Speaker: "And now, it is my privilege and honor to introduce Robert Kennedy."
Narrator: On a hot August night in 1964 Robert F. Kennedy mounted the podium at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.
John Seigenthaler: It was first a rumble and then a roar. And, pretty soon, it just consumed the whole place. And they would not stop. They simply would not stop. I don't know, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen minutes, I don't remember how long it was. I only remember that I couldn't stop crying.
Anthony Lewis: It didn't surprise me that they would not let him speak, not let him, you know, not let go of him. He was the representation of what they had lost. And if the delegates had a sense of loss, imagine what his feelings were. Every day, every hour, every minute, he felt the loss of his brother.
Narrator: Ten months before, President John Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. Bobby had given his life to his brother. As confidant, protector, lightning rod. Now his brother was gone, and he was left to carry on alone.
Jack Newfield: He was not really built for the spotlight, he was built for the wings. He had to fight against a basic shyness, a basic nervousness in public. Many times, I would stand behind the stage and I would see his leg shaking during his speech, or his hands shaking, he wasn't... a natural but that all had to change when his brother was assassinated. And I think change is the motif of his whole life and career.
Jeff Shesol: He really becomes something much larger than what he was when he began. He becomes stronger through suffering.
Narrator: The pandemonium went on for 22 long minutes. As the crowd grew quiet, he bared his grief, enshrining his brother in words from Romeo and Juliet:
Robert Kennedy: "When I think of President Kennedy, I think of what Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet...
'When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he shall make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.'"
Narrator: When he was finished speaking, he left the hall, sat on a fire escape, and wept.
Part I: The Garish Sun
Narrator: In the spring of 1952, Massachusetts Congressman John Kennedy was keeping up a brave face while his campaign for the United States Senate unraveled into chaos. He desperately needed a tough, disciplined campaign manager. As he would for the rest of his life, he reached out to his kid brother. Bobby didn't want to do it. He already had a job, working as a lawyer in the Justice Department. But Robert F. Kennedy knew what his family expected of him. For the next 12 years, he would devote himself to Jack, putting his brother's ambitions before his own. That had been the great lesson of his childhood.
Narrator: As the third boy and the seventh of nine children, Bobby Kennedy easily got lost. He was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on November 20, 1925. All through his early years he struggled just to keep up.
Evan Thomas, Biographer: Everything was a competition, within the family and without. They still talk, at this little yacht club in Hyannis, about how the Kennedys cheated by adding more sail cloth to their boats. The Kennedys were very competitive and they wanted to win at everything they did.
Narrator: "We don't want any losers around here," Joseph Kennedy told all his children. "In this family we want winners... Don't come in second or third -- that doesn't count... Win!" Bobby's father was the towering figure in his childhood. Joseph P. Kennedy had made millions with shrewd investments in the stock market, the movies, and some say, by bootlegging liquor, but he wanted more out of life than money. He wanted his two oldest sons -- Joe Jr. and Jack -- to win elected office. And even more he wanted Joe Jr. to become president someday.
Robert Dallek, Historian: This would give the family a kind of visibility, a kind of cache, a kind of social status that Joe Kennedy was very hungry for. And the children imbibed this ambition.
Narrator: While Joe's attention was lavished on his two oldest boys, Bobby quietly took his place among the younger children -- the girls. He was small, awkward, shy, his father described him as the family "runt." He would set out to prove he was as tough as his brothers. When he was only four, he dove off the family sailboat in a desperate attempt to prove he could swim ashore. As he was going under, Joe, Jr. had to haul him out. "It either showed a lot of guts," Jack said later, "or no sense at all."
Evan Thomas:...and that's how Bobby got his father's attention by being the tough guy. But beneath that toughness, there was always this softness and this sensitivity...he was a mama's boy, in fact his grandmother worried that he was too much of a sissy, too much of a girlie-boy, because he clung to his mother's skirts.
Narrator: Rose Kennedy was a devout Catholic, and Bobby absorbed her religious intensity. He made his first communion when he was 7, and went on to become an altar boy and attend a school run by Benedictine monks. Bobby Kennedy grew up with a strong sense of right and wrong, good and evil. Like his brothers, he was toughened by the rigorous demands of his father, but he disguised as well, a gentler nature. Bobby, a friend said, was "truly in touch with his emotions." He was saved by being "overlooked.' When World War II began, Bobby was in high school and chafed to get into the action -- like his two older brothers. He flushed with pride when Jack became a hero -- rescuing most of his crew after his PT boat was sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer. But disaster was to follow -- and determine the direction of Bobby's life. In the summer of 1944, Joe Jr. volunteered for a near suicidal mission -- to pilot a plane loaded with dynamite toward an enemy target and then parachute to safety. His plane exploded before he ever got there. Joe Jr. was dead, along with all the hopes his father had invested in him. Now it would be up to Jack to realize his father's ambitions. And it would become Bobby's role to help him. But Bobby was young -- only 18 -- still struggling to determine his own destiny. In 1948, he graduated from Harvard - went on to law school, and then became the first of the Kennedy boys to settle down. Twenty-four years old, he married Ethel Skakel -- wealthy, outgoing, athletic, so devout she had almost become a nun. A year later, the first of his eleven children was born. When it came to those he loved, Bobby was tender, maternal -- but he turned a hardened face to the world.
Evan Thomas: He was particularly edgy and volatile, and I think, unhappy when he was in his early 20's. He was an angry young man, he was always getting into fistfights. I mean his temper was about that far from the surface.
Narrator: In 1952, when he managed his brothers victorious run for the Senate, Robert Kennedy gained a reputation as "ruthless" ... a rude, arrogant, impatient kid. But he shrugged off complaints. "I don't care if anyone around here likes me," Bobby said, "as long as they like Jack." Now with Jack in the Senate, Bobby would darken his reputation further when his father got him a job with a family friend - one of the most controversial men in America: Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.
McCarthy: "Any man who has been given the honor of being promoted to General, and who says, "I will protect another General who protects Communists," is not fit to wear that uniform, General!"
Narrator: In 1953, Bobby enlisted in McCarthy's crusade against what both men saw as the evil of communism in America.
Robert Dallek: Robert Kennedy in the 1950's was very much his father's son. His father was fiercely anti-communist. Joe Kennedy saw Joe McCarthy as doing the Lord's work.
Evan Thomas: History thinks of Joe McCarthy as this virulent Redbaiter, but Bobby Kennedy was a black-and-white moralist at this stage of his life. And the Communists were the bad guys, and anybody who was against the Communists was therefore a good guy and so he liked the kind of black-and-white morality that Joe McCarthy was selling.
