I’m old enough to remember John F. Kennedy’s assassination — because of it, there were no Saturday-morning cartoons on TV. And I remember hearing on TV that spring day that Martin Luther King had been assassinated and going to tell my mother, and I distinctly remember her saying, sadly, that she was not surprised.
And I remember, at the tail end of second grade, when Robert Kennedy was shot, how class was buzzing with the news when I walked in and the huge headline in that afternoon’s Charlotte News: “BULLET REMOVED FROM/SEN. KENNEDY’S BRAIN,” a headline that had, sadly, been overtaken by events by the time I saw it.
Even at the time, I grasped on some level that there was something special about Bobby Kennedy’s candidacy, and I have wondered many times how much better our country’s recent history would have been if he had lived and been elected … and that he would have been elected, I have no doubt.
A lot of people since then have said that Bobby Kennedy’s assassination was inevitable. Perhaps it was. I’m less interested in that question than I am in the question of whether all that many people thought at the time that it was inevitable. And now, we may have an answer.
Vanity Fair has excerpted a new book by Thurston Clarke, “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America.” And if Clarke is to be believed, the inevitability of Robert Kennedy’s death was not a close-held, private belief:
As he started to leave, waves of students rushed the platform, knocking over chairs and raising more dust. They grabbed at him, stroking his hair and ripping his shirtsleeves. Herb Schmertz was left with a lifelong phobia of crowds. University officials opened a path to a rear exit, but Kennedy waved them off and waded into the crowd. Photographer Stanley Tretick, of Look magazine, watched the mêlée and shouted, “This is Kansas, [expletive] Kansas! He’s going all the [expletive] way!”
One reporter would call the Landon lecture the first indication that “we were embarking on something unlike anything we had ever experienced.” Cries of “Holy [expletive]!” and “What the hell are we in for?” echoed through the press bus as it pulled away from the campus. But once the excitement had ebbed, John J. Lindsay, of Newsweek, said, “Listen, I’m not sure we’re going to like how this turns out.” …
Before returning to the Kansas City airport, the Kennedy press corps stopped for a quick restaurant meal. Jimmy Breslin asked a table of reporters, “Do you think this guy has the stuff to go all the way?”
“Yes, of course he has the stuff to go all the way,” John J. Lindsay replied. “But he’s not going to go all the way. The reason is that somebody is going to shoot him. I know it and you know it. Just as sure as we’re sitting here somebody is going to shoot him. He’s out there now waiting for him. And, please God, I don’t think we’ll have a country after it.”
There was a stunned silence. Then, one by one, the other reporters agreed. But none asked the most heartbreaking question: Did Kennedy himself know it?
Heartbreaking, indeed. And more heartbreaking still: What of America was lost when America lost Bobby Kennedy?