Political Assassinations: Robert F. Kennedy
“Oh, my God, they’ve shot Bobby Kennedy!”
My mother literally gasped, dropping the cigarette from her lips as she drove me to day care early one morning in June 1968. I remember giggling from the back seat as I watched her hastily pull the car to the shoulder of the road. Safely parked, she bent and swept ashes from her lap before the embers could burn her thighs. I could not stop laughing at her predicament. When she turned and glanced at me, however, I saw a look of anguish and horror plastered on her face. Although she did not utter a reproachful word, I fell silent. That look told me she was in no mood to trifle with a silly child.
This long-ago incident occurred before 24/7 news programs existed. Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been shot in the early morning hours of June 5, just after midnight on the West Coast (around 3:00 a.m. in South Carolina, where we lived), and so word of the assault had not yet filtered into the hinterlands. Unaware of the tumultuous events in California hours earlier, mom followed our usual routine that day. She turned on the car radio as we drove along the highway. Within minutes, the announcer interrupted the music to report on the latest tragedy. It was the first we had heard of it.
At five years of age, I wasn’t altogether sure who Bobby Kennedy was, but news of his shooting impressed me mightily. My mother appeared unflappable to me in those days. It must have been a major event to trigger such a dramatic reaction from her. I recall walking around the day care center on June 5 and whenever I encountered an adult, I would loudly exclaim, mimicking my mother’s reaction, “Oh, my God, they’ve shot Bobby Kennedy!” I could not understand why the adults laughed as I announced the terrible news. With the passing years, I came to understand that the message did not elicit laughter; it was the earnestness of a little wide-eyed messenger blurting out such big news that triggered the adults’ reactions.
To this day, news of the shooting of Bobby Kennedy remains my first vivid memory of an event that occurred outside my immediate family.
It would be too melodramatic, not to mention factually inaccurate, to say that my fascination with the subject of political assassinations was born on the day that Bobby Kennedy was shot down. Nonetheless, I discuss RFK’s assassination in Chapter 5 of my forthcoming book titled Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders.
Robert Kennedy was a loyal aide to his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Following his brother’s brutal murder in 1963, Bobby Kennedy became the heir apparent—not only for his family members, but for many Americans. He stayed on as attorney general under the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, but the two men despised each other. It was only a matter of time before Bobby Kennedy left the administration and set his eyes on the prize of the White House.
After winning a U.S. Senate seat from New York in 1964, Kennedy began to establish his own reputation separate from his brother John’s legacy. Everyone recognized the senator would not be satisfied laboring in the trenches of the legislative branch. By 1968, it appeared that an opportunity to challenge and defeat an incumbent president existed. Initially hesitant to enter the race, Bobby agreed to run. Fortuitously, President Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. LBJ’s unpopularity over the Vietnam War probably made it virtually impossible for him to win. Bobby’s chance at securing the Democratic nomination for the presidency seemed all-but-assured, especially after he won the California presidential primary.
In the early morning hours of June 5, 1968, after declaring victory in California, Kennedy and his entourage started to exit the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where he had joined his supporters in celebrating victory. Routed through the kitchen to avoid the large crowd, Kennedy encountered a 24-year-old Palestinian, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, who opened fire with a .22-caliber handgun. Several people were hit before bystanders could wrestle the gun away from the assassin. Bobby Kennedy was hit once in the head and twice in the back.
When they realized that someone had discharged a gun, spectators screamed and fled in the ensuing chaos. Hotel busboy Juan Romero knelt and spoke gently to the fatally wounded man sprawled on the floor. “Come on, Mr. Kennedy,” he said. “You can make it.” RFK muttered a reply: “Is everybody all right?” Los Angeles Times photographer Boris Yaro captured the moment in a series of photographs that soon became famous around the world. Another Kennedy had been shot down in his prime.
Despite valiant efforts by RFK’s doctors, the wounds were too extensive. Kennedy died 26 hours later. He was 42 years old.
The assassination of Bobby Kennedy, along with the murder of his brother and Martin Luther King Jr., convinced many people around the world that something was wrong with America. The anti-war protests, the racial riots in major urban areas, and the feelings of rage and hopelessness suggested that the nation was suffering from a spiritual malaise. It would take many years to heal.
As for Sirhan, he was found competent to stand trial and was convicted of the crime. The judge sentenced him to death despite objections to capital punishment voiced by the Kennedy family. Yet the likelihood of Sirhan’s execution was remote. The state had unofficially banned executions in 1967. On February 18, 1972, the California Supreme Court officially extended the ban when it held in The People of the State of California v. Robert Page Anderson that the death penalty as applied in California violated the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Sirhan Sirhan’s sentence thus became life in prison.
Sirhan’s punishment was not quite the end of the story. In the years following the trial and sentencing, a series of conspiracy theories arose. Some commentators argued that a second shooter must have been present owing to the physical evidence. The nature of RFK’s injuries, the angle of the bullet holes in the kitchen pantry, and missing photographs and physical evidence suggested to persons with a penchant for believing in conspiracies that a hidden cabal had engineered the senator’s assassination. Still other theorists mused that Sirhan may have been programmed to kill RFK because the gunman appeared to be in a “diassociated state” when he pulled the trigger. A well-known 1962 film based on a popular book, The Manchurian Candidate, had presented an assassin who had been hypnotized to kill a senator, and Sirhan was supposedly working in this vein. Despite the alleged plots concerning multiple shooters and the powers-that-be behind the killing, no credible evidence has ever surfaced to indicate that anyone other than Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert F. Kennedy.
Conspiracies notwithstanding, Sirhan sometimes has been characterized as a lone wolf assassin who sought to gain notoriety for killing a famous person. In light of his social awkwardness, lack of friends, and lowly status, such an interpretation is appealing. If he were a lone gunman seeking a higher status for killing a well-known public figure, Sirhan would be characterized as a classic Type 2 killer. While a desire for recognition might have been a motivating factor, the weight of the evidence suggests that he was driven to kill by his political disagreements with Senator Kennedy’s policy on Israel.
If Sirhan’s diminished capacity plea and the presence of conspirators lurking behind the assassination are discounted, the assassin appears to be a Type 1 killer. Sirhan was rational: He meticulously planned the murder after he learned of the senator’s pro-Israeli policies. On several occasions, and in notebooks that he kept, Sirhan expressed his disgust with RFK’s politics. “RFK must die,” he scribbled in several places. Moreover, except on rare occasions when he has granted interviews or sought parole, he has avoided publicity. If he were a Type 2 killer in search of media fame, he would shout from the rooftops at every opportunity about how he had performed this deed and why he should be associated in the public mind with Robert Kennedy. For the most part, he has not sought out the limelight. He has become, in the words of one historian of the RFK assassination, the “forgotten terrorist.”