Ronald Steel, Historian: What was striking about Bobby was not that he worked for Joe McCarthy so much, but rather that he admired Joe McCarthy, and became very close to Joe. So when McCarthy was conducting his investigations into suspected Communists, Bobby enthusiastically joined in this role.
Narrator: Bobby worked for McCarthy for 6 months, then moved on, still grimly determined to root out evil in America.
Mobster 1: I decline to answer this question on the grounds that the answer might tend to incriminate me.
Mobster 2: I decline to answer on the ground, the answer on the begrim, tend on recriminate myself.
RFK: Somebody that's been as successful as you can remember how to say, "I decline to answer the question," so don't put that act on.
Narrator: As chief legal counsel for what became known as the Senate Rackets Committee, Bobby began probing into labor unions and mobsters, grilling some of the toughest gangsters in America. But no one rankled him more than Jimmy Hoffa. Hoffa was president of the Brotherhood of Teamsters, the country's largest, richest -- and one of its most corrupt unions - Bobby said he detected in Hoffa, "absolute evilness."
RFK: Do you say anything to the effect that the jury treated you very well and that you thought that you could do very well before a jury?
Hoffa: I know that's pretty ridiculous.
RFK: Did you say anything...
Hoffa: I did not! And I appeal to the Chair that that be taken out of the record!
Narrator: Bobby turned his investigation of Hoffa into a holy cause, holding hearings month after month and calling more than 1500 witnesses. Punishing Hoffa became a crusade.
RFK: "You've got people in Detroit, at least fifteen, who have police records. You've got Joey Blimpo in Chicago. I say you're not tough enough to get rid of these people."
Narrator: But Hoffa was contemptuous. He denied any wrongdoing, taunting the crusading young investigator.
RFK: Did you say that SOB I'll break his back
Hoffa: Say it to who?
RFK: To anyone?
Hoffa: Figure of speech...I don't even know what I was talking about and I don't know what you're talking about.
RFK: Uh...Mr. Hoffa, all I'm trying to find out, I'll tell you what I'm talking about. I'm trying to find out whose back you were going to break.
Hoffa: Figure of speech...figure of speech.
Narrator: "I used to love," Hoffa said, "to bug the little bastard." Bobby could never bring Hoffa down, but his zealous efforts won him the attention of the nation's press -- much to the delight of his brother Jack, who was a member of the Senate Rackets Committee, too. "Two boyish young men from Boston," wrote a reporter in Look Magazine, "have become hot tourist attractions in Washington." The Kennedys' fabulous wealth, their marriages, their glamour, all made them favorites of the picture magazines. "I think he found himself during the Hoffa investigation," a friend said, "For the first time in his life, Bobby was happy." But in September 1959, Bobby resigned from the Senate Rackets Committee where he had made his mark. His brother was running for president. When Jack set out to win the Democratic nomination, Bobby once again put his own ambitions aside. He would do whatever it took to get his brother elected. While Jack rose above the fray, Bobby took on the gritty day-to-day business of running the campaign, pushing his staffers to their limits, attacking Jack's opponents, becoming the campaign's dark, driving force. As one journalist put it, "Whenever you see Bobby Kennedy in public with his brother, he looks as though he showed up for a rumble." By the time the Democrats met for their convention in Los Angeles, Kennedy seemed to have the nomination wrapped up. But Lyndon Johnson, the powerful Senate Majority Leader from Texas, set out to stop him.
Lyndon Johnson: "The person you select as your president, his judgement, the responsibility he shouldered, the weight he carries, the burden he knows, the decisions he makes may well determine whether you live as free men."
Narrator: LBJ was one of America's smartest political operators, but Bobby outmaneuvered him, skillfully working the convention floor, making sure that LBJ didn't get the votes.
Speaker: "Mr. Chairman, Wyoming's vote will make the majority for Senator Kennedy."
Narrator: John Kennedy was nominated overwhelmingly on the first ballot. Now all that was left was the choice for vice president. When he chose Lyndon Johnson, he set into motion a sequence of events that left Bobby and LBJ smoldering with resentments that would never go away. From the very first, LBJ and Bobby detested each other. It was, as Johnson politely described it, "a matter of chemistry."
Nicholas Katzenbach, Assistant Attorney General: It was just oil and water. Bobby was very moralistic. Integrity meant everything to him. And LBJ was a, was a politician.
Jeff Shesol, Historian: Robert Kennedy spoke the word politician as if it were an obscenity. He hated the back slapping, log rolling...all of the, horse trading of politics. The sort of thing that Lyndon Johnson absolutely loved.
Robert Dallek: Bobby dislikes Johnson intensely. But, Jack Kennedy is calling the shots. And what Jack Kennedy understands, is that as a Northeastern, Irish Catholic, he needs very much to get Southern votes. and so it becomes... essential to bring someone like Lyndon Johnson onto the ticket. But once they let out the word that they're gonna make Lyndon Johnson the vice presidential nominee, labor and liberals in the party throw a fit.
Jeff Shesol: Bobby is charged by his brother with the responsibility of talking Johnson off the ticket.
Narrator: Bobby confronted Johnson in his hotel room, and told him flatly that JFK no longer wanted him to be the vice presidential nominee. LBJ didn't believe him. Insulted, he refused to quit.
Robert Dallek: Johnson wants to be vice president. He's not gonna back down. He's not gonna give up. And he thinks that Bobby is operating without Jack's approval.
Narrator: "Bobby's been out of touch," Jack leaked to a reporter. "[He] doesn't know what's happening."
Jeff Shesol: Bobby is absolutely taking the fall for his brother here, and that suits John Kennedy perfectly well and Johnson has fallen for this head fake but it is absolutely inconceivable, to anybody who knew the Kennedy brothers, that Robert Kennedy would be acting on his own to split up his brother's presidential ticket, within hours of, of the deal being sealed.
John Kennedy: "And I'm grateful finally that I can rely in the coming months on many others, on a distinguished running mate who brings unity and strength to our platform and our ticket - Lyndon Johnson."
Jeff Shesol: Lyndon Johnson will never forgive Robert Kennedy for this. The manner of the selection of Lyndon Johnson as vice president severed the relationship between the two of them permanently, and there would be no turning back. For the rest of his life, Johnson will say that John Kennedy offered me the vice presidency, and in the dark of night, Bobby Kennedy came downstairs to try to take it away from me.
Narrator: The election of 1960 was too close to call. JFK won by only 120,000 votes - as one Kennedy aide described it, "a gnat's eyebrow." Bobby had driven himself relentlessly, and JFK was forever grateful. "He's the hardest worker. He's the greatest organizer," President John Kennedy said, "easily the best man I've ever seen." As JFK prepared to assume the reigns of power, he wanted Bobby by his side and appointed his 35 year old brother Attorney General.
