DATE June 4, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist and writer Pete Hamill remembers Robert
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Forty years ago today, Robert Kennedy won the Democratic primary in
California, keeping him in the race. He made his victory speech late that
night; and after it was over, shortly after midnight, he was shot three times.
He died the following day. We're going to remember Kennedy today.
Our first guest is journalist and novelist Pete Hamill. He was a friend of
Kennedy's, helped convince him to run for president, worked briefly on his
campaign, then wrote about the campaign. He was with Kennedy the night he was
shot and was one of the men who tried to tackle the assassin Sirhan Sirhan.
Hamill wrote the introduction to a new book of photographs of Kennedy by Bill
Eppridge called "A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties."
Pete Hamill, welcome to FRESH AIR. How did you first get to know Bobby
Mr. PETE HAMILL: I had gone to cover the war, in the early part of the war
in Vietnam, at the very end of '65. So I as there for Christmas and New
Year's and a couple of weeks after that. And this was for the New York Post.
Bobby had already been elected senator from New York, but I didn't know him
because I was not a political writer. When I got back, there was a note
waiting for me from Bobby saying, `I loved your pieces from Vietnam. When
you're back, please give me a call.' And so I did. It was as simple as that.
And I went and met him and liked him very much.
When I was a much younger man, I didn't think he was great, before the
assassination of his brother. He'd worked for Joe McCarthy and other people
in Washington that, as a good card-carrying 20- or 25-year-old liberal I
didn't approve of. But when I met him, I understood that he had learned
something from the assassination of his brother. It was about time. It was
Bobby's realization that you can't wait, you have to do the thing in the now
while you can. And I loved that about him.
GROSS: Since it was the war in Vietnam that brought you both together, what
views did you or didn't you share about the war?
Mr. HAMILL: We both agreed with the way that the country had to go ahead,
because the war was tearing us apart. Before he ran for president, he knew
that somehow they had to go to a negotiating table somewhere and negotiate an
end to the war. That didn't happen, I think because he was assassinated, and
another 20-odd-thousand Americas were killed, and by one estimated at least a
million Vietnamese we killed before it stopped in 1975. So I think he knew
there was an urgency to that, that it was hurting our image around the world,
very much like Iraq is now, and that you had to get at it. You had to sit
down with people at a table and say, `OK, let's make sense out of this thing.'
GROSS: You wrote Bobby Kennedy a letter urging him...
Mr. HAMILL: I did.
GROSS: ...to run for president. I'd like you to read that letter for us.
Mr. HAMILL: Yeah. It was written right after the Tet offensive began. My
bother John, who was 18 at the time, was a soldier in Vietnam and we began to
see things happening there I was very upset about it, listening. I was in
Ireland listening to the BBC, trying to get news. And when Bobby finally said
that he absolutely was not going to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the
presidency, I sat down and wrote him this letter.
"Dear Bob, I had wanted to write you a long letter explaining my reasons why I
thought you should make a run for the presidency this year, but that's too
late. I read in the Irish Times this morning that you made a hard
announcement, and that small hope is gone, along with others that are vanished
in the last four years.
"I suspect that all nations have their historical moment, some moment when it
all seems to have been put together as an idea. Our moment was 1960 to 1963.
I don't think it's nostalgia working or romanticism. I think most Americans
feel that way now.
"The moment is gone now, and we have grown accustomed to living in a county
where nobody would protest very much if Jack Valenti replaced John Gardner. I
wanted to say that the fight you might make would be the fight of honor. I
wanted to say that you should run because if you won the country might be
saved. If we have L.B.J. for another four years, there won't be much of a
"I've heard the arguments about the practical politics which are involved.
You will destroy the Democratic Party, you will destroy yourself. I say that
if you don't run, you might destroy the Democratic Party. It will end up
nationally the way it has in New York, a party filled with decrepit old
bastards like Abe Beame and young hustlers with blue hair trying to get their
hands on highway contracts. It will be a party that says to millions and
millions of people that they don't count, that the decision of 2,000 hack pols
does. They will say that idealism is a cynical joke, that hard-headed
pragmatism is the rule, even if the pragmatists rule in the style of Bonnie
"I wanted to remind you that in Watts I didn't see pictures of Malcolm X or
Ron Karenga on the walls. I saw pictures of John F. Kennedy. That is your
capital, in the most cynical sense; it is your obligation in another. The
obligation of staying true to whatever it was that put those pictures on those
walls. I don't think we can afford five summers of blood. I do know this:
If a 15-year-old kid is given a choice between Rap Brown and Robert F.
