Remembering RFK, 25 Years Later
WARREN ROGERS'S eyewitness account of Robert Kennedy's assassination is poignantly handled in his new book, "When I think of Bobby: A Personal Memoir of the Kennedy Years." It brings back RFK's last campaign - which I covered 25 years ago. There are so many memories: the first stop in the South, the challenges that lay before Bobby Kennedy in Indiana, Oregon, and California.
How will history remember this Kennedy? We in the press often talked as if there were two Robert Kennedys - the "good Bobby" and the "bad Bobby." The latter could on occasion be tough, nasty, and even ruthless. The "good Bobby" has been written about by Nicholas Lemann of Atlantic Monthly, in a recent Washington Post:
"The tragedy of his death and the nobility of his concerns, in combination, carry an unmistakable connotation of martyrdom; the assassination begins to seem not accidental but almost inevitable, a kind of punishment for being too good for the world. Kennedy's concern with ghetto poverty, so absent from national politics recently, comes across as having sprung from a moral purity that most politicians lack."
That's too glowing for me. I watched closely Bobby's deportment as he banged heads while badgering Democratic political leaders into backing his brother in 1960. He was - and remained - a politician of the hard-nosed school. He must have learned most of this from his father who made it abundantly clear to his sons that at times they had to figuratively use their fists to get ahead in this world.
But, no doubt, Bobby's sights were high during his last campaign. He had a passion for helping those living in ghettos. He wanted to right the wrongs of the world: These repeatedly expressed Kennedy goals began to seem genuine to even the most cynical reporters. If this assertion of compassion had started out as a political device to attract votes, it hadn't stayed that way. Bobby soon had a glint in his eyes. He was a believer - or had become a believer - in what he was preaching. That was why he was so
effective with the crowds whose hands sought to touch the candidate's own outstretched hands.
Kennedy was very accessible to reporters. Most of us got our share of time and quotes directly from the candidate or his press aide, Frank Mankiewicz. Bobby was more like a traveling companion than some candidates, who can be aloof and self-important.
I can also say I saw the beginning of Kennedy's presidential candidacy. It was at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast at the National Press Club in late winter of 1968, shortly after the New Hampshire primary, in which Eugene McCarthy had embarrassed President Johnson and shown his vulnerability. The question that morning in the club's presidential room where we met was, of course, "Would Bobby, considering these new circumstances, now get into the race?"
Around the table that morning were a number of print journalism's heavy hitters: Peter Lisagor, Robert Donovan, Philip Potter, Ted Lewis, Richard Strout, Robert Novak, Robert Thompson, and David Broder, among others. The grilling was intense as they pressed hard for an answer.
At first, Kennedy held to a position that he had taken whenever asked: He was not going to run. Entering the race was, in fact, in his words, "not conceivable." But about midway in the hour-long session, someone brought in the news that Hanoi's Tet offensive had broken out in Vietnam with disastrous results to US forces.
On hearing this news, Bobby's adamancy about running began to soften. You could hear it in his voice. And soon he seemed to be finding reasonableness in a suggestion by one of the newsmen that Kennedy could not now in good conscience resist an opportunity to become president and end a war to which he had become so bitterly opposed. His answer about running began to change from "not conceivable" to "not foreseeable." He obviously was getting in. And by the time some of us went down the elevator with him h e was making it plain to us that he was, indeed, a candidate.
Books that were written later about that Kennedy quest for the presidency called this breakfast session the "beginning." Indeed, one book started with the breakfast.