As a fifth grader in suburban Baltimore, I woke up early on the morning of Wednesday, June 5, 1968, sat up in bed, turned on the radio and heard the news: Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been shot shortly after winning the California Democratic presidential primary.
“Oh my God,” my 11-year-old voice said as I fell back onto my pillow, “not again.” The memory is still vivid, 50 Junes later.
My support for RFK was a lonely one. No adult in my family liked him, either preferring the late President John F. Kennedy or brother Ted — or disliking the Kennedys altogether.
At school, friends interested in presidential politics for the first time were for Richard Nixon — “he’s the one.” There was no mention of Eugene McCarthy; perhaps his early opposition to the Vietnam War was anathema to a community populated by World War II and Korean War veterans.
Why did I like Robert Kennedy? He was JFK’s brother, he attracted big crowds like a rock star, he had a kid’s nickname: “Bobby.” He said dynamic things about racial equality and tried to unite white working-class people like my family with African-Americans. He talked of ending the war in Vietnam, and he was tough on “bad guys.”
Still stunned by the news, I ate breakfast and went to school. Arriving in class, a couple of my friends came up to me and said, “Have you heard the good news?” I could not believe such meanness, even from snotty fifth graders. My parents did not support RFK, but they were at least shocked and dismayed by the shooting. My friendship with these kids diminished over time.
The next morning, I repeated my ritual of waking and turning on the radio. When I heard Senator Kennedy had died, this time I said nothing, but felt tears well up in my eyes. That Saturday, I stayed inside and watched the all-day coverage of his funeral: the service at St. Patrick’s; brother Ted’s moving eulogy; the train’s long slow journey, which included passing through Baltimore, where onlookers sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; and the burial at Arlington National Cemetery after dark — mere feet from his slain brother.
For years afterward, and even to this day, I read everything I could on RFK, starting decades ago with Jules Witcover’s “85 Days” — still the best contemporary account of the Kennedy presidential campaign. Nearly every year, I would read the book in May or June, maybe expecting the conclusion to be different; but like Greek or Shakespearian tragedy, the ending was always the same.
I wanted to know why people had strong feelings, even hatred, for Robert Kennedy. His enemies included crooked labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, mobster Carlos Marcello, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, California lawmen harassing migrant workers; Mississippi plantation owners; and Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s chief inquisitor (though Kennedy, who worked for McCarthy a short time, retained warm relations with the senator, a fact that grated some Democratic Party liberals).
It was said that he comforted the afflicted, and afflicted the comfortable, a fact that angered many — and impressed others. As historian and JFK special assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted, Robert Kennedy was also admired for his enemies.
The years have revealed much about Robert F. Kennedy’s life and career, some of which is not favorable — as U.S. attorney general authorizing wiretaps against Martin Luther King Jr., for example, and running the failed “Operation Mongoose” plot to assassinate Cuba’s Fidel Castro — fortifying his reputation as “ruthless.”
Still, RFK did many good things and stood often for the right things, and they outweigh the bad. I retain my admiration for him 50 years after his death. In many ways, he remains my first — and only — political hero.
I often measured those in politics against the RFK standard and most were found wanting. A former girlfriend, knowing of my support for a particular presidential candidate, said I was “looking for another Bobby Kennedy.”
I’m still looking.
William J. Thompson is a Baltimore historian, teacher and writer. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.