It was a little after 4 a.m. when the stillness of the night was broken by the piercing of the telephone that jolted me from a deep sleep.
I listened with disbelief as a colleague informed me Bobby Kennedy had been shot. It was the dawning of the fifth day of June 1968 and the world would soon awaken to the news that tragedy had again befallen the Kennedy family.
I was the assistant bureau chief of the Mutual Broadcasting System, and with my top two bosses in California covering the presidential primary, I was the guy in charge in New York. I mustered our team of reporters and engineers and prepared for another heavy news day.
It took me 15 minutes to get out of my apartment to shoot down the West Side Highway to our offices on West 50th Street. We were already on the air with live reports from Los Angeles.
Bobby had just declared victory in the California primary that would assure him his party’s nomination and likely catapult him into the White House. But fate intervened.
A lone gunman, Sirhan Sirhan, shot the junior senator from New York as he walked through the kitchen on the way out of the hotel. I was taking in foreign circuits from our correspondents around the world, filing reaction reports.
Around 7 a.m. I received a call from a reporter at one of our California affiliates. His name was Andy West and he inquired if I would be interested in audiotape he recorded in the kitchen minutes after the shooting.
“Absolutely,” I shouted, “wish you had called earlier.” I couldn’t believe the terrifying drama unfold as the audiotape passed through our system.
They were sounds of horror, with the reporter shouting “get the gun from him, break his arm if you have to.” Andy West weaved the ongoing narrative from the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel where Bobby Kennedy was shot in the head. He died 26 hours later.
I thanked Andy and told him he would receive Mutual’s standard fee of $25 for the tape he provided. He didn’t seem to have a problem with that. Minutes after it first aired, our switchboard was flooded with calls from other networks seeking permission to use the incredibly dramatic tape.
Suddenly I had “friends” all over the place, pleading with me to let them have a snippet of the tape. It was Mutual’s exclusive, but it was also such a huge national story I felt at some point we should share it. Mutual’s president agreed with me that after a few hours of exclusivity, we would make the tape available to all the networks.
Andy West emerged as the star reporter. He was on the evening talk shows. He was there to record one of those iconic moments in history. I preserved the original reel-to-reel recording which I recently found stored in the deep recesses of my garage. Listening to it again 45 years later brought back all the horror of the moment, and rekindled memories of my coverage of the story, particularly when Kennedy’s body was returned to New York days later.
The pall of grief hanging in the air was as oppressive as the heat that had been baking the city for two days. New York and the entire nation remained in a numbed state of shock as reality sunk in that history had repeated itself. Another Kennedy had been assassinated.
I had often been with the Junior Senator from New York, engaging in journalistic sparring with him during one-on-one interviews during his campaign and afterwards. I first met him years earlier when brother Jack was waltzing through the coalfields of West Virginia during his ascent to the White House. I admired Bobby as a man of strong conviction, who I always believed was the powerful and influential force behind his brother. Bobby was a vibrant man with an endearing smile, and a definitely non-New York accent. He was a true charmer, a requisite for any good politician. And Bobby wore it well.
I remembered Bobby in life as I stood outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral on that steamy hot June day reporting on his death. By the hundreds of thousands, people came to pay their respects. The rich and the poor, black and white, old and young.
They waited in line upwards of five hours to spend five seconds filing past the bier where his body lay in state. Bobby touched their lives, and on this day they came to touch his African mahogany casket for a tearful goodbye. Some made the sign of the cross, others genuflected. But most stretched their hands out to gently touch the lid of the closed casket. There’s an old Irish superstition, I was told, that touching a casket keeps the devil from troubling the soul of the deceased. The throng of people was so great, authorities had to abandon plans to end the procession at 10 pm. St. Patrick’s Cathedral remained open through the night. It was estimated that more than one million people had come to pay their respects. It was the biggest outpouring of grief in the city’s history.
I had seen St. Patrick’s Cathedral in many lights, but never quite like this. There was a muffled silence throughout the cavernous cathedral. Usually darkened at night, it was aglow in a brilliant pool of light that surrounded Kennedy’s casket. Smoke from candles on either side curled into the light.
I remember feeling the strain from the 90-degree heat and the emotion of the moment as members of the Kennedy family arrived at the Cathedral. A teary Ethel Kennedy, pregnant with her 11th child knelt in a front pew with her three eldest children. Earlier, Jacqueline Kennedy, who had endured the same ordeal four years earlier, was overcome by such grief as she knelt by her brother-in-law’s coffin, she cried uncontrollably.
All this was just a prelude of what was yet to come, a high Mass the following day, a somber funeral procession aboard a train, and finally burial at Arlington National Cemetery. I was at La Guardia airport as Bobby’s body arrived aboard a plane sent by President Johnson. I was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to observe a grievous moment in time. And I filed live reports from Penn Station, standing next to the legendary columnist Walter Winchell, as the funeral cortege boarded that special train, draped in black, for Bobby’s final trip to Washington.
I will never forget the reverence of so many people united in grief, the flags at half –staff hanging limp in the still air, and the black bunting. And there were the buttons, hundreds of them trimmed in black, with the words, “We Mourn Our Loss.”
Often, I have thought, along with multitudes of others, how history might have been different had it not been for the act of that lone gunman in a hotel kitchen 45 years ago.