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RFKennedy: Bobby, as We Knew Him

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On June 5, 1968—the night of the California presidential primary—Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot at age 42 in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. One of the images of that momentous year is still vivid: Bobby working a campaign crowd, his jacket off, tie askew, sleeves rolled up. Again and again he would reach down into the sea of outstretched arms, even though his cuff links quickly disappeared and his hands were soon bloody. “The last time I shook hands with him, I remember thinking of the stigmata,” says California Assemblyman Tom Hayden. “His hands reminded me of someone who had been crucified.”

But Bobby was no plaster saint. The rich man’s son, the cocky young lawyer who underwent a sea change during his brief public life—learning hard lessons of compassion, compromise and irony from his brother’s death and the country’s deep conflicts—remained a complex, often difficult person. Below, and on the following pages, some of the people who knew him best share their memories of a man who left them wiser and sadder.

The Schoolboy

I met Bobby at Milton Academy in 1942 when we were assigned to the same dormitory. He was not liked by everyone at the school because he didn’t care about fitting in and going along with the crowd. A guy would tell a dirty joke, and Bobby wouldn’t laugh. He was a bit prudish. Other boys snickered about sex and masturbation. Bobby said there were more important things to talk about, and he’d turn his back and walk away. I was impressed.

When we were at Milton, Bobby took out an English girl named Jane Hodges. Bobby and I both liked her, but he was quicker about it than I was. One day we were thinking about going over to her dorm for tea, but Bobby said we shouldn’t—we had schoolwork to do. This seemed sensible, so I went to the library. Later, when I came home, in walked Bobby, his hair soaking wet. He was smiling. He’d been out in the rain, walking around with Jane. He loved that one-upmanship.

—Samuel Adams (childhood friend, now a Boston attorney)

The Attorney General

At first, I shared the conventional wisdom that Bobby was a rich, pushy, know-it-all kid. The moment of truth for me came when I was working on one of my first big investigative pieces. It was on Igor Cassini, who was “Cholly Knickerbocker,” the most powerful society gossip columnist in the country. I had uncovered information that Igor was an agent for Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator. The Cassinis were very close to the Kennedys—his brother, Oleg, designed clothes for Jackie—and I felt, since we were becoming friends, that I had to tell Bobby what I was discovering. I told him everything that was going to be in the piece. Bobby didn’t try to prevent me from doing the story in any way, even though the White House tried to get the story killed.

The point is that Bobby Kennedy went ahead and indicted Cassini, who pleaded no contest and lost the column. Sometime later, when the case came up in conversation, Bobby said, “God knows that was the last case I was looking to prosecute. But what’s right is right.”—Peter Maas (friend and author of The Valachi Papers)

Bobby knew that people were calling him ruthless. It amused him. I remember at one point someone characterized him as “a vicious little monster.” Bobby laughed and told me to tell him, “I’m not so little.”—John Seigenthaler (aide to RFK at the Justice Department, now publisher of the Nashville Tennessean)

During the New Frontier, Robert Kennedy established a brilliant group in the Department of Justice and, after a hesitant start, became a leader in the struggle for racial justice and equal rights. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was then a national idol, and his obsession was the pursuit of Communists. Kennedy thought this nonsense. “The American Communist party,” he told a newspaperman, “couldn’t be more feeble and less of a threat. And besides, its membership consists largely of FBI agents.” Against Hoover’s will, Robert Kennedy forced him to divert agents and budget into two new fields of activity—organized crime and racial justice.

But the Department of Justice was only part of Robert Kennedy’s work. “Management, in Jack Kennedy’s mind,” diplomat Chester Bowles once said, “consisted largely of calling Bob on the phone and saying, ‘Here are ten things I want to get done.’ ” What a partnership they made! Under his brother’s influence, Robert began to lose his rigidity and intolerance. He grew relaxed and rueful. He developed his wry, self-mocking sense of humor, acquired broader and more ironic views of life. “Most people,” his Harvard classmate Anthony Lewis observed, “acquire certainties as they grow older; he lost his.”—Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (historian and author of Robert Kennedy and His Times)

I first met Bobby Kennedy in 1961, when he came down to make a speech at the University of Georgia. As far as I know, I was the only black in the audience. It was a big deal; Kennedy wasn’t exactly a son of the South, you know. But he delivered a tough speech. There was a hush in the crowd when he said my graduation from the university would be one of the milestones in the fight against lawlessness. It was a courageous thing to do. They were still yelling “Nigger!” at me when I walked across campus. I met him later at the reception, and what I remember is this intense look—like no one else was in the room but you. He made you feel that way.—Charlayne Hunter-Gault (the first black woman to graduate from the University of Georgia, now national correspondent on The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour)

Once, after his brother the President had called on the U.S. Marines to strengthen themselves by doing a 50-mile hike in 20 hours, the idea evolved that everyone in the Administration ought to do the same thing. So one day Bobby told several of us, “Well, I guess I’ll have to do that 50-mile hike tomorrow.” Then he smiled and said, “And you’re all going with me.”