Kennedy, he might choose the way of sanity. It's only a possibility, but at
least there is that chance. Give that same kid a choice between Rap Brown and
L.B.J. and he'll probably reach for his revolver.
"Again, forgive the tone of this letter, Bob, but it's not about five cent
cigars and chickens in every pot, it's about the country. I don't want to
sound like someone telling someone that he should mount the white horse or
that he should destroy his career. I also realize that if you had decided to
run, you would face some filthy politics and that there are plenty of people
in the country who resent or dislike you. With all of that, I still think the
move would have been worth making, and I'm sorry you decided not to make it."
GROSS: So what was the response to the letter?
Mr. HAMILL: Well, what I heard later from other people--because I was in
Ireland, not in Washington--is that Kennedy carried it around with him for
weeks and showed it to various people--friends, people who had worked for John
Kennedy, family members, etc.--asking, `What do you think? What do you
think?' Apparently it had some effect. When Lyndon Johnson finally decided
not to run again, Kennedy was then free and he announced almost immediately
after that; and I got a telegram in Ireland saying, `I've taken your advice.
Come home and let's go to work.' And I got on the first plane the next day and
went back and worked for a while for the campaign, but not too long. I found
out that I was a newspaper man and not somebody who worked on campaigns, but
so I left and then covered the campaign up until the end.
GROSS: What were you suppose to be doing in the campaign?
Mr. HAMILL: Basically writing speeches. But, you know, they had some very
good people, Jeff Greenfield, Adam Walinsky, people like that who were writing
speeches. And also to be around where ideas were kicked around. `What if we
said this?' You know, that kind of thing. And I would react as a newspaper
man, saying, `No, if you do that, somebody's going to say this.' You know?
But I obviously wasn't very good at it. And around any campaign, the most
idealistic campaign, there are people with sharp elbows who are looking to a
future different from what you might look for, which is to go to the end and
then go home.
GROSS: Do you think that Robert Kennedy's brother's assassination affected
his decision to run for president?
Mr. HAMILL: Yes. It affected all of those five years after the
assassination in Dallas. I think he learned so many things about the sense of
urgency, a sense of time, a sense of true idealism, a sense of what the menu
was for a politician, which in the United States had to be civil rights, and
above all that war. He understood also that the young were not the same as
people when he was young, near the end of World War II. They had other
visions. They had rock 'n' roll. They had drugs. They had all kinds of
things that triumphed a year later in Woodstock--symbolically, I mean. And I
think he knew that if you could do it at all as a politician, if you could
direct all that amazing idealistic energy, that the country truly would
change, that we would get off this path that we were locked into because of
the larger umbrella of the Cold War and begin to see the world as a much more
And that's why I think he was consumed with making the change, but was torn
because he was a regular Democrat. That's why Mayor Daley could stand with
Tom Hayden on the night of the funeral in St. Patrick's. He respected the
old Tammany Hall guys in New York, the Mayor Curleys, the Daleys in Chicago,
the Pendergasts in Kansas City. He respected those guys, because they were
essentially a non-idealogical organization. Corrupt? Yes. But they knew how
to take care of their people. And I think he respected that, along with the
need for reform. So the contradictions, I think, resulted in a lot of the
GROSS: How did Bobby Kennedy feel about being the candidate, the front man?
You know, when his brother was alive, Kennedy was more the behind-the-scenes
Mr. HAMILL: Yes. And that changed with the campaign in New York, when he
finally came to New York and ran for senator against Keating and won. It was
the first time he'd been out front on his own. He was literally his
brother's--the word servant is not accurate, but he served that cause because
he loved his brother and respected him and understood the complexity of
things, and understood something that few politicians do: irony. He
understood that there was a difference between what was said and what was
done. So he understood the irony of someone, namely himself, being the person
for whom thousands roared in a public place. There was something laughable
about it on one level, and he realized they were not just cheering him. They
were cheering the whole thing that the Kennedys stood for at that time.
