A Campaign, a Murder, a Legacy: Robert F. Kennedy’s California Story


Fifty years after his death, friends, aides and journalists recall the senator’s last campaign in California, his assassination in Los Angeles and what came next for the city.

Image
The Paul Schrade Library at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, the complex that replaced the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. CreditRozette Rago for The New York Times

Reaching into jubilant crowds from atop the back seat of a slow-moving convertible, walking the streets of riot-torn Watts, sitting with Cesar Chavez in the Central Valley — these are the frozen moments of Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign for president in California in 1968.

There is another one, of course, a final one: lying on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, a busboy cradling his head.

The date was June 5, 1968.

Days earlier, Mr. Kennedy had flown into the city to campaign in the California primary, his presidential hopes hanging in the balance. He had just lost to Eugene McCarthy in the primary in Oregon, the first election loss ever for a Kennedy. But Oregon was mostly white; in California, Mr. Kennedy touched his natural constituency — impoverished African-Americans and disenfranchised farmworkers from Mexico.

And so in California, the promise of his candidacy rested: to heal a nation torn by the Vietnam War and divided by race and class. A big win there, his aides hoped, could convince Mr. McCarthy to drop from the race and the power brokers in the Democratic Party to back Mr. Kennedy, clearing a path to the nomination at the convention later that summer in Chicago.

“He said, ‘If I don’t win California I am withdrawing,’” recalled Jeff Greenfield, the former CBS newsman who at the time was a young speechwriter for Mr. Kennedy. “What do they say in the N.B.A.? Win or go home. That was it.”

On election night, word reached Mr. Kennedy at his fifth floor suite of the Ambassador Hotel, his campaign headquarters, that some polling sites in minority neighborhoods of Los Angeles had closed early. He dispatched campaign workers to find out what had happened. When the answer came back, it was good news for the Kennedy campaign: The early closings were because every single registered voter had already cast a ballot.

And then it was all over.

Moving through the pantry of the hotel, after giving his victory speech, Mr. Kennedy was gunned down. Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, said to be motivated by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and his hatred of Mr. Kennedy for his support of Israel, was later convicted of the murder.

Mr. Kennedy died the next day, June 6. That day, wrote Richard Goodwin, a Kennedy confidant, “the sixties came to an end in a Los Angeles hospital.”

In the decades after the murder conspiracy theories flourished, the Ambassador fell into disrepair before it was bought by Donald J. Trump, and a long struggle ensued between the future president, conservationists and the Los Angeles school district over what should become of the place.

Finally, the hotel was razed and replaced with a complex of schools for underprivileged children, many of them Latino immigrants, named for Mr. Kennedy.

[Read more about how Mr. Kennedy’s assassination changed American politics.]

On the 50th anniversary of his death, we spoke to friends, aides and journalists who were there in those last days in Los Angeles. The interviews have been condensed and lightly edited.

The Robert F. Kennedy Inspiration Park along Wilshire Boulevard.CreditRozette Rago for The New York Times

We were so excited. The excitement in the Latino community was just infectious. I mean, people were just so excited he was running and people were voting for him.

Mr. Greenfield: For me he was more willing to mock the pieties of politics than anybody I have seen before or since. There’s this scene where he goes to Fresno. And they have a big mall in Fresno. And he said, people ask me why I decided to run for president. And I told them, you know, if I’m running for president, I’m going to go to California. And if I go to California I’m going to get to the Fresno mall. Because after you have seen the pyramids of Egypt and the Taj Mahal, what else is left but the Fresno mall?

Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University’s law school who was a speechwriter for Mr. Kennedy: We get on the plane, it’s a private plane, there’s just four of us. Four chairs and four of us. And the plane takes off and he tells us he’s going to run for president.

‘A Great Perhaps, a Great Maybe’

In the moments before he left his suite to give his speech in the ballroom, Mr. Kennedy’s mood had lightened with the victory. The day before he had traveled 1,200 miles up and down the state, and nearly collapsed at his last stop, in San Diego.

Mr. Kennedy campaigning in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, circa 1968.CreditDavid Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Mr. Greenfield: There was a degree of buoyancy he had never shown before. Like California freed him. He was free of his brother and became his own man.

Mr. Kennedy addressing a packed ballroom crowd shortly before he was shot. CreditGetty Images

Mr. Schrade: We ran down the stairs, from the fifth, and fortunately caught up with him before he got to the ballroom. Bob was slowly going through the kitchen. “Viva Kennedy! Viva Kennedy!” from the kitchen workers. And shaking hands, signing some autographs.

Mr. Hamill: I went down fairly early. Jimmy Breslin came down right after me. We were all placed at the back of the stage. Plimpton and all the other guys.

Ms. Huerta: I was just shocked by the fact that he didn’t have any security. I think he had one person. Cesar had a lot of death threats. So we always had a contingent of security with Cesar wherever he went. But I didn’t say anything. The moment was so jubilant. I didn’t want to spoil the moment.

Mr. Yaro: I was close enough to shout, ‘Bobby, give us a V!’

Mr. Hamill: Bang bang, bang bang bang. I heard five shots. Some heard six.

Mr. Schrade: I was about six or eight feet behind Bob at that point. Lights went on, and I started shaking violently, and fell. I didn’t know I’d been shot.

Mr. Yaro: I’m sure I was scared to death. I realized I hadn’t taken a picture, of Sirhan taking the life of Kennedy. It dawned on me that I had my camera with me.

Mr. Hamill: I think about it still. I was so happy that I knew the guy. And so sad that in the end it was a great perhaps, a great maybe, that didn’t happen.

Rumors and conspiracy theories flourished over Mr. Kennedy’s assassination.CreditBoris Yaro/Los Angeles Times, via Associated Press

Conspiracy Theories and Missing Evidence

By the mid-1970s, a national feeling of mistrust toward government grew in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate. In Washington, lawmakers were holding new hearings on the J.F.K. and M.L.K. assassinations, and looking into abuses of power by the C.I.A. Conspiracy theories flourished. In Los Angeles, some were beginning to doubt that Mr. Sirhan acted alone.

Leading efforts to reopen the case was Mr. Schrade. He thought there might have been a second gunman, and when it emerged that the Los Angeles Police Department had destroyed some evidence, those suspicions grew.

Mr. Schrade — now 93 and still fighting to reopen the case — convinced a young Los Angeles city councilman at the time, Zev Yaroslavsky, to hold hearings on the L.A.P.D.’s role in the investigation. Mr. Yaroslavsky found no basis to support a theory that Mr. Sirhan was not the sole shooter, but it was clear the police had destroyed evidence. His hearings were a rare challenge to the authority of the Los Angeles police, then the pre-eminent power in city politics.

The original entrance to the Ambassador Hotel remains, with the still functioning clock.CreditRozette Rago for The New York Times
Memorabilia from the Ambassador Hotel on display at the school complex.CreditRozette Rago for The New York Times