John Seiganthaler, Journalist: It was a controversial appointment. He had never been a lawyer in a courtroom and...it was nepotism, I mean, he was the brother of the president.
Anthony Lewis, Journalist: His experience was zero. He'd been a lawyer for Senate committees, a zealot with no understanding of the terrible responsibilities of an attorney general. I was appalled. I thought it was a simply awful idea.
Narrator: Bobby surprised everyone, moving quickly to show he was more than just the president's brother.
RFK: "There are a number of different areas where action is needed. I think that in the field of organized crime, I think there are very serious situations facing the country at the present time..."
Narrator: Within two weeks of taking office, he became the first Attorney General ever to declare "war on crime." He proved a hard, tireless worker, and his casual, free-wheeling style was a striking departure from the formality of bureaucratic Washington.
Anthony Lewis: He was unlike any other attorney general I've known. He wandered around in his shirtsleeves. He had his big huge dog, Brumus, in his office. The kids came in. The children's drawings were on the wall.
Harris Wofford, Special Assistant to the President for Civil Rights: If you saw Bob Kennedy in a tie at his office, it would be way down, open, His office was a place of constant motion, and doing things unexpected, breaking the schedule. He was not a sit behind your desk man.
Narrator: But just 3 months after Bobby had started his new job, he received an urgent summons to the oval office: the president was face to face with disaster. JFK had gone along with a CIA plan to invade Cuba with a small army of Cuban exiles. The president had been assured that the Cuban people would rise up against the communist government of Fidel Castro and revolt, but the CIA had been wrong. Bobby watched helplessly as his brother wrestled with catastrophe. The invaders were under attack. Castro's army was taking prisoners. "They can't do this to you," Bobby said. But the invasion failed. JFK had fumbled badly. Now the president would turn to his brother for advice and counsel as he never had before.
Jeff Shesol: Traditionally Attorney's General have nothing to do with foreign policy but after the Bay of Pigs, John Kennedy really wanted Bobby by his side, helping him to make the decisions on everything. Because there was only one person in the world that John Kennedy trusted unequivocally, and that was Robert Kennedy.
Ronald Steel: I think that brought them much closer together than they had been earlier. There was, I think, a recognition for the first time, by Jack, a need for Bobby, rather than simply a use of Bobby.
Evan Thomas: You would think that after the Bay of Pigs the lesson would be, don't mess with Castro. Bobby's nature however was not when the yellow light was blinking to hit the brakes but rather to hit the gas.
Narrator: Castro became Bobby's obsession. Working closely with the CIA, Bobby launched a secret war against him, code named Operation Mongoose,
Sam Halpern, CIA Operations Officer: All kinds of things were tried. All kinds. Try to infiltrate the military, to have a coup or a revolt... sabotage. He was pushing. Always pushing. Bobby Kennedy wanted things blown up. So we blew things up.
Narrator: Nothing was off limits. Between 1960 and 1965, the CIA made at least 8 separate attempts on Fidel Castro's life. But neither of the Kennedy's was ever directly linked to any of them.
Sam Halpern: The orders I got... were get rid of Castro, quote-unquote. And I kept asking 'em, what do you mean by "Get rid of"? Can you be a little bit more specific? What do you want to happen, what do you wanna see as an end result? They said, we want him to disappear. Then it's left up to you as a senior officer, to decide what your limits are, if any.
Evan Thomas: My own conclusion is that Bobby never quite came out and said, you must kill this guy. You will never find good evidence. They didn't write it down. Joe Kennedy once said to Bobby, "Never write it down." Old Irish rule in Boston.
Narrator: Bobby attempted to oust Castro for nearly two years. But his efforts only seemed to stiffen Cuban resolve.
Sam Halpern: Total waste of effort. I tried to tell 'em that at the time, We were not gonna succeed. Fidel was gonna be there, and he's gonna stay there. But Bobby Kennedy didn't understand what his limits were. No matter what we told him, no matter what we tried to do-no matter how many people we put on the job...He was always screaming for more.
Narrator: By the end of 1961, Bobby Kennedy was 36 years old and the father of 7 children. After a long day at the Justice Department, he returned home to a civil war mansion just outside of Washington called Hickory Hill.
John Seigenthaler: It was a household where there was constantly something going on. Bob was overloaded with work but he always took time for those children.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Daughter: There was a lot of physical affection. ...Saturday, or Sunday, all the children would pile into my parents' beds and tickle each other. And it was called a tickle tumble. Well, of course, there were a plenty of dogs. There were plenty of horses. My brother Bobby, collected you know, reptiles. We had a coatimundi, hawks, falcons. It was a menagerie.
Narrator: Hickory Hill was the center of Bobby's private world. To be invited to a Hickory Hill party signaled acceptance into an exclusive community of power and privilege.
Evan Thomas: A Hickory Hill party was a weird mixture of kind of fraternity party, and high-minded salon. It was kind of a fun mix of both, because they did talk about serious issues they had Hickory Hill seminars where they would bring in famous people to lecture about child development or juvenile crime or the future of the Cold War. At the same time, they're goofing around and they're playing Charades, it was an odd mixture of high sophistication and childish hijinks. There was a childlike quality to Bobby Kennedy. Bobby was always asking what flavor ice cream you like; his favorite was chocolate.
Narrator: There were always plenty of games, including Bobby's favorite - touch football.
John Seigenthaler: I really didn't like to play the Kennedy brand of touch football. The rules were crazy. They made up the rules as they went along, or they had their own rules. I played a couple of times but I'd usually try to find something to do, you know, somebody had to make a phone call, or have to go to the bathroom. They were so competitive with each other. It was no real fun to play.
Narrator: When all the guests had gone home, Bobby and Ethel assembled their children for an evening ritual.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend: My mother and my father shared a belief that we are on earth for a short period of time, and that we are actually children of God, we prayed every night, that John Kennedy would be the best president ever, and that our father would be the best attorney general ever.
Narrator: The Kennedy brothers were now a team. Jack needed his brother, and nowhere more than with a problem that had begun to tear the country apart - the struggle of African-Americans for equal rights. In the spring of 1961 a group called the Freedom Riders set-out to integrate bus stations across the South. In a little Alabama town called Anniston, an angry mob attacked them, burning their bus, beating them mercilessly.
John Lewis, Civil Rights Activist: The Freedom Ride...was very dangerous. Just our very being, our very presence, was very, very dangerous. During those days, it was almost impossible for a person of color, to get on a bus in the South, without being forced to go to the back of the bus, or go to a waiting room marked "Colored Waiting." Or use restroom facility, marked..."Colored men." "Colored women." We wanted to bring down those signs.
