I do not recollect being told, if indeed I ever was told, that President Kennedy had been assassinated. At the age of four years and eleven days, and having come into the world on the other side of the Atlantic, the news of his death would have been singularly meaningless to me. (Who’s President Kennedy? What’s a President? Where’s America?) In any case, JFK’s death was overshadowed for me, my father and my two younger sisters by a far more personal tragedy which, unlike my sisters, I was old enough to remember but, like them, too young fully to understand.
Not so with the death of Bobby Kennedy.
I was eleven at the time, and I was staying with my uncle and aunt in their bungalow in the seaside town of Newhaven, Sussex, during that last summer before my family moved away from the area and I was sent to boarding school.
By that time, I knew enough about the Kennedys to know who JFK and RFK were.
While I do not remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard of the shooting of Robert Kennedy, I had learnt (probably from the BBC 1 six o’clock news) that Kennedy had been shot and that his chances of survival were slim; and I remember seeing the photos of the crumpled body lying on the floor, the blood, and the rosary in his hands.
(I vaguely remember asking what a rosary was or, more probably, and this is emphatically NOT an attempt at humour, why Kennedy was holding a rose in his hand.)
I more vividly remember, about this exact time forty years ago to the day, my aunt, who, like Kennedy, had been brought up a Catholic, coming into the living room where I was playing after school and telling me that he had died, having just heard the news in the kitchen on the radio.
I remember feeling very sad when I heard the news, and tho’ I had never read John Donne, I think I understood then something of what Donne means when he says: “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls”.
At that time, as a family (and I’m back home now with Mum, Dad, my two oldest sisters, and two much-adored “half-sisters” and a “half-brother”), we always listened into British-born journalist, Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America, and I would undoubtedly have heard Cooke’s letter of 9th June, 1968, delivered, as always, in that accent which was no longer British but not entirely American, and broadcast by the BBC. Cooke had the “good fortune”, if that is the right way of describing it, to be only yards away from Kennedy when he was shot. Describing what he saw, he said:
There was a head on the floor, streaming blood and somebody put a Kennedy boater under it and the blood trickled down like chocolate sauce on an ice cake. There were flash lights by now and the button eyes of Ethel Kennedy turned to cinders. She was slapping a young man and he was saying “Listen lady, I’m hurt too” – and down on the greasy floor was a huddle of clothes and staring out of it the face of Bobby Kennedy, like the stone face of a child, lying on a cathedral tomb.
I had and have no idea of the time of all this, or even of the event itself, for when I pattered back into the creamy, green genteel dining room I heard somebody cry “Kennedy – shot” and heard a girl moan “No, no, not again” – and my companion was fingering a cigarette package like a paralytic.
A dark woman nearby suddenly bounded to a table and beat it, and howled like a wolf, “Stinking country, no, no, no, no” – and another woman attacked the shadow of the placid T.V. commentators, who’d not yet got the news.
Whether I first heard the description of the crowd’s reaction in Cooke’s piece or on the news, I was certainly familiar with this part of the story.
What stands out now, as I re-read Cooke’s piece is, one, his honesty:
It would be quite false to say, as I should truly like to say, that I’m sorry I was there.
Two, his description of Sirhan Sirhan, which is consonant with, though not proof of, the more recently proposed view that he had been hypnotized — all the more striking in that Cooke, as far as I am aware, was no conspiracy theorist:
And then a minute maybe, or an hour later or a day, the cops and the burly Johnson shot through the swinging doors with their bundle, of the black curly head and the jeans, and I recall the tight, small behind and the limp head and a face totally dazed.
Three, his vehement rejection of the notion of “collective guilt”:
I have no doubt that this experience is a trauma, and because of it no doubt, and five days later, I still cannot rise to the general lamentations about a sick society. I for one do not feel like an accessory to a crime, and I reject almost as a frivolous obscenity the sophistry of collective guilt, the idea that I, or the American people, killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Robert Francis Kennedy. I don’t believe either that you conceived Hitler and that in some deep, unfathomable sense all Europe was responsible for the extermination of six million Jews. With Edmund Burke, I do not know how you can indict a whole nation. To me this now roaringly fashionable theme is a great folly.
And lastly, the small differences between his written letter, as published in his book, Letter from America, and the transcript of the recorded version, where, aware he is running out of time, he skips bits, just as John F. Kennedy did in his Inauguration Speech.
Click here to listen to the 1968 letter (may not work)
Of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, it is Bobby whom I think is the more interesting figure, terribly vulnerable but undoubtedly brave, his last words, “Is everybody all right?”, demonstrating genuine concern for others while he himself lay dying, and, in Gore Vidal’s words, “too psychologically fragile to be the President” (!), “possibly bisexual” (!!), and “the only man whom Jackie Kennedy ever really loved” (!!!).
While I believe Jack changed during his presidency, it is Bobby who, of the two, was the one who changed, or was changed, the most (perhaps as a result of his brother’s death).