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June 5, 1968: The Last Hours of RFK

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The Shock
Writers Jimmy Breslin, far right, and Budd Schulberg, center, shortly after the shooter, Sirhan Sirhan, had been subdued.  

In the days before the California primary, I traveled with the Kennedy campaign, writing for the Voice. I witnessed passion for Kennedy in many places, and passion against him. The Mexican-Americans loved him openly, without shame or embarrassment. As did the blacks we interviewed. The McCarthy people, most of them university kids, were more given to open rage, a kind of snarling middle-class radicalism paid for by Daddy, Kropotkins with credit cards. After leaving one California college (in Van Nuys), the Kennedy cars were pelted furiously with stones and bottles, most of which missed and caused other cars to swerve in jerky ways. Hitting the candidate would have been a lot easier with a rifle. The right-wing haters were quieter, more sullen, more ominous, standing with arms folded or jammed in pockets, waiting. Waiting.

And each night now, in the hour after midnight, when my wife and my daughters were asleep, I would lie in the dark thinking about the violent possibilities. Sometimes I would whisper the line from William Butler Yeats: “What made us dream that he could comb gray hair?”

On the afternoon of June 4, Primary Day, my brother Brian was going to drive the two of us north from Laguna Beach to watch the events in Los Angeles. As we pulled out onto Blue Bird Canyon Drive, my daughter Adriene, then 5, began to run after us, frantically calling “Daddy, Daddy, don’t go, Daddy.” Brian pulled over and stopped and I got out, and hugged her, and squatted down to look in her glistening brown eyes. She couldn’t explain why she was so afraid. I told her I had to go, that I was working, but I’d be back tonight, no matter what, and tomorrow we’d go to the beach. I walked her back to the house, holding her hand, until we saw her sister, then 3, who also looked anxious but said nothing. Their mother came out and took their hands. I kissed them each, and went back to the car. I kept waving until I couldn’t see them any more, but they added an ominous note to the unfolding day.

In Beverly Hills, we picked up Budd Schulberg and his wife, the actress Geraldine Brooks. We were all friends. Schulberg had founded the Watts Writers’ Workshop after the riots of 1965, and before that had written a screenplay based on Kennedy’s book about labor-union corruption, The Enemy Within. Schulberg was a passionate Kennedy supporter. He was also a true son of Hollywood (his father, B. P. Schulberg, ran Paramount Pictures when Budd was young) and remembered with fondness and laughter the times when the biggest stars flocked to the Cocoanut Grove, the fabled nightclub that was once part of the Ambassador. Then Brian parked the car and we all went into the lobby, glanced at the crowded Embassy Ballroom, where Kennedy would eventually make a speech about victory or defeat, and then took the elevator up to the fifth floor.

By 11 p.m., it seemed clear that Kennedy had won California, a huge triumph that would erase the comparatively minor shame of defeat in Oregon. Now we were in Kennedy’s own room: Schulberg, Brian, Cesar Chavez, Newfield, Breslin. I remember squatting with my back against a wall. Kennedy was on the floor, back to a sofa, one arm resting on a raised knee, the other leg stretched out. Others came and went. Frank Mankiewicz handed him a sheet of paper. Maybe words for a speech. Maybe more results. The TV set was on, the sound off, showing Kennedy ahead. Most people had glasses in their hands. Beer. Harder stuff. Soft drinks.

The mood was light, almost giddy. Kennedy smiled and smiled, and laughed out loud at Breslin’s interminable New York joking. Then someone said, glancing at a watch, that it was time to go down. Kennedy stood up, buttoned his cuffs and his collar, went into the bathroom. Everybody else was standing now. Some went back to the larger room across the hall where television might offer a better view. Kennedy came out of the men’s room. He had combed his hair and donned a jacket. He was smiling broadly.

“Let’s go down,” he said.

I was pushed with others to the small bandstand where Kennedy would talk. I was beside George Plimpton in the back row. There were drapes behind us, and we both tried opening them and discovered there was no wall behind the drapes. It was about a two-foot fall. “For God’s sake,” Plimpton warned everyone else, “don’t lean on the drapes.” Kennedy arrived, Ethel beside him, and moved to the microphone. He could see hundreds of red and blue balloons rising toward the gilded panels of the ceiling and the three immense chandeliers. Young women wearing plastic Kennedy boaters were chanting, but in the general din, I couldn’t hear the words. I counted eleven television cameras aimed at the stage, and more still photographers, including my brother Brian, moving through the sweaty human stew. Kennedy began speaking.


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