Narrator: The Freedom Riders were acting on their constitutional rights. Federal statute outlawed segregation in bus terminals used in interstate transportation, and as Attorney General, Robert Kennedy was obligated to enforce the law.
John Lewis: I didn't know a great deal about Robert Kennedy. I knew he was a brother...of the president of the United States. I knew he was the Attorney General. I wanted him to, to intervene.
Narrator: But Bobby was reluctant. The rage and resistance from white southerners had taken him by surprise. "Before I became Attorney General," he admitted, "I won't say I lay awake at night worrying about Civil Rights."
Jack Newfield, Journalist: I think he was slow and late in getting it, about the Civil Rights Movement. Robert Kennedy's saying what, what most of the establishment said in that period, it's a good idea but it's the wrong time.
Nicholas Katzenbach: I don't think any of us, going in to the Department, despite our views on Civil Rights, really appreciated, how really mean it was, in the south and how dangerous it was. Bobby used to compare the discrimination against blacks to, to the "No Irish Wanted." And you know, that that was a wrong, a wrong comparison; one, I think, that was actually resented by blacks, despite the fact that he meant it well.
Roger Wilkins, Agency for International Development: They didn't know black people. They didn't know black pain. They were not comfortable with black people. So...there was no reason to expect...I can say in retrospect, them to be wise and passionate about this.
Harris Wofford: The president and the attorney general both realized that the Civil Rights issue was the hot rail in American politics. They had won an election with, by a hundred thousand votes, they didn't really command a, a working majority in Congress. It was very narrow on any issue. The southern democrats defecting would have meant the loss of, of any legislative agenda.
Narrator: As the Freedom Riders traveled deeper into Alabama, Bobby, fearing more violence, was determined to stop them. "Tell them," he told the special deputy for Civil Rights, "to call it off!"
Harris Wofford: He got on the phone and said, "stop those Freedom Riders, the president is about to go to Vienna to meet Khrushchev, it's embarrassing us before the world. Stop it!" But they were under way. They were not a stoppable group.
Roger Wilkins: Black people in the South had gotten the sense...of their efficacy as people and as citizens. And, to have Bob Kennedy's Justice Department tell them what to do would have been taking a major step backward. Who you gonna listen to, are you gonna listen to the black people of the South or are you gonna listen to the kid from Massachusetts, well that's an easy answer.
Harris Wofford: Bob was angry that they were upsetting everything by doing this. He wanted the Civil Rights Movement to focus on winning the right to vote. And he didn't like his more stately agenda being upset. But, once it was upset, then Bobby went into action. Desperate to find a way to protect the riders, frantically improvising, Bobby sent his aide John Seigenthaler to meet with Alabama Governor John Patterson.
John Seigenthaler, Administrative Assistant, Justice Department: I go in and sit down and say I'm from the Attorney General. These people have to be given safe conduct. He says, we can't protect them. I am telling you, it is impossible, all the people we've got in this state upset about this, I mean, of course people are violent. These people are coming here asking for a fight, and they're going to get a fight.
John Lewis: That evening, we stayed in the waiting room at the Greyhound bus station, in Birmingham all night. We kept hearing rumors that Robert Kennedy was trying to negotiate us a way for us to-leave Birmingham.
He kept saying to people we had a right to travel.
John Seigenthaler: I said, "Governor, look. If you can't protect them, we don't have any choice. Either we gotta have marshals come in and protect them, or troops come in to protect them. That's the last thing you want, the last thing you," and he banged the table, he said, "If marshals or troops come into Alabama, blood'll run in the streets."
Narrator: Seigenthaler and Patterson struck a deal. The Freedom Riders would have state protection. As they headed toward the Alabama capital in Montgomery, Bobby believed that they would be given safe passage.
John Lewis: It was so strange, it was eerie, frightening. It was so quiet, so peaceful. And the moment we arrived at the bus station, the very moment we started down the, the steps off of that bus, a mob came out of nowhere, and they beat and beat the reporters, and you saw blood everywhere. And then they turned on us. I was hit in the head, by a member of the mob, with a wooden crate. And my seatmate was...beaten so bad. And I found myself laying in a pool of blood.
John Seigenthaler: And as I pulled up to the bus station, you could hear the screams. I just leaped out of the car. And at that moment, they wheeled me around and said, two guys, and said, "What do you think you're doing?" And I said, magic words: "Get back. I'm with the federal government." [Chuckles] And as I turned back, they hit me with a pipe right here.
John Lewis: Robert Kennedy became educated, in a real hurry. And I tell you the thing that sealed it for him. Perhaps more than anything else. After John Seigenthaler was beaten. Someone that he knew.
John Seigenthaler: I think everything he thought the administration of justice and law enforcement was supposed to be about had been violated. That it was an outrage, that it was a stain on law enforcement to let that happen.
Narrator: Frustrated by Southern Officials, Bobby ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce the ban on segregation in public transportation.
John Lewis: All of those signs that said "White waiting," "Colored waiting," "White men," "Colored men," "White women," "Colored women," those signs came tumbling down.
Jack Newfield: ... he began to understand Civil Rights in stages. Very few people who are in great positions of power go through real interior change, but Robert Kennedy really did change, and that change, I think, began around Civil Rights..
Narrator: While Civil Rights protests and demonstrations continued, the Kennedy administration was faced with yet another crisis. On October 16, 1962, the president learned that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba, capable of vaporizing American cities along the East Coast within minutes.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Biographer: It is the most dangerous moment in all human history. Never before had two contending powers possessed between them the technical capacity to blow up the world. As the president's advisers debated the American response, Bobby first instinct was to lash out, pressing for air strikes to destroy the bases, even for an invasion of the island itself.
Evan Thomas: On the first day, when they discover the missiles, all Bobby wants to do is stage a provocation, and bomb Cuba. I mean he's a complete and total hawk, but this is the significant part. He changes his mind.
Narrator: After hours and hours of intense debate, Bobby began to reconsider. "We've talked for 15 years about the Russians making the first strike against us," he said, "and we'd never do that. Now... to do that to a small country. It's a hell of a burden to carry."
Jeff Shesol: It's Robert Kennedy who makes the powerful moral argument, that to invade Cuba would be to wage a Pearl Harbor in reverse. That America simply didn't do this. We simply didn't wage preemptive attacks. We didn't strike without warning.
Evan Thomas: This argument didn't carry the day but it was an important argument, and it started to affect and slow down this rush to war.
