Memories Of Robert F. Kennedy

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, delivers a speech at the Ambassador Hotel moments before he was shot and killed in Los Angeles, June 5, 1968.
AP Photo

On the morning of June 5, 1968, millions of Americans woke to the shocking news that New York Sen. Robert Kennedy had been shot after winning California's Democratic presidential primary. Kennedy - 42 years old - died the next day. The senator's campaign staff included a young man named Jeff Greenfield, who is now, of course, CBS News' senior political correspondent. Now, on the 40th anniversary of RFK's assassination, Greenfield shares his memories.

When you look back 40 years, there's always a danger of buying into myth; of romanticizing a time or a prominent figure. But after spending hours looking at old films of Robert Kennedy's 1968 campaign, I'm convinced that what I remembered-and admired-was something very real.

There was, first of all, the campaign itself. Since it was my first glimpse of presidential politics - I was 24 years old, working as a junior speechwriter - I didn't know then, how remarkable it was. The controlled hysteria of the campaign plane, the size and intensity of the crowds, the sea of hands and faces, and at times near-frenzy.

There was also a lot of humor. Robert Kennedy had very little patience with the platitudes of politics, and he often mocked them - and himself. Listen to him explanation to the citizens of Pomona, Calif., why he won't put on the oversize sombrero they gave him:

Kennedy said: "What if its too big? What if it's too small? Then it'll fall down over my ears and you'll be embarrassed that it's too big. Let me try it on at home."

The crowd implored him to try it on.

Kennedy said: "I'll say this, if I'm elected president of the United States with your help, the first day I'm in the White House, I'll put the hat on."

And at a California college, he began a speech with the obligatory quote: "Thomas Jefferson once wrote that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing. But If I'm elected president … don't try it."

Apart from playing with his audiences, he would also challenge them. The most enduring memories of his appearances for me is how he would push his listeners into thinking.

When talking to college students about why he opposes draft deferments for college students: "As you stay here and sit here and debate all these questions and talk about the morality of some of these problems of the poor and all of these other difficulties, and then say a person who has the right and the ability because of maybe what his father did or mother did, or place that he happens to live, has the right to go to a college or a university and therefore doesn't have to be drafted and a poor boy who happens to be black has to be drafted. How you can argue that and state that?"

He would condemn violence and lawlessness in the ghetto, but then add this: "But what is also necessary is that we understand one another. That you understand their problems and that the black people of the United States understand that you are concerned about them."

He was also ready to challenge himself. When he turned against the War in Vietnam, he would always include this: "And when the history is going to be written about this conflict, I'm obviously going to have to take my share of personal responsibility. I happen to think I learned something from that."

At the heart of Robert Kennedy was a sense of passion, even outrage at conditions he often called "unacceptable." He was a Democrat who hated welfare, not just for the anger it stirred among taxpayers, but mostly because of what it did to the poor:

"They might have wanted fathers and they might have wanted husbands. We have given them instead checks and a dole," he said.

t all came to an end in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles. But my last memories are not of that moment - but of the train ride that took his body from New York to Washington - a train ride that stretched for eight hours.

Inside, there was something of an Irish wake; family members greeting friends and campaign workers, telling old campaign stories.

But every time we looked out the window, and saw the countless tens of thousands gathered to say goodbye - kids and Cub scouts and Little leaguers, veterans in their old uniforms, that sense of loss was overwhelming.

People still ask, "what if?" Could he have been nominated, could he have been elected, could he have governed effectively?

We don't know, can't know. But did we lose a rare kind of public figure? That I think we do know.