Exactly half a century ago this week, Sen. Robert Kennedy, the man who would be president, roared frantically across California from Chinatown in San Francisco down to San Diego, delivering fiery speeches until his voice ran out, and hugging supporters and shaking hands until his fingers were bruised and bleeding.
In June 1968, I witnessed all of this firsthand as a foreign correspondent for the London Daily Express when I traveled with Bobby throughout California. He had become the Democratic presidential front runner and hot favorite to win the presidency. President Lyndon Baines Johnson had become something of a pariah as a result of his gross mishandling of the escalating Vietnam War.
For America, 1968 was to be a memorable year — but for all the horribly wrong reasons: An unwinnable war, that had divided the nation and gun violence that destroyed the lives of two of the country’s most famous men, who offered hope, dramatic change, civil rights and a brighter more peaceful future.
The year started badly. On Jan. 23, North Korea (yes, the very same North Korea we are dancing with right now) captured the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy intelligence gathering vessel and its crew. The sailors weren’t released for 11 months, deeply embarrassing the administration and the Pueblo’s brave commander, Lloyd Bucher, who had undergone severe torture.
Barely a week later, tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops began a series of surprise attacks across Vietnam. What became known as the “Tet Offensive” turned many Americans against a war they saw as unwinnable.
On March 12, antiwar Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota nearly defeated Johnson in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. It underlined the growing opposition to the Vietnam War.
On March 16, U.S. troops killed more than 500 Vietnamese civilians, including children in a village. The carnage became known as the My Lai Massacre and it came to symbolize all that had gone wrong in the war.
On March 31, Johnson stunned the nation by announcing he would not seek another term.
On April 4, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in a Memphis motel. His senseless murder led to bloody riots in Baltimore, Boston and Chicago.
On April 11, with nightly TV news anchors grimly reporting the ever-mounting death toll of young Americans in faraway Vietnam, the military announced plans to send even more young men off to war. There were now 549,500 U.S troops fighting one of the most unpopular wars in U.S. history.
In June 1968, for millions of Americans, Bobby Kennedy — running for president with a passionate and popular campaign to end the slaughter in Vietnam and bring the troops home — felt like the nation’s best and brightest hope to stop the killing in Southeast Asia.
At 42, he was the energetic, charismatic candidate favored to put another Kennedy into the White House and bring Camelot back to America. He campaigned, long and hard — 85 days nonstop, often with his very pregnant wife, Ethel, mother of his 10 children — at his side. Even their dog Freckles came along for the ride, as Kennedy played to packed, exuberant houses.
At each stop along the campaign trail, his handlers grimly hung onto Kennedy’s body as he fearlessly waded into the crowd like a rock star. Time and again, I watched as the adoring masses tugged at his small frame. They just wanted to touch, hug and pay homage to John Kennedy’s younger brother.
In the presidential campaign of June 1968, there was no mandatory law which provided Secret Service protection to presidential candidates. Alas, such a law was only enacted a few months later. Bobby did, however, have personal bodyguards: Olympic decathlon gold medalist Rafer Johnson and Los Angeles Rams football star Roosevelt Grier.
We chugged our way through California’s agricultural heartland on a whistle-stop train. On big city streets, Bobby sat in the back of an open car, or perched precariously in a pickup truck as his motorcade moved slowly through tightly packed crowds of people who screamed his name. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, nervous campaign workers heard explosions. Bobby winced visibly, but it was just the sound of celebratory firecrackers.
After a stop in San Diego, he headed back north for a breather on the beach in Malibu, at the home of Bobby’ s pal “Manchurian Candidate” director John Frankenheimer. And then it was primary election night, with Frankenheimer at the wheel racing down the Pacific Coast Highway. They arrived at campaign headquarters, the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.
Bobby’s speech was the same whether he was talking to voters in California’s lettuce fields or addressing fervent supporters up and down the Golden State.
He finished every speech with the same George Bernard Shaw line.
“Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?'”
Shortly before midnight on June 4, Kennedy was now jubilant. He had shockingly lost in Oregon a week earlier — a Kennedy had never lost Oregon. But now victory over McCarthy in the nation’s most populous state seemed inevitable, bringing with it 174 precious delegates.
“Now onto the Chicago convention,” a beaming Kennedy told his ecstatic supporters in the hotel ballroom. And then he headed for a press conference, through the kitchen.
Suddenly, I heard balloons popping. One, two, three, four, five and six.
Then screams. I stepped into the pantry — and there on the concrete floor lay the candidate. Blood gushed from a head wound.
The scene was sheer bedlam.
“Get the gun,” yelled a radio newsman.
“Give him air,” screamed Ethel, cushioning her husband’s head on a straw hat on the floor.
“Not again,” shrieked a Bobby supporter.
It was a scene that is forever etched in my mind.
Twenty-four hours later, at 1:59 a.m. on June 6, Bobby’s campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz, son of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, looking grim-faced and emotionally drained, stepped in front of TV cameras to announce the death of another Kennedy — the second to die from an assassin’s bullet in less than five years.
A truly annus horribilis.
Ivor Davis will recount the night he saw Bobby Kennedy shot at a talk this Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. PT at the the Museum of Ventura County.