Narrator: "I was very much surprised by Bobby's performance," Under Secretary of State George Ball said. "I always had a feeling that Bobby had a much too simplistic position toward things. But he behaved quite differently during the Cuban missile crisis." The crisis lasted 13 days - until the Russians finally agreed to withdraw the missiles in exchange for a public American pledge not to invade Cuba, and a secret promise to withdraw American missiles from Turkey. Bobby had hardly slept, rarely gone home. An aide who walked into his office remarked, "Something is different in here." Bobby replied, "I'm older."
MLK: "The thing that is hurting us most is the continued existence of segregation and discrimination. And we think we are rendering a great service to our nation. For this is not a struggle for ourselves alone; it is a struggle to save the soul of America."
Narrator: While the Kennedy's were confronting the Soviet Union, the Civil Rights Movement had not gone away. Bobby was determined to help, but on his own terms. He was growing increasingly exasperated with the man who was emerging as the movement's most conspicuous and inspiring leader -- Martin Luther King,
Harris Wofford: The tension between King and Bob Kennedy was inevitable. Here was an uncontrollable force a moral force, a person who was as much his own man as Robert Kennedy was. Bob liked to, you know, control his agenda. And King's business was to, you know, overthrow people's agendas. King, I think, worried about Bobby. He worried that he wasn't morally committed enough. He didn't sense the passion in Bobby. On the other hand, he had great hope that Bobby's readiness to use power would be turned to Civil Rights. He had hope, but he worried.
Narrator: On May 3, 1963, King sent nonviolent protestors into the streets of Birmingham, to boycott the city's segregated businesses. As the Birmingham police used high pressure hoses to disperse them, Bobby watched it all on television Many of the protestors were children. He was furious - caught between a Civil Rights Movement that refused to back down, and the violent antagonism of the South.
Anthony Lewis: That a police chief would set police dogs, and fire hoses on people for demanding to be treated fairly in a department store, that was bound to hit at his moral core. The events entirely transformed Robert Kennedy. He started out thinking that it would be better if people would calm down, slow down, and let gradual improvement take place. Bobby learned that you couldn't wait. And that black people were entitled to the most elementary rights now.
Narrator: That summer, Bobby urged his brother to put a Civil Rights bill before Congress that would put an end to segregation in public accommodations. But the president and his advisers hesitated.
Nicholas Katzenbach: If you put Civil Rights legislation before Congress, it was gonna tie up the Congress for the best part of the next year. And that meant that whatever other programs you had, were gonna be put on a back burner. But Bobby convinced his brother that not only was it right, but for the first time it was possible and that the president really has to take leadership on a moral issue.
JFK: "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue, it is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."
John Lewis: It was probably the first time in the history of our country...that an American president would say that the question of Civil Rights...the question of race, was a moral issue. And he had the encouragement of Robert Kennedy, to push him in this direction. Robert Kennedy was learning. He was growing. He said to me, John...I now understand. The young people have educated me. And you could see it, you could feel it. And Robert Kennedy during that period became so convinced, not just as a politician, not just as the Attorney General, but as a human being, that it was time for there to be some major steps to end racial discrimination in America.
Narrator: While Bobby increasingly empathized with the Civil Rights Movement, that fall, he authorized a wiretap on Martin Luther King - at the request of one of the most powerful figures in Washington. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover hated King, insisted that King was a communist threat and placed him under close surveillance. Bobby acquiesced. If there were Communists in the Civil Rights Movement, he wanted to know about it. But there was another reason. Bobby was afraid of Hoover -not for himself, but for his brother.
Ronald Steel: Jack was a promiscuous guy who took great pleasure in having a lot of women around him, and he was careless about this, after he became president, almost to the point of recklessness.
Evan Thomas: Bobby knew that Hoover was a blackmail artist. He knew that Hoover had files on his brother. Hoover had heard that Bobby wanted to fire him and he had wanted to use President Kennedy's sexual habits, to essentially blackmail the administration to make sure that he kept his job.
Harris Wofford: There's no question, Bob, regretted that he had authorized the wiretapping of King. But Hoover was somebody that everybody, was intimidated by.
Ronald Steel: If Hoover ever released any of the information he had, allowed it to be known, what would happen to the Kennedy presidency?
Narrator: : On November 20, 1963, Bobby celebrated his 38th birthday at a party at Hickory Hill. The president stopped by to wish him well. He was about to leave for a political trip to Dallas. He said he was looking forward to it. Already, the brothers were thinking about the next election and the opportunities a second term would give them. Three years of intense collaboration had bound them so closely together each seemed to know what the other was thinking.
Arthur Schlesinger: No sooner did one of them begin a sentence then the other knew, what he was saying. They understood each other so well that they talked in a kind of short hand.
Richard Goodwin, Assistant Special Counsel to the President: Well everybody was having a good time. It was a birthday party and the president stopped by. And the motorcade came up he came in and shook hands and, he didn't stay very long as I remember. Then he was off to Dallas I guess the next day.
Narrator: Bobby would never see his brother again. On the afternoon of November 22nd, 1963, Robert Kennedy received a phone call from J. Edgar Hoover. "I have news for you," Hoover said, "The president's been shot." 30 minutes later, the phone rang again. Bobby's brother was dead.
The Awful Grace of God
Narrator: On November 24th, 1963, while the nation mourned a president, Robert Kennedy grieved for a brother to whom he had been devoted.
John Siegenthaler: It was a physical blow to him, that loss of his brother. An emotional blow, intellectual blow, but it, it took a physical toll on him. He was physically in pain.
Adam Walinsky: The enormous sadness and ache it was there all the time. I, I never knew him when he wasn't in a kind of mourning for President Kennedy.
Charles Spalding: I was with Bobby and I talked with him for a while and then it came time to go to bed so I closed the door, and I waited outside and I heard him just sobbing and he was saying, "Why? Why God? Why?"
Ronald Steel: I think that Bobby found himself bereft, alone, and the inheritor of not only a family ambition, but a national myth. When Jack died, Bobby was truly at a loss. He was deprived not only of a brother he loved, but in a sense of his own identity. Because, to be the helper, to be the servant, to be the henchmen could no longer be his identity. He had to forge some kind of identity for himself.
Narrator: He didn't know who he was, or what he stood for, or what he was capable of. His brother's legacy was his to bear. Now he would have to struggle to create a legacy of his own.
Narrator: It would have been difficult for Robert Kennedy to watch any man take his brother's place, but watching Lyndon Johnson: was next to impossible.
LBJ: "All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today..."
Narrator: The two men now rarely spoke of one another without contempt. Bobby described LBJ as "mean, bitter, vicious." LBJ called Bobby "a snot-nosed kid" and "a grandstanding little runt."
