Act I – The Night RFK Was ShotRobert M Cohen is an attorney who lives in Los Angeles.
His voice crackled with enthusiasm, confidence, youth, and charm as he acknowledged just winning the California Democratic Presidential Primary.
I was right there, five feet away from Robert F. Kennedy, edging in as close to the podium as I could. Barely 18 years old, a very green freshman at UCLA, I was reporting for KLA, the university’s radio station. I wasn’t on cloud nine – I was on cloud ten thousand and nine. I could practically touch the next President of the United State.
“Right there” was the Embassy Room, inside L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel, RFK’s California Primary Campaign Headquarters. It was the very early morning after the election, a little past midnight, June 5, 1968.
Everybody in the room was ecstatic. His smile was a beacon. And I was in front of the podium, just to the right of RFK, as he gave that jubilant, electric, beaming victory speech.
Even now, nearly 45 years later, I vividly remember the body heat of the crowd and the smell of the room.
It was the moment of a lifetime: within a step or two was our next President; the President of the United States.
We knew. Our generation knew… the brilliant younger brother of John Kennedy, the keeper of the Kennedy flame, rising from his brother’s ashes.
Gone would be the tumult and turmoil of Lyndon Johnson. Bobby was to complete the Kennedy dream by leading the American people to all the good places that JFK had charted. And he would listen to us, America’s youth. We knew he valued us, believed in us – just as we celebrated and believed in him.
We had waited and grown up in those five years since Jack Kennedy was murdered on a sunny day in Dallas. Many of us – including me – would be voting for the first time in a presidential election that November. Redemption and rebirth were in the air.
The crowd was vibrant. Pick an emotion: joy, optimism, excitement and confidence. You could feel the energy and see it in every face.
The future seemed so rosy, the moment felt so perfect, one of those sweet spots in time that I knew I would never forget it.
I was right, of course, but for the wrong reasons.
I heard three or four campaign balloons pop. No big thing. A few more balloons popped.
Within seconds everyone – nearly a thousand people – became very still. It was an unsettling silence from which then flowed the strangest sound. A collective moan and only later what I came to understand was a “wave” of pain and disbelief as I and the RFK partisans crammed into the Embassy Room realized that someone had just shot Bobby Kennedy in the hotel kitchen a few feet from us. It all happened in seconds, but the seconds were surreal, stretched out by the slow motion unique to accidents and death.
Hadn’t Bobby, not two months before, given an impromptu eulogy in Indianapolis for Martin Luther King?
And there we all stood, thinking the unthinkable. Was Bobby really shot? If so, where? Would he live or would he die? Had history repeated itself within these five stormy years?