The next morning it was about 20 degrees, and we were hiking through ice and snow along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. By late afternoon, there was just Kennedy and me left; the others had dropped out at various points. By nightfall it had gotten a lot colder, and my legs were getting stiff. We took a break at about the 40-mile mark, and it was obvious that I couldn’t go any farther. Bobby understood. But as he started to slog on, he turned and looked at me and said, “You’re lucky your brother isn’t the President.”—Edwin Guthman (RFK press aide, now a professor of journalism at USC)

Bob was, on the surface, an idealist. But he was a hard-driving boss. He suffered fools poorly. He expected you to get the job done, and he was less than gracious if you didn’t. I looked on him as a mentor. Without the Kennedy years, there would have been no Watergate years for me. He judged you on merit, not whether you were from an Ivy League college or from a high society family. When he wanted me to take the Hoffa case, I told him, “Bobby, I’ve only tried one or two cases in my life, and you want me to try Jimmy Hoffa?” He said, “Well, I’ve never been an Attorney General before and if I can do it, you can do it too.”—Jim Neal (Justice Department prosecutor under RFK, now a Nashville lawyer)

The Father

When he was home, the moments were very special, and not because they were relaxing—they were not—but because he challenged us. On Saturday mornings we had to practice before the touch football games. At dinner we were quizzed on history. At night we recited the rosary, and he read the Bible…. He taught his children that private happiness, or the happiness of one’s own immediate family, was not enough. By his questions and by taking us to Senate hearings, to political rallies, to the playgrounds that he built for ghetto children, he taught each of us that participation in public affairs was worthy and honorable. And he made it an adventure, by challenging us to do well…. He was deeply religious. He believed in God, in good and evil, in virtue and sin, in truth and justice. He went to church and he meant it.—Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (RFK’s first child, now a lawyer in Maryland)

I recall that just after my Uncle Jack died, we were at breakfast at home. We [children] used to have to discuss current events and sometimes write something about them. Usually we did this at dinner, but at this breakfast, not long after my uncle’s death, my father had the discipline to tell the older children to write down the significance of Jack’s death to the United States. I remember that incident very, very well. I remember thinking, “Oh, I’m glad I don’t have to do that yet.”—Michael Kennedy (RFK’s sixth child, now president of Citizens Energy Corp. in Boston)

The Inheritor

I always felt that Bobby had an aura of fatalism around him after his brother’s death. He would do his best and do what he had to do, and the rest would be left in the hands of God. There was a sadness in his eyes. And one wanted to help him and protect him. He seemed the most vulnerable of the Kennedys.—Michael Novak (RFK campaign worker, now a newspaper columnist)

I was leading a climb on 14,000-foot Mount Kennedy in Canada, which had recently been renamed after the late President. Being unclimbed, it was a real prize to mountain climbers. I wasn’t sure we would be able to do it. Bobby had no experience, but he wanted to go along. When I called him and asked him if he was doing anything to get in shape, he said, “Yes, I’m running up and down the stairs, practicing hollering help….”

It was a small group, maybe six of us. The final pitch was very steep, and I thought Bobby might have some trouble with that, but he went right up it with ease. I stopped just below the summit and let him be the first man to reach the top. It was a very emotional moment. I joined him and we were both in tears. Standing there, we were both thinking of his brother for whom it was named. We left a Kennedy half-dollar and a PT-109 tiepin in the snow. Not many men could have made this climb.—James Whittaker (the first American to climb Mt. Everest)

The Candidate

I worked for him the last year of his life as a backup speech writer to Adam Walinsky. Bobby carried an extraordinary sense of the absurd and a playfulness with him. Once, on a campaign trip, we were in one of those smaller planes, and it was really jumping up and down. Everybody was pale, worried. Kennedy got up and came down the middle of the aisle and said, “I just want to say, in all modesty, that if we don’t make it, your names are going to be in very small type.” Which, of course, broke the tension completely.

