The Death of Ronald Reagan

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | June 5, 2014

June 5, 2014
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Ronald Reagan as a lifeguard
Reagan's first job. Photograph of Ronald Reagan as a Lifeguard, Lowell Park, Illinois. National Archives, 198604.

Published: June 5, 2014 – The 10th Anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s Death

Shortly after midnight, on June 5, 1968, in Los Angeles, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot in the head after declaring victory in the California Democratic presidential primary. When California Governor Ronald Reagan, himself gearing up for a run as the Republican standard-bearer, learned the horrific news, he was touched to his very core. This telegram, sent by Reagan to Kennedy’s wife, as the Senator lay mortally-wounded, tells that story…

The last thing remembered, oddly, was his first job. He had been a lifeguard; he had saved seventy-seven people. Visitors to the former President’s Century City office wanted to hear about Washington, expected to hear about Hollywood – but Reagan, old overnight, talked instead about how he had saved seventy-seven people, pulled them, long ago, from the unpredictable currents of the Rock River in his small hometown of Dixon, Illinois. He’d been a lifeguard there, each summer from age fifteen to twenty-three, seven days a week, twelve hours day: he had watched, vigilantly, high on his tower, and when he saw trouble, literally dove in to stop it. That is what he remembered last about himself – he saved people. On the Rock River, in Hollywood, in Sacramento: he would always want to protect. It is that impulse which is evident in this short, sad letter – written as a telegram, quickly, to the wife of a dying man.

When, on the night of June 5, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, campaigning for the presidency in the California Democratic primary, was shot in the head by an assassin, Reagan was, in all likelihood, up late, watching the televised returns. He would have seen, a little after midnight, RFK’s victory speech – “And now it’s on to Chicago,” Bobby said, flashing the V-for-Victory peace sign, “and let’s win there” – and probably, too, kept an eye on the screen as Kennedy, on his way to a press conference forty yards away, disappeared from view amid the surging, chanting crowd. And then, instantly, within seconds, all of Reagan’s years at Rock River would have told him that something was wrong: cries, fitfulness, murmurs of “what happened?” and the drifting word “shot” – one look at that crowd, and he would have known. Moments later, from the podium, at the microphone, a man called out, “A doctor. We need a doctor right now. Immediately. We need a doctor.” And then, incredibly, a newsman was crying, saying that Kennedy, taking a shortcut through a narrow kitchen passageway, had been shot in the head, and lay unmoving in a pool of blood. Reagan stayed up all night, watching, trying to reach Kennedy’s wife: he wanted to offer her the services of his father-in-law, Dr. Loyal Davis, the most prominent neurosurgeon in the country. Unable to make contact, he wrote this note instead – although by the time he penned it, the news was certain: Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy, was dying, just like his brother, of an assassin’s bullet in his brain.

“I know there is little anyone can say at such a time but if there is anything we can do to be of help in any way please let us know. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Robert F. Kennedy died, assassinated by a Palestinian fanatic, some twenty-six hours later, on June 6th, 1968. Reagan was troubled by his death, but it answered a question he had often asked himself: why it was it that he was doing what he was doing? Now he knew, and was grateful. Perhaps he could help to change things and bring the country back to sanity, to law and to order. Away, he said, from violence, and to safety.

Reagan would also be the object of an assassin, on the 69th day of his presidency, as he left a Washington hotel after a speaking engagement – but he would live, and die an old man, almost thirty-six years to the day, after Kennedy.

Perhaps it was on June 6th then, the day Kennedy died, that Reagan began writing the speech he would deliver a week later, on the 13th, at an Indianapolis, Indiana GOP fund-raiser. There the former FDR Democrat – who had evolved, since 1946, into an anti-communist progressive, a Truman Democrat, an Eisenhower Republican, a Goldwater Republican and finally, by 1968, into the triumphant leader of the conservative movement – voiced what would become familiar thematic keynotes. Reagan, decrying civil unrest and lawlessness, declared that “a revolution in favor of tyranny” was underway, in which “a tiny minority of radical malcontents with a hodgepodge variety of causes” were demanding that the majority be “subject to a government which will have the power to redistribute earnings and possessions” – even as it denied them the right of self-protection. But amid that litany of accusation, still argued daily, came one other thought – and that one, was entirely new. Ronald Reagan saw in the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy a terrorist attack, rooted in anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel, against the United States itself. He called this first act of Arab terrorism on American soil “senseless savagery” by which means “the violence of war in the Middle East” had been “imported by an alien.” Sirhan, in fact, had been enraged by Kennedy’s pro-Israel views and, having stalked the Senator for days, apparently planned to kill him on June 5, 1968 – the first anniversary of the beginning of the Six-Day War. While most of the news coverage focused on the history of American political assassination – by then four presidents had been assassinated, and the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., shot and killed just 8 weeks before – Reagan sensed, in the unraveling of the sixties, a terror yet to come.

RONALD REAGAN. 1911-2004. The 40th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed, (“Nancy & Ronald Reagan”), as Governor, being the draft of a telegram: 1 page, octavo, no place [Sacramento], June 5, 1968. To ETHEL KENNEDY, the wife of Senator Robert F, Kennedy (1925-1968), at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles.

Ceremonial Honor Guard prepare to move the flag-draped casket of former President Ronald Reagan during his state funeral in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. June 2004. U.S. Navy.
Ceremonial Honor Guard prepare to move the flag-draped casket of former President Ronald Reagan during his state funeral in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. June 2004. U.S. Navy.

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