GROSS: My guest is Pete Hamill. He wrote the introduction to a new
collection of photographs of Bobby Kennedy called "A Time It Was." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: We're devoting today's show to the memory of Robert Kennedy. He was
assassinated 40 years ago.
Let's get back to our interview with journalist Pete Hamill, who was a friend
of Kennedy's and was with him the night he was killed.
When you wrote the letter to Bobby Kennedy urging him to run for the
presidency, assassination was very much on your mind.
Mr. HAMILL: Yes.
GROSS: You certainly knew about his brother's assassination. You were in
Ireland at the time you wrote the letter, finishing up a thriller you were
writing about the assassination of the pope.
Mr. HAMILL: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: So when you urged Bobby Kennedy to run for president, did you think at
all, `Well, maybe this would leave him vulnerable to assassination himself.'
Mr. HAMILL: You know, I did, because there had been a couple of other
assassinations: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers. There were then, as now, millions
of guns in the country and not more than a few nuts. So it was a possibility.
But I had never really talked to him about the assassination until I mentioned
in this letter the pictures on the walls I saw in Watts. And I didn't know
how to raise it, so I didn't have a conversation that said, `Look, some nut
could be out there.' But I didn't think I needed to. In his eyes, there was
almost always--in the photographs in this book that we're talking about--you
can see it in the eyes. There was a kind of fatalism that, it could happen to
Jack, it could happen to anybody. And so I felt that I shouldn't raise it.
And I regretted that. I regret it now insofar as that letter propelled him
into the race, I feel bad about that. I wish he was around right now, 83 or
84 years old, sitting in a rocker and talking about the good times when he was
president or not president, when Jack was president; and not what in fact
And then when it happened, it felt like there could have been no other ending
when the, you know, you just walked around and said, `Why didn't I say
something? Why didn't I do this, that or the other?'
GROSS: Let's talk about your memories of the night Bobby Kennedy was killed.
It was a big night for his presidential campaign, the night of the California
primary. Why was that so important?
Mr. HAMILL: Well, politically he had lost the primary the week before in
Oregon to Eugene McCarthy. So if he lost California, he could not go to the
convention in August and try to make a case that he's the one that could win
the election. So he had to win California. It was a different era in the
sense that, on that evening, when we assembled various of us in a couple of
different rooms at the Ambassador Hotel on the fifth floor, you know, there
were no cable television shows. There were no cell phones. There was, you
know, a phone would ring. Someone would pick it up and come over and whisper.
You know? You didn't know. But there was a sense, a gathering sense all that
week, that he was going to win California.
To begin with, he had become the first American candidate for president who
had rallied the Mexican-Americans. And I think that had to do with something
else, because I've been going to Mexico for 50 years and know many, many
Mexicans. They have exactly the same fatalistic look at the world that the
Irish have, I have. I think their sense that what will be will be was
present, and they saw it in Kennedy, and it made him even more attractive than
the simple, political allegiances that he was calling forth.
So it looked like he was going to win, but nobody knew. And as the evening
moved on, I was talking at one point to the movie director John Frankenheimer.
Bobby had stayed the night before at Frankenheimer's house in Malibu because
Frankenheimer was making TV commercials for the campaign. And he drove Bobby
all the way to the Ambassador Hotel that evening. His sense of remorse later
was something like mine and many others. He kept saying it, one conversation,
`What if I'd only gotten a flat tire? What if?' You know, that kind of sense
of replaying time, which you can never do.
So there was a sense that you could win. And then when the news finally came,
people shouted and cheered and started getting dressed to go down to the
GROSS: You went down to the ballroom.
Mr. HAMILL: I did. I went down in the freight elevator with Kennedy and
Bill Barry, who was the head of security, and four or five other people jammed
into this freight elevator; down to the back of the ballroom, which opened
onto the kitchen. And we all got up on the stage behind Kennedy. I was in
the very last row. And George Plimpton was beside me and he realized that
there was no wall behind the curtain we were leaning on and warned everybody.
We all laughed. And then Kennedy came and made his acceptance speech, which
ended with, "onto Chicago."
