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June 5, 1968: The Last Hours of RFK

The Aftermath
A campaign worker standing in the spot where Kennedy fell.  

“I’d like to express my high regard for Don Drysdale,” he said. The great Dodger pitcher had just won his sixth straight shutout, and the room roared. Kennedy smiled broadly and said: “I hope we have his support in this campaign.” He thanked the football player Rosey Grier and the decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, who were indeed part of his campaign. He thanked the Democratic boss Jesse Unruh, who was given timid cheers, and Cesar Chavez, who got huge cheers, and then thanked the staff and the volunteers and the voters, and the ballroom crowd cheered mightily for all of them. The California victory was not definitive. The nomination would have to be settled now in August, at the Democratic convention in Chicago. But if Kennedy had lost in California, he would have been finished.

“I thank all of you,” he was saying now. “Mayor Yorty just sent a message that we have been here too long already.” Loud laughter. “So my thanks to all of you and now it’s on to Chicago … ”

Kennedy thrust a thumb in the air, brushed his hair, made a V with the fingers of his right hand. The crowd was chanting now. “We want Bobby! We want Bobby! We want Bobby!” Plimpton and I went down three steps off the side of the stage, through a gauntlet of Kennedy volunteers and brown-uniformed private security guards. We turned left. At the other end of the stage, people turned right. On to Chicago. On to Chicago …

We entered a long grungy area called the pantry. I would write later that it was the sort of place where Puerto Ricans, blacks, and Mexicans usually worked to fill white stomachs. Fluorescent ceiling lights, bare sandy-colored concrete floors, pale dirty walls. A rusting ice machine. Shelves filled with dirty glasses. Through an archway to the left, we could see the main kitchen. A small group of Mexican-American cooks and busboys waited for Kennedy. To shake his hand. To murmur about luck, and thank him for coming. Against the left wall, three steel serving carts stood end to end. At the far end of the long pantry, two doors led to an improvised pressroom where Kennedy would speak to the press about the primary.

Kennedy moved slowly into the area, shaking hands, with people from the stage behind him, at the head of a platoon of reporters, photographers, campaign staffers, TV men, and the curious. I was walking backward, facing Kennedy, scribbling notes. I saw him turn to his left to shake hands with a smiling young Mexican man (we learned later that his name was Juan Romero). From the Embassy Room we could still hear chants.

“We want Bobby. We want—”

Then a cruel messenger arrived. Curly-haired. Pockmarked face. In a pale-blue sweatshirt. Blue jeans. His right foot was forward. His right arm was straight out. He was firing a gun.

A ferocious brawling moment: Grier, Plimpton, Rafer, Schulberg, me. Others. All of us trying to get the gun. The pockmarked young man still firing, so that some people behind Kennedy were hit in the legs. Then the gun was out of the man’s hand, and he was being lifted, slammed onto the line of steam tables, dragged toward the exit to the pressroom, someone yelling, “Don’t kill him, don’t kill him, no Jack Ruby!”

And there was Kennedy on the floor, at the foot of the ice machine, his eyes open, a kind of sweet accepting smile on his face, as if he knew it would all end this way. There was blood on the fingers of his right hand, and blood on his chest, so I thought he had been shot just below the neck. But because his head had been turned to say hello to Juan Romero, the first shot hit him behind the right ear and his hand brushed reflexively at the wound as he crumpled to the floor.

Ethel came to comfort him, and seemed to know that he was forever beyond comfort. Juan Romero came to him too, as shown in the extraordinary photographs Bill Eppridge made in that awful pantry. My notes told me later that Kennedy was shot at 12:10, and was carried out of that grubby kitchen at 12:32. It seemed a lot longer.

Brian and I ran outside the hotel. A large enraged black man was heaving chairs into the swimming pool. Another was punching a hotel pillar with a bloody right fist. Weeping Kennedy volunteers were all around us. We kept hearing a single word, repeated in many variations. Why? Why? In my own head, I blamed some dark hole in American life, but I was wrong. The origins of this killing—for Bob was sure to die in a matter of hours—lay in the Middle East. The gunman was a Palestinian immigrant named Sirhan Sirhan. He was 24. His rage was fueled by the Six-Day War the previous year and by Kennedy’s support for the sale of jet fighters to Israel. The motives didn’t truly matter. The crucial fact was simpler: He was able to get a gun. Brian and I drove to the Good Samaritan Hospital, where Kennedy was dying in a room on a high floor.

Early in the morning, Brian drove south in the California night. I dozed and felt sick. When we came through the canyon into Laguna Beach, I could see the colors of the sky warming as the sun pushed over the mountains. Flocks of birds were rising from the darkness. We reached the house and I went in and turned on the television set and looked at the latest bulletins. I sat facing the set and the sea. Brian and I drank some whiskey and then he went off to sleep. I looked up and saw my daughter, Adriene, staring at me in a baffled way. My face must have been a ruin. She came over to me, tears in her eyes, and touched my face. I started to weep for her, for her sister, for my Irish parents, for my friends, for America. Out there. Sea to shining sea. I held her tight, wondering what would become of all of us.

This essay is excerpted from the introduction to the forthcoming book A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties, photographs and text by Bill Eppridge, published by Abrams. Copyright © 2008 by Pete Hamill.