On this day in 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy is shot by an assassin. His death would strike the nation hard: Bobby’s older brother, President John F. Kennedy, had also been assassinated just a few years earlier.
What must it do to a family to suffer two such murders in the space of less than five years?
At the time, the younger Kennedy was running for President. He was still lagging behind the front-runner for the nomination, Hubert Humphrey, but he had a good lead over Senator Eugene McCarthy. On June 4, Kennedy won an important Democratic primary in California. A primary in his home state of New York was just around the corner.
Things were looking up!
Kennedy supporters gathered at a hotel in Los Angeles to celebrate. Kennedy seemed “elated,” according to one reporter. A Kennedy speechwriter noted that the “frantic sense of the early campaign” seemed gone, replaced with an “easy grace.” “For the first time . . . Robert Kennedy reminded me of his slain brother,” he concluded.
A little before midnight, Kennedy gave his victory speech. The crowd was jubilant, and Kennedy had trouble leaving the hotel ballroom. At one point, he was apparently boxed in by teenage girls who were screaming, “We want Bobby!” Finally, Kennedy was led out of the ballroom and into a back corridor by a hotel maître d’, Karl Uecker. Reporters and staffers followed, as did his bodyguard and his wife.
As Kennedy’s entourage passed through a small kitchen pantry, the Senator stopped to shake hands with the staff. Just as he was shaking hands with Juan Romero, a busboy, shots rang out.
A Palestinian by the name of Sirhan Sirhan had been standing in a corner. Now he emerged and fired multiple shots.
One Kennedy staffer later said that Kennedy “went forward, then moved backward . . . . Grabbed his head and fell backward.” Romero was still standing next to Kennedy, and he leaped to hold the Senator’s head. He “wanted to protect [Kennedy’s] head from the cold concrete,” he later explained.
According to Romero, Kennedy asked him: “Is everybody okay?” Romero responded, “Yes, everybody’s okay.” Kennedy turned his head and sighed: “Everything’s going to be okay.” Romero had some rosary beads in his pocket, and he placed them in Kennedy’s hand.
In the meantime, Uecker and others were attempting to wrestle the gun away from Sirhan. They succeeded, but not before Sirhan wounded four others.
Eyewitness accounts would vary greatly. Roughly 70 people had been crammed into a relatively small space. No one had a complete view of the entire sequence of events. Some people didn’t even realize that a gun had been fired. They thought balloons were popping. Some people knew it was a gun and ran for their lives. Some people went for help.
As you know, the story does not end well. Kennedy passed away about 26 hours after he’d been shot. All sorts of theories have emerged about Sirhan’s motivations. And many question why Kennedy was being led through the pantry in the first place.
But maybe Bobby Kennedy is best remembered by the eulogy that his little brother gave for him?
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life,” Ted Kennedy said, “to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it . . . . [As Bobby said many times:] Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”