And then we turned to go back into the kitchen. Half the stage turned left
and half the stage turned right, because there were no paths, really. And I
ended up in the actual room where the steam tables were and an old rusty ice
machine and a few other things, and Kennedy was walking towards us. I was
walking backwards, making notes of what he was doing. There were a number of
his people right behind him. And then he turned to shake hands with one of
three Mexican busboys who were at the end of the steam tables that are in a
lot of the pictures, a fellow name Juan Romero. And as he was shaking hands
and turned to face this fellow, turned to his own left, pap-pap-pap-pap-pap,
the shots rang out.
GROSS: Pete Hamill will describe what happened next in the second half of the
show. Hamill wrote the introduction to a new book collecting Bill Eppridge's
photos of Robert Kennedy called "A Time It Was." Hamill's novel "North River"
has just been published in paperback. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering Robert F.
Kennedy on the 40th anniversary of his assassination. After giving a speech
late in the night declaring victory in the June 4th California Democratic
primary, he was shot three times. Let's get back to our interview with
journalist and novelist Pete Hamill. He was a friend of Kennedy's, worked
briefly for his campaign, and was with him the night he was assassinated.
When we left off, Hamill had just described hearing the gunshots.
Did you know right away what was happening?
Mr. HAMILL: Yes. Because I turned and I saw a this guy who turned out to be
Sirhan Sirhan, his right leg planted forward and the gun straight out. It was
about, I don't know, three feet from Kennedy's head. And he was directly to
my right, and it was a real gun. And there was that amazing whoosh of that
action suddenly, a frozen moment, and then, `Holy!' Everybody charging. And I
was one of the group--Rosey Grier, Plimpton, others--who slammed into Sirhan
and started wrestling for the pistol and bringing his arm down. And because
his arm was going down, a lot of the people behind Kennedy got shot in the
leg. Not a lot, but two or three people got shot in the legs because the arm
was being forced down until they finally got the gun out of his hand.
And for me, the reporter took over. After one moment of initial rage,
throwing a punch over somebody's shoulder, I started just making notes. I
became a recording machine and watched as they slammed Sirhan up on these
steam tables and pulled him way down the length of the kitchen. Bobby was on
the floor. I thought he was shot in the chest because there was blood on his
shirt and on his fingers, but it was because his hand had brushed his head
above and behind the ear where the bullet--the first of three bullets--entered
him, and he got it on his fingertips.
And I remember so clearly Jesse Unruh, who was the head of the Democratic
Party in California, running around and saying, `No Dallas. No Dallas. No
Dallas!' Meaning they didn't want Sirhan to be killed the way Jack Ruby killed
Lee Harvey Oswald the next day after Dallas.
GROSS: `Don't kill the evidence.'
Mr. HAMILL: Yeah. `Don't kill the killer. Try to find out what he's made
of, who he is, what's this about, etc.' And, of course, that prevailed. They
kept him alive.
GROSS: And refresh our memories about what Sirhan Sirhan's motivations were.
Mr. HAMILL: Well, one of the motivations was--see, at the time, nobody knew
who he was. But one of the motivations came from the Middle East. Bob
Kennedy had supported the sale of jets to Israel.
GROSS: Jet fighters.
Mr. HAMILL: Jet fighters, yeah. The PLO, which had been formed only the
year before, after the '67 war in Israel, the PLO--apparently Sirhan was not
exactly a member. There was no branch office of the PLO in Southern
California and he'd been there a couple of years, but his sympathies were
there because he was a Palestinian. And in the diaries that they later found,
they was--of Sirhan's--and they exist, they've been in the public domain for
years, "R.F.K. must die. R.F.K. must die. R.F.K. must die. R.F.K."
written, scribbled across pages, almost like a self-hypnotic use of words in
his own solitude. And he went out, and, as any one of these guys has always
been able to do, he got a gun and he got through security and got in--such as
it was--and got into the place where he could make that chant come true.
GROSS: What impact did Bobby Kennedy's assassination have on you personally?
Mr. HAMILL: Well, you know, I came back to go to the funeral, and then I was
on the train and all that.
GROSS: The train that took his body from...
Mr. HAMILL: That took his body to Washington.
GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Mr. HAMILL: And all through that,I was still more or less functioning fairly
GROSS: Because you were reporting, probably.
