The Tragic Day A Man Shot Bobby Kennedy
It was 49 years ago, to the day, Sirhan Sirhan, shot presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. At that moment, Kennedy was shaking the hand of Juan Romero at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California.
It was June 5, 1968, the day that changed the protocols for the secret service regarding candidates.
The political climate of 1968 was civil unrest. Peaceful and violent protests for civil rights raged across the United States. Lyndon B. Johnson, the sitting president, received regular criticism for inaction, despite his attempts to pass anti-poverty and anti-discrimination legislation.
In April of 1968, another man shot and killed Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a time where America watched too many leaders die at the end of a gun. The murder of Bobby Kennedy only piled onto the anxiety.
What we will never know is how that day also changed the course of American history, if at all. Bobby Kennedy may have gone on to win the presidency. There is no way to know for sure.
It may also have been more of the usual political blah-blah from D.C. Bobby was, after all, a career politician from a powerful family.
His birth certificate may have read Robert, but everyone called him Bobby, the brother of the former president John F. Kennedy. Brother John suffered an assassination halfway through his first and only term as President in ’63.
Bobby stayed close to John for much of his brother’s campaign, including that day in November when he died. He was witness to Lyndon B. Johnson’s swearing-in before his brother’s body went cold.
Back in ’61, Bobby became the U.S. Attorney General, a role he maintained until 1964. He resigned to pursue a seat in the Senate for New York.
On January 3, 1965, Robert F. Kennedy became a U.S. Senator. For many, the path was clear for brother Bobby. He should run for the presidency.
The Year 1968
We were in the deepest trenches of the Vietnam conflict. At home, the anti-war movement raged in the streets while service people lost their lives in the messiest conflict since the Civil War.
Frustrated and demotivated, President Johnson announced his withdrawal for re-election March 31, 1968.
“What we have won when all our people were united must not be lost in partisanship,” he said in a national television address. “I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in partisan decisions.”
This left the door open for Bobby, Eugene McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey. As a Kennedy, Bobby stood a good chance to take the nomination.
On June 5, he already won two primaries, California and South Dakota. He had a total of 393 delegates, behind Humphrey’s 561, but ahead of McCarthy’s 258.
Not unlike the U.S. today, the political conversation in 1968 often centered on political divisions. At the podium of the Ambassador’s, Bobby spoke of this division, and his resolution to bring the country together.
At the podium moments before he said:
“…What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis and that what has been going on in the United States over the period of the last three years, the division, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the division whether it’s between black and white, between the poor and the more affluent or between age groups or over the war in Vietnam that we can start to work together.”
He stepped off that podium, not with Secret Servicemen, but two athletes, Rafer Johnson and Roosevelt Grier.
As Kennedy reached out to shake the hand of a 17-year-old busboy, Juan Romero, Sirhan Sirhan stepped out from the crowd with a rolled up campaign poster. Inside he concealed a .22, which he used to fire multiple shots.
Sirhan wounded five bystanders in the wake of the event as Bobby’s escorts wrestled him to the floor. Kennedy lay on the ground mortally wounded, tended to by the overwhelmed busboy, Juan Romero.
Roosevelt Grier would blame himself the rest of his life for the shooting.
After that day, the secret service extended their service to include all major presidential candidates and their spouses.
Also after that day, Hubert Humphrey took the Democratic nod for the election but lost the election to Nixon.
Would Kennedy have beaten Nixon? Possibly, but the pattern of elections is more often a mantel passed across the aisle, with few exceptions. The Republicans were due for the White House.
The supporters of Bobby Kennedy believed he could unite the country, but we have yet to see a president accomplish that with flying colors. It doesn’t matter, anyway. We’ll never know.
What we do know is a good man lost his life too early in life.