The Assassination & Funeral of Robert F. Kennedy

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | June 5, 2018

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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.

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, Ronald 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 as a young lifeguard at Rock River, so long ago, 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 some twenty-six hours after having been shot, on June 6th, 1968. He was 42 years old, and his death marked more than the end of the most revolutionary, passionate, and remarkably inclusive campaign in American history. Kennedy’s assassination at the hands of a Palestinian fanatic, Reagan presciently noted, was also a beginning.  This was a terrorist attack, he said just days later, rooted in anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel, against the United States itself. 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.

But Reagan’s speech about Kennedy’s death was a week away; his prophecy about Arab terrorism on American soil, decades: it was what began on  the night Kennedy was shot, and ended three nights later when he was laid to rest at Arlington cemetery next to his brother’s gravesite, that truly marked those days out of time. It was, for those who lived through it, perhaps the greatest, and most spontaneous expression of national grief, they would ever know.

It began simply. At 1:59 on the morning of June 6th, Kennedy Press Secretary Frank Mankiewicz, his Kennedy pin on his lapel, made a short announcement. The Senator had died fifteen minutes before; his wife, two of his sisters, one of his brothers-in-law, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. John F. Kennedy, were with him at the time of his death. He was 42 years old.

On the afternoon of the 6th, a funeral cortege made its way down Wilshire Blvd. to the airport. A jet, one of the three officially emblazoned “United States of America” had been sent by President Johnson to carry the coffin and mourners home to New York City. Jacqueline Kennedy, seeing this Air Force One, had to be assured it was not the plane that carried President Kennedy’s coffin from Dallas to Washington before she would board it.

In New York, on Saturday, June 8th, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue, Kennedy’s brother Ted, his voice cracking, delivered the eulogy, of which one sentence proved indelible: “My brother need not be idealized,” he said, “or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.” From New York, Kennedy’s body traveled the 225 miles to Washington, through mostly rural and poorer America aboard a 21-car funeral train. The trip, which should have taken 4 hours, took double. About 2 million people lined the train tracks to say goodbye. Some wore suits-and-ties, some bathing trunks; some carried flags, some saluted, some held signs, some wept silently. Occasionally Ethel Kennedy, now a widow with 10 children and an 11th on the way, appeared with Ted Kennedy on the last car’s platform, waving.

Arriving in Washington, the funeral cortege stopped at the Lincoln Memorial where, in the gathering darkness, the Marine Band sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” At the gravesite, hastily lit by hundreds of candles (and a bank of blinding floodlights), there was a brief ceremony,  and then the folded flag that had draped the casket was handed to Kennedy’s eldest son who, in turn, handed it to his mother. Kennedy’s coffin was lowered into the grave at 11:34 P.M. – the only night funeral ever at Arlington National Cemetery. It was over.

"So-Long Bobby" Paul Fusco. Magnum Photos.

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.