Mr. HAMILL: Yeah. I was reporting and I wanted to write the thing and try
to get it down as accurately as I could. But when all that was over, when
Bobby was buried and the story moved to another chapter somewhere, for the
first and only time in my life I had a writer's block. I couldn't write. I
was sitting there saying, `Ah, what's the point of all this? What am I
doing?' And I couldn't work. And I had two--my daughters were two little
girls at the time. They were three and five, and they were used to me
working, and they'd see me staring out the window or something. I went back
to Mexico with them on a trip, because Mexico always had the ability to heal
what bothered me. I needed to drown in vowels. And came back on the 4th of
July and back up to New York.
And I ran into Paul O'Dwyer, who was a wonderful older Irish guy, politician,
lawyer, permanent defense attorney. And he said, `What are you doing?' I
said, `Nothing.' And he said, `Why?' I said, `I got a writer's block, Paul.'
O'Dwyer looked at me and said, `You're not important enough to have a writer's
block. What are you doing?' And I laughed at loud and he laughed and I
started writing the next day.
But you need that Irish thing every once in awhile if you're--not only because
you're Irish, but because you have to get up off the floor and so, `OK, let's
make a left at the next corner.'
GROSS: So what impact did the assassination have on you politically?
Mr. HAMILL: Well, it didn't change my politics in any way. What it made
me--as a columnist, I became more political. I didn't want to go and spend
the rest of my life mourning Robert Kennedy or acting as if all those ideas
were foolish. It wasn't the ideas that killed him, it was the gun, the guy
with the gun. So in my journalism, I became quite political for a while,
thinking, rather than going to Mass every June or something and praying for
his soul and all that, it would be better to take his ideas and his passions
and keep him present sometimes, so when I had to think about something, `What
would Bobby think? Would this column dishonor his memory or something?' I
would think that way. He was a presence, but not in a conventional way.
GROSS: My guest is Pete Hamill. We'll continue our remembrance of Robert F.
Kennedy after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: We're devoting today's show to the memory of Robert Kennedy. He was
assassinated 40 years ago. Let's get back to our interview with journalist
Pete Hamill, who was a friend of Kennedy's and was with him the night he was
Bobby Kennedy's assassination was on the night that he won the California
primary, and you were with him then. You'd worked for his campaign. Has that
experience affected how you've viewed this year's primary?
Mr. HAMILL: Yes, it has. I mean, the process--I don't mean the ideas or the
style, necessarily--but the process of offering yourself to immense crowds, to
turn politics into a kind of show or a form of almost religious ceremony at
different points, is amazingly dangerous. People read the paper. The nut
cases read the paper along with the decent people. And you never know what
the availability of candidate A, B, C or D might create in a warped head.
So, yes. It's impossible for those of us who either were present that night
40 years ago and erupted into tears and anger, it's impossible to ask us not
to think of comparisons in a campaign like this one. And we're stuck, because
we have a tradition of going out among the crowds and pressing the flesh, and
even if they're fake photo-ops, a shot and a beer picture and that kind of
thing, there's still moments of availability in a country with too many guns.
And if there were any way to honor Kennedy and all the others who've died for
the things they believed in, you would think it would begin with getting the
gun out of American life. And there's more guns now than ever and more
politicians afraid of the NRA and telling us that guns are American. I'd like
to think that they're not.
GROSS: Now, I should mention that Robert Kennedy didn't even have Secret
Service protection, because at the time you didn't get Secret Service unless
you were the party's official candidate.
Mr. HAMILL: Exactly. And Sam Yorty hated Kennedy, the mayor of Los Angeles.
And he wouldn't provide security from the LAPD; so he thanked him actually,
from the stage that last night in the ballroom, in, again, an ironical way,
and everybody got the gag and all cheered. But even then, you're so amazingly
Obama appeared before a crowd of 75,000. I mean, that's like four Knicks
games in Oregon a couple of weeks ago. Who knew who was out there.
GROSS: You know, as we mentioned, when you urged Robert Kennedy to run for
president, you were in Ireland writing a thriller about the assassination of
Mr. HAMILL: Yes.
GROSS: How did that plot sound to you after the assassination? Did you
publish the book the way you'd written it?
Mr. HAMILL: I did, actually. I had finished it, so it was finally
published. And I wouldn't even go to promote it. I couldn't bring myself to
go out and try to make a dollar on the basic notion of assassinating somebody
world known. So it's around in Alibris and out-of-print bookstores, but I
haven't read it in 40-odd years.
