A Campaign, a Murder, a Legacy: Robert F. Kennedy’s California Story
Posted June 4, 2018 9:38 p.m. EDT
Updated June 4, 2018 9:42 p.m. EDT
LOS ANGELES — 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, 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, 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 McCarthy to drop from the race and the power brokers in the Democratic Party to back 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 Kennedy. “What do they say in the NBA? Win or go home. That was it.” On election night, word reached 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 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, Kennedy was gunned down. Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, said to be motivated by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and his hatred of Kennedy for his support of Israel, was later convicted of the murder.
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 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 Kennedy.
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.
A NEW YORK SENATOR COMES TO CALIFORNIA
Before Kennedy ran for president, he developed an association with the state as a senator from New York that would come to define his politics. He toured Watts after the 1965 riots tore apart that neighborhood. And he forged links with Chavez and striking farmworkers that earned him the support of Latinos. It was on a flight to California in 1968, to break bread with Chavez, who had been on a hunger strike, that Kennedy told his aides he was going to run for president.
Dolores Huerta, a Latino activist who worked with Chavez and on Kennedy’s campaign: When he did announce that he was going to run, we sent farmworkers to Los Angeles, down to register voters, to get the vote out. We had people working in south central, in East Los Angeles.
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. 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 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, 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.
Pete Hamill, a journalist, was there in the suite, celebrating along with other literary luminaries, like George Plimpton and Jimmy Breslin. A sense of inevitability had set in — this guy could be the next president — and everyone was looking forward to a party at the Factory, a popular nightclub.
Chavez had to leave early, so Huerta was asked to accompany the senator to the ballroom. Paul Schrade, a labor organizer who worked on the campaign, had been listening to returns on the radio and had come to the Ambassador. Boris Yaro, a photographer for The Los Angeles Times, had been at home when he decided to go to the hotel to get a photograph for his own wall. His image of a dying Kennedy was on the front page and the night became, he said, “a defining moment in my life.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yaro: I was close enough to shout, ‘Bobby, give us a V!’
Hamill: Bang bang, bang bang bang. I heard five shots. Some heard six.
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.
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.
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.
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 JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, and looking into abuses of power by the CIA. Conspiracy theories flourished. In Los Angeles, some were beginning to doubt that Sirhan acted alone.
Leading efforts to reopen the case was 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.
Schrade — now 93 and still fighting to reopen the case — convinced a young Los Angeles city councilman, Zev Yaroslavsky, to hold hearings on the LAPD’s role in the investigation. Yaroslavsky found no basis to support a theory that 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, which at that time were the pre-eminent power in city politics.
Around the same time, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed a special prosecutor to look into the case. Thomas Kranz, a young lawyer who had been a volunteer on Kennedy’s campaign and was at the hotel the night of the assassination, determined there was no evidence of a second gunman.
Sirhan remains imprisoned in California, with his next parole hearing scheduled for 2021.
Yaroslavsky: It was one of the first things that I did when I became a councilman. There are some inconsistencies. There was some evidence that had been destroyed. I’m not typically a conspiracy theorist. But he raised enough questions that I thought the city ought to take a look at it.
Kranz: This had been bubbling up for literally years. About questioning the findings, particularly the ballistic evidence. And the rumors and conspiracies of second gunmen, mystery witnesses, et cetera.
Yaroslavsky: I had no smoking gun, so to speak. Nobody brought that to the fore.
Kranz: There was never any evidence whatsoever — although I have a hundred-page report that goes into detail — showing any issue of doubt that the bullets that killed Sen. Kennedy and injured the other victims were fired from any other than one gun, that was Sirhan’s weapon. There was no evidence of any mysterious second gunman. THE AMBASSADOR HOTEL, TRUMP AND THE LEGACY OF RFK
In 1989, the Ambassador Hotel shut its doors for good, although for many years it remained a site for filming movies — the last one ever shot there was “Bobby,” directed by Emilio Estevez.
Trump bought the property and promised to build the country’s largest skyscraper. It was his boldest attempt to conquer the Los Angeles real estate market.
By 1998, Trump had abandoned the project, having lost it by eminent domain to the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The fight was not over, though, from conservationists, as well as those looking to preserve the site on behalf of Sirhan. Ultimately, the school district prevailed, the hotel was torn down, and built in its place was the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex, which opened in 2010.
Glenn Gritzner, former aide to the Los Angeles Unified School District: And so it sat there as this filming location for all that time. And then Trump tried to buy it, or did buy it. And he was going to build — there are still renderings if you look online — the tallest buildings on the West Coast.
There was the Hollywood contingent, and Diane Keaton was very involved in that. And there was the whole conspiracy theory people, saying we need to save it so we can prove Sirhan Sirhan didn’t do it.
Yaroslavsky: The assassination of JFK defined Dallas for at least a generation of people if not longer. Los Angeles had its own identity by 1968. A national identity. This event did not define Los Angeles in the eyes of the American people. They had other ways of relating to Los Angeles.