Wednesday, June 04, 2008

40 Years Ago

(An occasional reminiscence on the events of 1968)

On Tuesday, June 4, California held its primary. Winning this primary was essential to Bobby Kennedy's successful nomination, to reverse the damage of his recent loss in Oregon, and he'd held rallies the day before in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Watts and San Diego, a grueling day. On primary day he, Ethel and six of their kids rested in a borrowed Malibu house and arrived in the evening at his LA headquarters at the Ambassador Hotel.
At 10 pm. California time, he was confident of victory and gave interviews to NBC's Sander Vanocur and CBS' Roger Mudd. Just before midnight he gave a victory speech in the ballroom to his California supporters. The speech ended with "...and on to Chicago".
On the way to another reception he took a detour through the hotel's kitchen pantry. It was there that Sirhan Sirhan was waiting with his gun, and there that Bobby Kennedy's campaign ended. Five other people were also shot.

He had won California by a close victory, but enough, 46.3 percent to McCarthy's 41.8. In the hospital with a bullet in his brain, and one in his neck, he lived another day, making it through surgery but not responding.
Most people in the east woke up to the news since it happened after 3 a.m. eastern time. The day was a terrible day for everyone. The news of Kennedy's death at 1:44 the next morning meant we woke up the next day to even worse news.

Members of the Kennedy family, including his brother's widow Jacqueline, flew to Los Angeles to accompany Bobby's body back to New York, where the plane was met by a crowd of New York dignitaries at LaGuardia airport. A motorcade took the casket to St. Patrick's cathedral, where a huge line of mourners would wait. All day Thursday mourners passed through the church as 8 masses were held. In Los Angeles, Sirhan Sirhan was arraigned for the murder. That night, the Kennedy family asked that the cathedral be left open for thousands more to file through to view his casket. The Friday funeral mass was filled with the famous, from Nixon to McCarthy, Goldwater to Rockefeller, Ralph Abernathy to Billy Graham. Afterwards the procession moved to Penn Station, where the body was placed on a train for the last trip to Washington.

The outpouring of emotion along the train route was heartbreaking, as was the last ceremony as Kennedy was buried near his brother in Arlington National Cemetery.

When John F. Kennedy was shot, I was a freshman at college, studying in my dorm room when I heard, and the news was so staggering it was nearly incomprehensible. I could do nothing but run to the chapel and try to pray. The next night a few of us had tickets to see Beyond the Fringe, the radical British satire review. It was hard to do, but we'd already bought the tickets, so we took the train to the city. Outside the theater near Broadway, passersby mumbled how terrible it was to be going to a comedy. What else could we do? It was a sad comedy that night, and the next morning more shock as we watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald to death on live TV.

Now, again, four and a half years later, we'd been through the horror of King's murder and riots, and now this. It was staggering. I remember little of these days, just that I spent them at work, probably with an eye on a television most of the time.

I know there were tears. And seeing Paul Fusco's photos of the people standing next to the railroad tracks to watch Bobby's train go by, there are tears again. 'People were watching hope pass by'. The multimedia presentation is at the New York Times website, worth a view.

In the Republican primary, California governor Reagan was the only candidate listed on the ballot. The California votes added to his popular vote total, slightly higher than Nixon's by convention time, when Reagan would actually declare himself a candidate. But the previous week's Oregon primary results had put Nixon over the top.

Now what?

Sources: Newfield, Robert Kennedy; Witcover, 85 Days.



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