GROSS: The 40th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's assassination coincides with
the diagnosis of his brother Ted having brain cancer. Want to just reflect on
that for a moment?
Mr. HAMILL: Well, again, I think the way that Teddy has handled this is part
of that what I call Irish fatalism, you know, where you laugh at death. And I
think that's an honorable way to face it. You know, where I grew up, among
Irish immigrants--the ones that Bobby was so curious about because he was, you
know, three or four generations separated from the Irish immigrant experience,
my parents were from Ireland, from Belfast--there was a sense that the worst
sin of all was cruelty. But the second worse sin was self-pity. No matter
what you did, you weren't allowed to feel sorry for yourself. You get up and
go to work. And I think that's an admirable thing that the Kennedys,
these--remember, that family had amazing fortunes. They could have, those
young guys, Jack and Teddy and Bobby, could have spent their lives sitting on
the Riviera drinking highballs and watching the sunset. Which they didn't do.
They went out and tried to give something back to the country that had been so
kind and generous to their ancestors, the people that got them there.
So I think that's the part I admire about them. They didn't act as if they
were in our past. They went out and tried to do something for people who were
not as well off as they were. And it's one of the things I think I'll go to
my grave feeling about them.
GROSS: Will you be doing anything special on the anniversary to reflect or,
you know, honor Robert Kennedy's life?
Mr. HAMILL: Ah, gee, I don't know. It's a good idea. I haven't thought
about it. But the trouble is, a lot of my friends who I think of about that
night--you mentioned Jack Newfield--have now passed away. And you can't go on
a street corner and stand there yelling , `Remember! Remember!' to the crowd.
I think you do it privately and then get up the next morning and go to work.
GROSS: Pete Hamill, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. HAMILL: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Pete Hamill wrote the introduction to a new book collecting photos of
Bobby Kennedy taken by Bill Eppridge. It's called "A Time It Was."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Decade-old interview with journalist Jack Newfield
on Bobby Kennedy
TERRY GROSS, host:
The late journalist Jack Newfield was a friend of Hamill and Bobby Kennedy.
Newfield traveled with Kennedy from November 1966 until the assassination and
wrote a biography of him. Ten years ago, on the 30th anniversary of Kennedy's
assassination, I spoke with Newfield. Here's a brief excerpt.
When you were following Robert Kennedy on his presidential campaign, did you
think he was going to win?
Mr. JACK NEWFIELD: I did not actually think he was going to win until like
the last half-hour of his life with that last night in California. He had
lost the Oregon primary the week before partly because he supported gun
control in a state with a lot of hunters. Everything was riding on
California. He had to win in California. And the same day there was a
primary in South Dakota, which is the state Hubert Humphrey was born in,
although he later became the senator from Minnesota. And that night, the last
night of his life, he not only won California by 5 percentage points, he also
won in South Dakota. And about a half hour before he went down to the
ballroom to claim his victory, he had a phone conversation with Mayor Daley of
Chicago; and Mayor Daley all but promised to throw the Illinois delegates to
Bobby at the convention in August in 1968. I think he said to me and Pete
Hamill at that point, `Daley is the ball game and I think we have Daley.'
And then one of the most moving things for me was, the night before his
funeral, I went into St. Patrick's Cathedral with a group of friends that
included Tom Hayden, who was then a leader of Students for Democratic Society
and was organizing the protest at the 1968 convention, and I was asked to
stand vigil at the casket at some point in the middle of the night. And Mayor
Daley was there. And he and I, who do not admire each other, were both
standing over the casket of Robert Kennedy and tears running down our cheeks.
And Tom Hayden, who was further back in St. Patrick's, I could hear him
And then, 10 weeks later, when the Democratic Party was almost destroyed by
the armies led by Tom Hayden in the street and the Chicago police working for
Mayor Daley, I thought back to that moment, that Robert Kennedy was the only
possible person who could have unified Mayor Daley and Tom Hayden and myself
behind one candidacy, and that those riots and violence never would have
happened if Bob had not been killed. And I think if he had been nominated, he
certainly would have defeated Richard Nixon. And that's a gigantic fork in
the road, to get Richard Nixon instead of Robert Kennedy.
