Exactly half a century ago this week, Sen. Robert Kennedy, the man who would be president, roared across Ventura County. At La Colonia in Oxnard and at the overflowing Buenaventura Mall, he delivered fiery speeches, hugged his supporters and shook hands until his fingers were literally bruised and bleeding.
In June l968 I witnessed all of this firsthand as a foreign correspondent for the London Daily Express when I traveled with Bobby throughout California. He had become the Democratic presidential frontrunner and hot favorite to win the presidency. President Lyndon Baines Johnson had become something of a pariah as a result of his mishandling of the escalating Vietnam War.
For America, l968 was to be a memorable year — but for all the horribly wrong reasons: An unwinnable war that had divided the nation, and gun violence that destroyed the lives of two of the country’s most famous men, men who had offered hope, dramatic change and a brighter more peaceful future.
The year started badly on Jan. 23, when North Korea (yes, that very same North Korea we are dancing with right now) captured the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy intelligence-gathering vessel, and its crew. The sailors weren’t released for 11 months, deeply embarrassing the administration and the Pueblo’s brave Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, who had undergone severe torture.
Barely a week later tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops began a series of surprise attacks across Vietnam. What became known as the “Tet Offensive” turned many Americans against a war they saw as unwinnable.
On March 12 antiwar Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota nearly defeated President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. It underlined the growing opposition to the Vietnam War.
On March 16th U.S. troops killed more than 500 Vietnamese civilians, including children, in a village. The carnage became known as “The My Lai Massacre,” and it came to symbolize all that had gone wrong in the war.
On March 31, President Johnson stunned the nation by announcing that he would not seek another term.
On April 4, America’s legendary civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in a Memphis motel. His senseless murder led to bloody riots in Baltimore, Boston and Chicago.
On April 11, with nightly TV news anchors grimly reporting the ever-mounting death toll of young Americans in faraway Vietnam, the military announced that it was sending even more young men off to war. There were now 549,500 U.S. troops fighting one of the most unpopular wars in U.S. history.
In June l968, for millions of Americans, Bobby Kennedy, running for President with a fierce and popular campaign to end the slaughter in Vietnam and bring the troops home, had become the nation’s best and brightest hope to stop the killing in Southeast Asia.
At 42, he was the energetic charismatic candidate favored to put another Kennedy into the White House and bring Camelot back to America. He campaigned, long and hard — 85 days nonstop. With his very pregnant wife Ethel — mother of his 10 children — at his side and even their dog Freckles along for the ride, Kennedy played to packed, exuberant houses.
At each stop along the campaign trail, his handlers grimly hung onto Kennedy’s body as he fearlessly waded into the crowd like a rock star. Voters were passionate. Time and again I watched as his small frame was pulled into the adoring masses. They just wanted to touch, hug and pay homage to John Kennedy’s younger brother.
In the presidential campaign of June 1968 there was no law that mandated providing Secret Service protection to presidential candidates. Alas, that new law was enacted just a few months later. Bobby did, however, have personal bodyguards: Olympic decathlon gold medalist Rafer Johnson and L.A. Rams football star Roosevelt Grier.
We chugged our way through California’s agricultural heartland on a whistle-stop train. In big cities Bobby sat in the back of an open car, or perched precariously in a pickup truck as his motorcade moved slowly while thousands screamed his name. In the streets of San Francisco nervous campaign workers heard explosions while we wended our way through Chinatown. It was merely celebratory firecrackers.
Then to San Diego, Ventura, a breather on the beach in Malibu — at the home of Bobby’ s pal, Manchurian Candidate director John Frankenheimer. And then on election night: to the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.
Bobby’s speech was the same whether he was talking to voters in California’s lettuce fields or addressing fervent supporters in Ventura County.
He finished every speech with the same George Bernard Shaw line. “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’ ”
Shortly before midnight on June 4, Kennedy was jubilant. Victory over his rival Sen. Eugene McCarthy seemed inevitable.
“Now on to the Chicago convention,” Kennedy told his ecstatic supporters in the hotel ballroom. And then he headed for a press conference — via the kitchen.
Suddenly, I heard balloons popping. One, two ,three, four, five and six.
Then screams. I stepped into the pantry — and there on the concrete pantry floor lay the candidate: blood gushing from a head wound.
The scene was sheer bedlam.
“Get the gun,” yelled a radio newsman.
“Give him air,” screamed Ethel, cushioning her husband’s head on a straw hat on the floor
“Not again,” shrieked a Bobby supporter.
It was a scene that is forever etched in my mind.
Twenty four hours later Bobby became the second member of the tragedy-prone Kennedy family in five years to die from an assassin’s bullet.
A truly annus horribilis.
Local author Ivor Davis will discuss his experience June 6, 2018, 6:30–7:30 pm, at the Museum of Ventura County in Downtown Ventura.