Jeff Shesol: Johnson had particular contempt for the fact that Robert Kennedy, had never run for office, he had never been elected to anything. And he saw him as a child of privilege, as someone who had never really earned the offices that he held. Whereas Lyndon Johnson had had to fight for it on his own and earned it in his own right.
Narrator: LBJ moved quickly to assume the mantle of the fallen president. He convinced a reluctant Robert Kennedy along with the rest of John Kennedy's cabinet to stay on, then swiftly began to push JFK's sputtering legislative program through Congress.
LBJ: "My fellow Americans. I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
Jeff Shesol: The Kennedy legislative program was sitting on the hill and not doing much of anything by the time of John Kennedy's assassination. Lyndon Johnson picks it up, infuses it with energy, gives it new meaning and new strength, and drives it through the Congress like only Lyndon Johnson can.
LBJ: "This administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America. "
Jeff Shesol: One might expect Robert Kennedy to be pleased about the success of the Kennedy agenda.
Nicholas Katzenbach, Deputy Attorney General: But it was hard to be pleased with what LBJ was doing, when it was LBJ doing it, and not his brother.
Jeff Shesol: He thinks of Johnson as a usurper. He thinks of Johnson as illegitimate. And it's painful for him to, to watch Johnson, take these pieces of his brother's legacy, and take ownership of his brother's legacy. It no longer belongs to his brother. It no longer belongs to him. It belongs to Lyndon Johnson.
Narrator: While LBJ dominated the nation's politics, Bobby remained inconsolable. He was a haunted man, forever dwelling on his loss as if cultivating the pain helped keep his brother's memory alive. He took to wearing his brother's old jacket, although he often forgot it somewhere - as if the jacket was at once a connection to his brother, and a kind of burden he desperately wanted to leave behind.
John Siegenthaler: Pain was etched on his face. He told me he couldn't sleep, he'd lost weight, he asked me how he looked. I said, "You look like hell." And he did.
Ronald Steel: He'd become, as in the Robert Frost poem, that his brother also often loved to quote, acquainted with the night.
Narrator: He and the president's widow often visited John Kennedy's grave, their shared sorrow drawing them closer together. When his faith in the Catholic Church could not alone sustain him, it was Jacqueline Kennedy who suggested he read the tragic dramas of the ancient Greeks. "In agony learn wisdom," he read in Aeschylus. "Injustice is the nature of things."
Ronald Steel: Grief humanized him. I think it took him away from a life dedicated to power, and will, and ambition, toward a deeper identification with people who suffered. Slowly Bobby emerged from his despair, reconnecting to the everyday world through politics and his need to carry forth the legacy of his brother.
RFK: "Over the past few weeks many leading members of the Democratic and the Liberal parties here in the state of NY, have talked to me about being a candidate for the US Senate."
Narrator: On August 22, 1964, still wearing the black tie he had worn since his brother's death, Robert Kennedy announced that, for the first time, he would run for political office.
RFK: "I shall resign from the cabinet to campaign for election. I shall devote all of my efforts and all whatever talents that I possess to the state of New York. This I pledge."
Jack Newfield: It is the biggest transition of his life, to go from the shadows to the stage. And he had a fear, what if I lose? What if I let my brother down? What if I let my family down? What if I've made the wrong decision, what if I'm not ready to run for the senate?
Jack Newfield: He was still a wounded animal, half a zombie. He wasn't ready to, to face the voters,
Introducer: "The former Attorney General of the United States and candidate for the United States Senate from New York. Robert F Kennedy."
Jack Newfield: He was still hurting and suffering.
Narrator: Although voters turned out in large numbers to see him, Bobby found it hard to accept their enthusiasm. "They're cheering him," he said. "They're for him."
Peter Edelman, Aide and Speechwriter: He didn't want to trade on being his brother's brother. He didn't think that was right. At the same time he didn't really have a series of things that I Robert Kennedy will do as a Senator from the state of New York
Interviewer: What about this tour of the Fulton Fish Market. What are your impressions?
RFK: They have a lot of fish.
Peter Edelman: It just didn't work very well.
RFK: "I am very pleased and happy to have the opportunity to speak with all of you this morning..." He quickly fell behind in the polls. He was struggling to define himself and what he stood for.
RFK: "I uh...join, uh...Senator Bob Brownstein..."
Jeff Shesol: He has spoken for his brother, on behalf of his brother for most of his political life. And suddenly he's a figure in his own right. But he can really only see himself as fulfilling his brother's legacy. Doing what his brother would do if only his brother were still with us.
RFK: "I think we started something 2 and 1/2 years ago. I think it was started January 1961, and I think this election we are going to keep it going..."
Jack Newfield: He quoted his brother almost obsessively, he... had a lot of the hand gestures of his brother,
Jeff Shesol: And it was easy to believe for a minute and you didn't have to close your eyes to do it, that John Kennedy was still with us.
RFK: "And if we want to continue that effort then we must elect a democratic administration..."
Narrator: Bobby was at war with himself - his need to emulate his brother battling with his desire to find his own voice.
RFK:"I think that this election is important because I think there's a lot that needs to be done... this is a horrible situation and it has to be changed... If I'm elected to the United States Senate, I intend..."
Narrator: Despite the cheering crowds, as the campaign wound down, the election remained too close to call. Much to Kennedy's chagrin, there was only one man who could help him.
LBJ: "The United States needs a young, dynamic, compassionate, fighting liberal representing New York in the United States Senate, Bob Kennedy."
Peter Edelman: It had to stick in RFK's craw to have to accept anything from Lyndon Johnson.
Narrator: Bobby had trouble hiding his distaste, but he was a pragmatist. LBJ may have hated Bobby, but he wanted a Democrat in the Senate.
Narrator: When all the votes were counted, LBJ had helped put Bobby over the top.
RFK: "For all of us who were elected on this day, all of us now have a responsibility... our job has just begun."
Narrator: But even victory could not relieve his melancholy. "If my brother was alive," Bobby told a friend, "I wouldn't be here. I'd rather have it that way." That night, Bobby called LBJ to thank him for his help.
LBJ: Well, we got a lot to be thankful for Bobby and give our love to Ethel. And lets, lets, let's , stay as close together as he'd want us to.
RFK: That'd be fine. That'd be fine, Mr. President. Congratulations.
LBJ: Tell all that staff of yours, ain't nobody going to divide us and I'll tell mine the same way and we'll move ahead.
RFK: That's right. That's right.
LBJ: I'm proud of yuh.
RFK: Thanks very much. Thanks for all your help.