A lot of people were pandering to the young in ’68, especially politicians. But Bobby would go to colleges all over the U.S., and he would ask, “You’re all for student deferment [from the Vietnam War], right?” And they’d say, “Yes,” and he’d say, “I’m against it.” And he’d point out to them that white working-class kids, Indian kids, Chicano kids and black kids were being drafted and sent to Vietnam and they weren’t. He’d say, “You’re the generation that believes in social justice. But you’re getting the benefit of this unfair system.” And you would see 10,000 people—the crowds were that big—actually stop and think.—Jeff Greenfield (RFK speech writer, now a political analyst for ABC News)

I particularly remember his ability to relate to the steelworkers and gas station attendants and barbers and other neighborhood people of the big cities, both black and white. He was the last politician who could unite urban neighborhoods across lines of race and ethnicity. Coming from and having a big family of his own, he seemed like one of them. And he was tough. The more the intellectuals and editorialists described him as “the bad Bobby” or “ruthless,” the more deeply he was cherished in such neighborhoods. They knew you had to be tough to survive. Like them, I always thought “the bad Bobby” was really the good Bobby and the one really on the mark.—Michael Novak

I met Bobby when his brother was running for President. Medgar [Evers, a civil rights activist] and Jack met and became friends. I was sort of halfway supporting Nixon. Then Jack came out for Martin [Luther King Jr.]. All I knew was that the Kennedys were a couple of rich boys from Massachusetts and both were known for their honesty. I didn’t know much about them, but when they said Negroes should not be denied their rights, I made it my business to get to know them.

Bobby was dedicated to doing something about poverty. One year, I invited him to Mississippi. I said, “I want to show you poverty, hunger and suffering.” I carried him all through the countryside, and we went into some homes. He sat down there on the side of the bed in an old broken-down building. Tears were running down his cheeks. I knew he cared. I can just see him sitting there and crying. The man had no vanity.—Charles Evers (brother of Medgar Evers, who was slain in 1963, and Mayor of Fayette, Miss.)

In September 1967 I went with him and another campaign aide to a migrant-worker labor camp near Rochester, N.Y., where children were living in chicken coops and burnt-out cars. We were stopped at the gate by a man with a gun who said, “You can’t come in here.” Robert Kennedy walked right past the man and picked up a 5-year-old child who was obviously malnourished; she was also wearing glasses. Kennedy hugged the child and said, “I just want you to know that my little girl wears glasses too, and I love her very, very much.” The man was pointing the gun at us the whole time, and Kennedy made believe the gun didn’t exist. To me, that combination of courage and compassion is what’s irreplaceable in him.—Jack Newfield (author of Robert Kennedy, A Memoir)

The Martyr

In that last year, during his campaign up in New York, every morning I’d get a call from the FBI that there was a death threat from someplace, and Bobby would do nothing about it. After a while, I didn’t even bother to tell him anymore. If you look, you’ll see photographs of him campaigning in places like Rochester, and you can’t see him really, because he’s surrounded by photographers. When we were going into an area where we had a death threat, I told the photographers, and they shielded him with their bodies. That’s an unusual thing, but it’s true.—Edwin Guthman

I remember walking behind Kennedy through the [Ambassador] Hotel kitchen. I saw him stop to shake hands with Juan Romero, one of the kitchen workers. And then Sirhan started shooting. Suddenly everything went black for me, and I woke up sometime later on the floor of the pantry. One of Sirhan’s bullets had struck me just below the hairline on the right side of my head. Someone later testified they’d heard Bobby [who was lying close by in a pool of blood] say, “Is Paul okay? Is everyone all right?”—Paul Schrade (RFK supporter and former UAW official)

No one can tell where roads not taken might have led. A Robert Kennedy Presidency would have changed many things. It would have meant the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam in 1969 rather than in 1972. It would have meant real gains in slowing down the nuclear arms race. It would have meant consolidating and extending the achievements of John Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.—Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

It’s bullshit, sheer nonsense, to say that Senator Kennedy was comfortable only with the poor and unfortunate and not with the rich and powerful. Sure, the Senator empathized with the poor. But he was immensely comfortable with people of talent and prominence as well. He loved the company of people like Robert McNamara and Maxwell Taylor, of Rudolf Nureyev and Jimmy Breslin, of Averell Harriman and Joe Alsop, who were hardly downtrodden. One of the things that made Robert Kennedy extraordinary was that he wasn’t just some tribune of the dispossessed. He was a responsible American political leader. His idea was to advance the causes of the United States of America, not simply those of the less fortunate. A lot of people thought he was a nasty little prick who would send the FBI to roust you out of bed at 3 in the morning. In fact, he was a very tough guy. I wish people would stop turning him into Mother Teresa.—Adam Walinsky (RFK speech writer and friend, now a New York attorney)

I went to the hospital and stayed till he died. I didn’t sleep one minute. We loved him like a brother. We lost the same thing when Bobby was killed that we lost when Jack was killed. We lost decency, unselfishness, leadership and concern for America. Jack. Bobby. Martin. Medgar. They were pioneers.—Charles Evers

—Compiled by William Plummer with bureau reports