when the Secret Service did not protect politicians who were not yet their party’s chosen candidates. His valiant police also gave campaign vehicles more than 150 tickets. Great fella.

But in some places there was near frenzy in the air. In Boyle Heights and other parts of East L.A., the Mexican-American crowds roared in two languages and tried to touch Kennedy or hug him or kiss him. They knew that he had reached out to Cesar Chavez, who ran the farmworkers union, and Dolores Huerta, another community organizer, but there seemed to be something else at play, too, in his time with Mexican-Americans. A shared fatalism, perhaps. A sense that in the end we all die. A sense of an unhealed wound they shared over the murder of Jack. I asked, in English and Spanish, but could never get a clear answer. I just knew it was there. I could see it.

Kennedy was in Indianapolis on the evening of April 4, 1968, when word came from Memphis that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Kennedy was scheduled to speak to a large crowd in what in those days was called “the inner city.” That meant black Americans. He went to the meeting, and soon realized that most of the men and women did not yet know what had happened to King. He began to speak, without a prepared script.

“I have bad news for you,” he said, “for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is—that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.”

His voice sounded wounded. His hair was loose in the darkening light.

“…In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black … you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization—black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.

“Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love…

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man…

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote, ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God…’”

It was an extraordinary speech, spontaneously finding language to console (and even quoting Aeschylus). That night and in the days that followed the murder of King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, riots fueled by rage erupted in more than 100 American cities. Indianapolis remained calm. Was that because Bob Kennedy had brought to the news a proper note of sorrow and tragedy, rather than anger? We didn’t know then, and we will never know now. But in distant California, I felt a darkness growing within me, a trembling, a kind of blurry fear. Someone had managed to kill John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Someone had managed to kill Malcolm X in the Audubon Ballroom in New York. There were millions of guns in the United States, and any idiot could buy one. And it was the convention of American political campaigns that a candidate must appear in large open places or in convertible automobiles, open to the glancing embrace of those who loved him, open to a sniper’s bullet.


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