LBJ: Thank you for calling.
RFK: It made a hell of a difference. Thanks.
Narrator: Bobby Kennedy was never cut out to be a Senator. He was used to making things happen, and the Senate's glacial pace irritated him.
Evan Thomas: He was the second most powerful man in the most powerful country in the world, and now he's a junior Senator. He can't even get a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee. He used to run covert actions, and now he can't even go to the hearings. So, he is a grumpy, cranky Senator, who won't sit through long-winded speeches, and is disrespectful of other Senators, he'll just get up and walk out.
Narrator: Bobby, a friend said, felt "impotent, frustrated, floundering." He escaped the Senate chambers as often as he could, channeling his restless energies elsewhere. Two months after taking his seat in the Senate, he set out to scale a 14,000 ft mountain in Canada, recently named Mount Kennedy after his brother. No one had ever made it to the top before. And Robert Kennedy had never climbed a mountain before.
Evan Thomas: Bobby hated heights. He was afraid of heights. He didn't train for it really, I mean he joked as Ethel said that he trained for it by running up and down the stairs yelling "Help."
Narrator: He was nearly forty years old. Now, roped between two veteran climbers, Bobby forced his way forward, urging the others to increase the pace.
Jack Newfield: I think Robert Kennedy had a reckless streak in him. He was a ferocious competitor, and with a tremendous amount of aggression, and will.
Narrator: After two days of climbing, nearing the top, Bobby moved ahead and reached the summit alone. Kneeling down, he wedged his brother's inaugural address into the snow. For a moment, he stared off into the distance.
"I didn't really enjoy any part of it" he said later. It was a daring exploit, and a media sensation that would have delighted any politician. But American politics were about to take a darker turn. Bombs had begun to fall on a small, impoverished country in Southeast Asia.
Narrator: Lyndon Johnson began bombing North Vietnam in February, 1965. He had inherited the war from Bobby's brother. Now he was escalating it. With Vietnam divided into a communist North and an American supported South, LBJ hoped that massive air assaults would force the North Vietnamese to abandon their efforts to re-unite the country. But the North Vietnamese resisted. For the next 3 years, Robert Kennedy's fate would be increasingly bound to the outcome of a war on the other side of the world. Bobby had been committed to the war when his brother was president. Now that LBJ was in the White House, he continued to support its objectives. "The loss of Vietnam," he told an aide, would mean "the loss of all of Southeast Asia... and have profound effects on our position throughout the world."
Evan Thomas: Bobby is a cold warrior, and he shares the world view that communism is a threat, and it's advancing, and that you have to contain it, so he doesn't question the underlying assumptions of the Vietnam War; he embraces them, and endorses them.
Jeff Shesol: But Robert Kennedy is deeply uneasy about Johnson's escalation of the war. He, really from the very beginning, speaks to Johnson privately. On the telephone, conversations that were recorded
RFK: I have not been involved intimately with the Southeast Asia or Vietnam, but I would think that that war will never be won militarily. That where it's going to be won, really, is a political war. Military action obviously will have to be taken but, unless the political action is taken concurrently, in my judgement, I just don't think it can be successful.
LBJ: I think that, that's good thinking and, that's not any different from the way I have felt about it.
Jeff Shesol: And Johnson's says that he agrees with Bobby Kennedy completely. And this is the sort of thing that Johnson probably believes when he's saying it. But it is not the course of US policy.
Narrator: All through the spring of 1965, Johnson continued to up the ante. He had already sent 75,000 American soldiers to Vietnam. That July, he sent 50,000 more. As the war drifted out of control, Bobby began to tentatively air his doubts in public.
Lawrence Spivak: May I ask you the direct question, do you support fully his present policy on Vietnam?
RFK: Well I support the... I basically support the policy, Mr. Spivak. I have some reservations about whether were doing enough in the economic and the political field and I also have felt for some period of time that a major effort has to be undertaken in the diplomatic field.
Jeff Shesol: Robert Kennedy believes that America needs to, to bring Ho Chi Minh, to the table to negotiate. Johnson, meanwhile, is taking the opposite course, which is to escalate, to try to bomb Ho into submission.
Narrator: For the rest of 1966, Bobby said little about the war. Instead, he turned his attention to problems at home: he would begin to speak out on behalf of the dispossessed, and as he reached out to them, he would transform his sense of himself.
Narrator: In the summer of 1965, riots in Watts, a poor African-American section of Los Angeles, left 34 people dead and more than 1000 injured. Bobby was shaken:
Adam Walinsky, Aide and Speechwriter: He bumped into some reporter who asked him what he thought about you know, should these Negroes, as we called them then, be obeying the law? And he said, well he said, I don't know, he said what did the law ever do for the Negro?
RFK: "I don't think that it's possible in our society and with our government to tolerate lawlessness and disorder and violence. But at the same time I think that we've got to make more progress than we have in the past. Be more effective with the programs that we've instituted. And to have some imagination to try to deal with the lack of hope that exists in many of these communities."
Narrator: In a neighborhood in Brooklyn called Bedford Stuyvesant, Bobby meant to show the nation what could be done about poverty.
Jack Newfield: Bedford Stuyvesant has got tremendous problems of unemployment, drugs, slum housing, and Robert Kennedy was an activist. He wanted to do something about it. He felt it was cheap grace to just make a speech and deplore poverty, or racism, and not do something about it.
Peter Edelman: And so he gets involved with the community leadership and they plan together an initiative that will be, not only about housing in the neighborhood, but about jobs and about public safety, and about really trying to build a community there.
RFK: "What we brought together for the first time really, is the city, private foundations, the federal government and I think, most significant, the private sector. "
Adam Walinsky: When he went to the business people, he didn't say, I want you to give money; I want charity, because that's too easy. That just buys off. What he did was, he said, I want investment here. I want you to run business here. I want you to hire people. I want you to make things here.
RFK: To have any success in Bedford Stuyvesant is going to require the initiative, the imagination, and the courage of the people who live in the community. The program is going to have to be developed by the people who live in the community.
Adam Walinsky: He believed that the core of any program had to be work, and self-help, and self-mastery; people had to have the wherewithal, not to be defined by others, but to be able to define themselves. America's a very rich country. We could just hand out incomes. What he said was, was that, that would be profoundly destructive.
Jack Newfield: He hated welfare, but thought jobs were the solution, not just throwing people off the rolls.
