"So my thanks to all of you – and now it's on to Chicago, and let's win there." – Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, 12:15 a.m., June 5, 1968
The most tragic part of the story is that he was not supposed to go that way. The pantry was a last-second decision. His staff had earlier prompted him to turn to his right when he finished his victory speech, exit through the ballroom crowd, do a quick press conference next door, and then leave for a private party at a nearby discothèque to celebrate his presidential primary victory.
On countless occasions over the last 50 years I have seen the film of that speech. Now, whenever it airs, I no longer watch the jubilant candidate. My eyes always drift to the right corner of the footage. It is where I know there are two unobtrusive swinging doors behind the curtain and off to the side of the stage.
"And now it's on to Chicago. …" Bobby flashed a thumbs-up and V-for-victory sign, brushed aside a lock of hair, and then moved to his right to exit the stage as prearranged. That was the plan.
And then it happens:
"This way, Senator …"
Eyeing the thick crowd through which the candidate's entourage must navigate to attend the press conference, a well-meaning aide called to his boss, "This way, Senator …" RFK stopped, pivoted and backtracked toward the voice calling to his left. Kennedy's staff had a standby plan if the throng was too dense: Exit behind the stage backdrop curtain, pass through the two swinging doors, and cut through the kitchen pantry.
Every time I see that footage and hear the aide call to him, I find myself pleading silently: Press on through the crowd – don't go into the pantry.
But he always does.
Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy stood before 1,500 cheering supporters in the Embassy Room at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. There he declared victory over Sen. Eugene McCarthy in a hard-fought California primary battle for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. A few minutes later, Kennedy closed his speech with these words: "So my thanks to all of you – and now it's on to Chicago, and let's win there." Kennedy exited the stage, went through the swinging doors and walked halfway across the short pantry. As he stopped to shake hands with a teenage busboy, a young drifter stepped from behind a serving table, raised his pistol and fired. His first shot struck Kennedy behind the right ear and crashed through his brain.
Ironically, one of Kennedy's surgeons from that night said years later that if the fatal shot had struck just a centimeter off, Kennedy would have recovered and resumed his campaign. Because it did not, 50 years ago today Robert Kennedy died at age 42, leaving behind a pregnant widow and 10 young children.
He left behind something else. Because millions of voters that year – those who loved and hated him – were denied the final judgment of their ballots, his death left a gaping hole in political history.
I was finishing the fifth grade in June 1968. As a 10-year-old boy, I had already developed what would remain a lifelong fascination for American history and politics, and I followed that year's presidential campaign the way other boys my age followed baseball statistics.
As I related in a previous column, our teacher that year, Miss Firpo, encouraged those interests. In the weeks leading up to the end of the 1968 primary season, she had us studying the campaigns of the White House contenders. Living in California brought added excitement to the race: our state's June 4 presidential primary was touted as the one that might well decide the Democratic contest (there was no meaningful GOP primary in California that year). Miss Firpo let us decorate the classroom with campaign posters and bumper stickers for our favorite candidates.
On the morning of the primary, we boys were betting our best baseball cards on who would win. That evening I stayed up late watching the lead between Kennedy and his California opponent, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, seesaw back and forth. As midnight neared, and as I struggled to stay awake, McCarthy appeared before his supporters, conceded his narrow defeat and vowed to continue his campaign for the presidential nomination all the way to Chicago's Democratic National Convention that August. I kept the TV on a while longer and watched as the coverage now cut across town, where camera crews broadcast live images of the excited crowd at the Ambassador Hotel awaiting RFK's victory speech.
Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, a beaming Kennedy and his wife stepped before their cheering supporters. After making a brief speech of thanks, he made a plea for party unity, and then he closed with his "on to Chicago" pledge.
As Bobby and his entourage made their way off the stage, I turned off the TV, climbed into bed and fell fast asleep.
The next morning, as I got ready for school, my classmate Mike Dittman called and asked if I had heard about Kennedy. Yes, I told him, I knew Kennedy had won. When Mike broke the news of what had happened moments after I turned off the television, I couldn't believe it. I turned on a new household novelty – our first-ever color television – and watched the news broadcasts replay unendingly the footage of the fallen candidate, his head resting in a spreading pool of maroon blood.
I had never seen anything so graphic or so tragic.
In class that morning, as Kennedy's life ebbed away, yesterday's friendly Kennedy vs. McCarthy schoolyard rivalry gave way to confusion and profound sadness. Miss Firpo tried to comfort her students seated in a room still decorated with a dozen Kennedy posters. I remember looking at Bobby's picture gazing down on us from those posters as she spoke, his black-and-white image frozen with a half-smile. Yesterday that image suggested confidence. Now it bore the haunting aura of death.
Today, on what is the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination, I still reflect on what his neurosurgeon said: The shot that killed him was a fluke. Had it been just a fraction to the right, it is likely he would have survived. Since reading of that sad irony decades ago I have often wondered – what if someone in that crowded pantry had shouted a warning and Bobby flinched – even slightly? What if something – anything – had deviated that bullet's fatal trajectory? What if millions of voters didn't lose their hopes in a pool of blood on a concrete pantry floor? What if he had survived his wound?
What if Bobby had gone on to Chicago?
That is the premise of my new book, which was released yesterday: "On to Chicago: Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968." In it I make a historian's best effort to answer that "what if?" question – based on facts, not on romanticism or wishful thinking. It is, technically, a work of historical fiction – but it is far more heavy on the history as opposed to the fiction.
Childhood Camelot sentimentalities notwithstanding, the ensuing years have long ago disabused me of the notion that Bobby Kennedy was a saint. In fact, as one who (30 years after his death) went on to serve as a conservative Republican in Congress – and as one of the prosecutors who helped lead the impeachment of President Clinton – RFK was hardly a political role model for me. Had I served with him back then, I would have opposed him politically – and there is a decent chance I would have disliked him personally for his legendary traits of expediency and ruthlessness.
Still, in that frenetic 85 day presidential campaign of 1968, Bobby Kennedy did more than capture a fifth-grade boy's attention: He helped ignite a lifelong passion for public service. In the end, that is the lasting legacy of any great political leader – the ability to motivate both his own and the next generation.
That was RFK's gift to many of the idealistic youths of yesteryear who remain of my now-graying generation. I hope that, in my new book, I have repaid the gift in one small way: For better or for worse, he will finish his journey.
Through the marriage of the author's pen and the readers' imagination, half a century later, Robert Francis Kennedy will go on to Chicago.