GROSS: Where were you when Robert Kennedy was murdered?
Mr. NEWFIELD: I was on the fifth floor of the hotel. I was watching--he
went downstairs and I wanted to avoid the crush of people; and John Lewis,
who's a close friend of mine who is now a congressman from Atlanta, he and I
stayed behind to watch the victory speech on TV in a suite on the fifth floor
that Bob had just vacated. And we watched it on television in the hotel, and
then we ran downstairs when we realized that shots had been fired. And later
that night, me and John and Cesar Chavez went to the hospital, which is where
it hit me that this was Robert Kennedy's coalition, and people like Chavez and
John Lewis were now orphans in history; that I felt Robert Kennedy's
presidency would have been the logical climax of the 1960s; that everything
that had happened for eight years was pointing towards Robert Kennedy's
presidency to end the Vietnam War, and it was just aborted in front of our
eyes. It was, as Marshall Gans, who was an organizer for Chavez, says in the
film, as Robert Kennedy--the gunshots rang out and you knew what happened. He
said, `I could feel history slipping through my fingers.'
GROSS: The late journalist Jack Newfield, recorded 10 years ago.
We'll conclude our remembrance of Robert Kennedy and hear from his son Max
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: From 1998, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy on his father
TERRY GROSS, host:
We're remembering Robert Kennedy. He was assassinated 40 years ago. We're
going to conclude with an excerpt of an interview I recorded with his son Max
on the 30th anniversary of the assassination. Max Kennedy was three when his
father was killed. When we spoke, he had just edited a collection of his
father's speeches. I asked Max to read what Robert Kennedy said to a crowd in
Indianapolis after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Mr. MAXWELL TAYLOR KENNEDY: These words were spoken. I don't know if you
know, Terry, but my father was scheduled to speak in Indianapolis that
evening; and while he was on the plane, he got word that Dr. King had been
shot and was going to die. And this announcement had not been made public, so
it fell to my father to give this terrible news to the people of Indianapolis.
And he was scheduled to speak in what was then called the ghetto. And as his
escort drove into one of the poorest areas in the city, the police who were
escorting him pulled away and refused to drive in. My father's car continued,
but the car carrying his speech followed the police officers. So he found
himself that night in this very poor area with no speech. And he started by
"I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens and for people who
love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot
and killed tonight."
And at that point, on the recording, there's a terrible gasp from the crowd.
And then my father picks up again and he says:
"Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow
human beings, and he died because of that effort. In this difficult day, in
this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind
of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you
who are black, considering the evidence there evidently is that there were
white people who were responsible, you can be filled with bitterness, with
hatred and with a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a
country, in great polarization--black people amongst black, white people
amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another--or we can make an
effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to
replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our
land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
"For those you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and
distrust at the injustice of such an act against all white people, I can only
say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of
my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an
effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go
beyond these rather difficult times."
And then he quoted from memory his favorite poet, Aeschylus. And he said:
"My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote, `In our sleep, pain which cannot
forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against
our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'"
And he finished that speech by asking the people there to go back to their
homes and to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King and also to say
a prayer for the United States. And the remarkable thing is that, that night
there were riots across the country. I think there were riots in 186 cities
and towns in the United States, and Indianapolis was quiet.
GROSS: Max Kennedy, did that speech give you any clues on dealing with your
Mr. KENNEDY: Yes. I think it definitely did. It's really a remarkable
speech. I think that when a violent act occurs like that, the temptation is
immediately to respond with hatred and with anger and with a vengeful heart.
And the lesson that my father tried to give is to, you know, the old Christian
ethic, which is to try to respond with love.
And, in fact, I took the title of this book from something he said later that
same night in that same speech. He said to this incredibly poor audience, who
had every right to be unimaginably angry, he went back and he quoted the
ancient Greeks again, which I think is a remarkable thing. And he said:
"Let us dedicate ourself to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago, `to tame
the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.'"
And, I mean, in the final analysis, my feeling is that this world could still
use a lot more gentleness.
GROSS: Max Kennedy, talking about his father, Robert Kennedy, in an interview
recorded 10 years ago.
Robert Kennedy was assassinated 40 years ago after declaring victory in the
June 4th California Democratic primary.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.