On this day in 1968, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) is fatally wounded by a gun shot to the head following his victory in the California Democratic Primary for President. His passing the following day shocked a nation already in anguish over the assassinations of Kennedy’s brother John in 1963, and Martin Luther King, April 4, 1968.
Born to a large and notoriously competitive family in 1925, Kennedy was referred to as “the runt” by his brusque and calculating father Joseph, who doted on JFK and Joe, Jr. When close family friend Lem Billings remarked to Joe Sr. that Robert was “the most generous little boy,” Joe Sr. replied that he did not know where his son “got that.” Billings later commented that the only similarity between Robert and Joe Sr. was their eye color.
Leaving prep school to join the U.S. Navy before his 18th birthday, Kennedy served from 1944-46, returning to college at Harvard after his discharge. Kennedy went on to law school at the University of Virginia, graduating in 1951, and began his political career in Massachusetts the next year with the management of his brother John’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. Robert himself first came into national prominence in 1953, when he was an assistant counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, headed by Joseph R. McCarthy, from which he ultimately resigned after vicious conflict with Donald J. Trump mentor Roy Cohn.
Kennedy served in various DOJ posts and legal capacities for Democratic committees, as well as acting as an aid for Democratic presidential contender Adlai Stevenson in 1956; seeking only experience, Kennedy privately remained unimpressed by Stevenson and voted for the reelection of Pres. Eisenhower. In 1957 he was chief counsel to the Senate select committee conducting investigations into labor racketeering, which led to his long-standing feud with James R. Hoffa of the Teamsters Union.
Kennedy resigned from the committee staff in 1960 to conduct his brother’s campaign for the U.S. presidency. After JFK won the election, he appointed Robert attorney general in his cabinet, quipping “I see nothing wrong with giving Robert some legal experience as Attorney General before he goes out to practice law.” After his brother was struck down in Dallas, Kennedy continued to serve as attorney general until he resigned in September 1964, and made pained efforts to emotionally support the family internally, and the nation externally.
The months after his brother’s death were a desperate time for him. He was stooped by grief and spent long periods staring out windows or walking in the Virginia woods. He had presided over the Department of Justice for 44 months. He had emerged as a statesman of the law, improving the lot of many, and resigned his AG post in September, 1964, being elected Senator of New York that November.
Less than four years later, having lost some of the edge sharpened onto him by his father, he had become a champion for MLK and civil rights, the chief spokesman for liberal Democrats, and a sharp critic of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam policy. On March 16, 1968, he announced his candidacy for the presidency. By June 4 he had won five out of six presidential primaries, including the big one that fateful day in California. Shortly after midnight on June 5 he spoke to his followers in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. As he left through a kitchen hallway, he was fatally wounded by Palestinian immigrant, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan. All in this nation with an ounce of heart were crushed.
Many historians, observers and this writer remain morally convinced that RFK’s assasination formed direct causation for Nixon’s elevation and the catastrophically dysfunctional politics we continue to endure to this very hour; the same deep societal failings which 50 years later would render virtue scarce and help elevate an obvious incompetent to the presidency, and to kill George Floyd.
Kennedy was buried alongside his brother Jack at Arlington National Cemetery. Anyone who has visited there, or read this tribute thus far, cannot help but wonder how much more just and decent American society would be, had Robert Francis Kennedy lived to fully answer his calling.