Jack Newfield: He had this empathy seeing it from the point of view of what it was like to be a black child in a desperate situation, with no jobs, and no chance of college, and broken family, and drugs, and gangs all around. I grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant, and I'll never forget one of the days, we're going around Bed-Stuy, he said to me. I envy the fact you grew up in poverty and you grew up with black friends. And I said, well what would've happened to you, if you had grown up on this block, instead of me? And he looks up and down the block at all, all of this you know, poverty, and drug addiction, and alcoholism, and he says, if I grew up here, I would've either become a juvenile delinquent, or a revolutionary.
Narrator: Robert Kennedy had begun to reach beyond the guarded politics of his brother. John Kennedy had always moved slowly, with caution. Now, Bobby was throwing caution to the wind.
Narrator: In March 1966, Kennedy flew to California where his Senate subcommittee was investigating the causes of a strike by migrant grape pickers.
Peter Edelman: Robert Kennedy walks into the hearings and the witness is this sheriff who is explaining to the committee how it is that he's arresting these demonstrators who are legally picketing.
Sheriff: If I have reason to believe that there's gonna be a riot started and somebody tells me that there's gonna be trouble if you don't stop'em, then it's my duty to stop'em.
RFK: And you go out and arrest them?
Sheriff: Well absolutely.
RFK: How can you go arrest somebody if they haven't violated the law?
Sheriff: They're ready to violate the law, in other words... just like these labor people out here.
RFK: Can I suggest that during the luncheon period of time that the sheriff and the district attorney read the Constitution of the United States.
Narrator: Bobby declared his support for the grape strike, even joined a picket line. He was discovering there were causes he believed in, people he could fight for.
Jack Newfield: Kennedy took things personally. He saw somebody hurting, and he hurt. He was...so intense, so... personal about somebody else's pain or injustice. And that's what made him... a totally different kind of senator.
Narrator: By the beginning of 1967 almost 400,000 Americans were fighting in Vietnam. More than 9,000 had been killed, more than 60,000 wounded. As the carnage continued, senators and congressmen from Lyndon Johnson's own party began to speak out against the war, but Bobby Kennedy still hesitated.
Jack Newfield: It took Kennedy a long time to decide he was gonna oppose the Vietnam War. It was an agonizing process of indecision, he values courage, above all other human qualities. And he realizes he's not displaying courage. He's not displaying leadership. But he was conflicted.
Narrator: Not until February 1967 would Kennedy break decisively with the president - after a bitter confrontation in the White House.
Jeff Shesol: Robert Kennedy takes a trip to Europe, in January of 1967. And he comes back to find that there's a report in Newsweek, that he has received an important peace feeler, as it was called, from the Vietnamese; that they are trying to send a plan for peace through him. Now, there's no truth to this, whatsoever. But there it is in Newsweek.
Nicholas Katzenbach, Undersecretary of State: And LBJ called and asked if we both could come to the White House, which we did. Johnson was in a foul mood. And he was embarrassed by it. And he was, he was always prepared to think that anything that he was embarrassed by was something that Bobby had done. LBJ was just terrible. He was mean, and nasty to Bobby, and Bobby was saying, I had nothing to do with this. I don't know of any peace feelers that were made. And Johnson believed none of it. And Bobby was just livid. He was so mad.
Evan Thomas: And Bobby comes back to his office and says the president's unhinged, I mean, he was abusive and maybe just not mentally stable,
Jeff Shesol: He told his aides that he would never again have anything to do with Lyndon Johnson, that the way he had been treated was so inexcusable, that he could simply never have any real dealings with the man, past that point.
Narrator: A month later, Bobby rose in the Senate condemned the morality of the war, and then admitted his own share of responsibility. "I can testify," he said, "that if fault is to be found... there is enough to go around for all - including myself."
Jeff Shesol: He is the first politician, of either party, to take responsibility for what's happening in Vietnam, the first politician to accept blame, which gives a moral strength to the argument that he's making.
RFK: "Do we have the right here in the United States to say that we're going to kill tens of thousands, make millions of people, as we have... millions of people, refugees, kill women and children? As we have... I very seriously question whether we have that right... Now we're saying we're going to fight there so that we don't have to fight in Thailand, so that we don't have to fight on the West Coast of the United States, so that they won't move across the Rockies. But do we... our whole moral position, it seems to me, changes tremendously."
Jeff Shesol: Robert Kennedy in 1967 has come to question the basic assumptions of the war. He has begun to question whether we really do need to make a stand in Vietnam, to protect that region from Communism. He's come to question whether our national security interest in Vietnam, is outweighed by the incredible human suffering that we're inflicting by waging war in this country. He's questioning the moral legitimacy of this war, which is something that he hasn't done to this point. He's confronted by new issues, and he grows in order to be able to face these challenges. He really learns from experience. And he really becomes something much larger than what he was when he began.
Robert Dallek: He becomes more and more thoughtful, more and more philosophical, more and more ready to accept that he does not have a monopoly on wisdom. That maybe this war in Vietnam was a fundamental mistake. That maybe his brother would've gotten out,
Anthony Lewis : Most people acquire certainties as they grow older. Bobby Kennedy discarded certainties. He grew. He started as this zealot. And he ended up as this man, very sympathetic to those who were the despised and rejected of life.
Narrator: Robert Kennedy was now reaching out to Americans everywhere who had been left behind. He had fully awakened from his dark night of mourning. The moral impulse to fight evil and do good that had always been a part of him was taking a new direction.
Jack Newfield: He wanted to know what life was like for someone else. He would ask, what do you feel what do you think? He wanted to be inside the eyes of America's casualties, he wanted to see the world the way they saw it.
Anthony Lewis : People believed in his understanding of their situation, because he visibly was moved. He was someone who responded in the most graphic, human, emotional terms. He was somebody who bled, who was raw, from the hurt done to others.
Jack Newfield: The hurt he felt from the assassination of his brother gave him that empathy for everyone else who hurt, after that. I think he did begin to change incrementally while he was attorney general before his brother was killed, but I think that all grew dramatically after his brother's murder because then he identified with every other victim. Anyone who was a casualty in life he began to feel was his brother.
Narrator: By 1967, America was in turmoil. Protestors against the war in Vietnam marched on Washington and bitterly attacked the president. With the election just one year away, they were desperate for someone to challenge him. Bobby Kennedy was besieged from all sides by people urging him to take on Johnson. But he hesitated, profoundly conflicted. "If I run, " Bobby said, "I will go a long way toward proving everything that everybody who doesn't like me has said about me... That I've never accepted Lyndon Johnson as president, that I'm just a selfish, ambitious, little s.o.b. that can't wait to get his hands on the White House."
Jeff Shesol: He is absolutely tormented by this decision he has to make, either to support Johnson, or to run for president.
John Siegenthaler: I said to him don't run. I said to him... You're not gonna unseat Lyndon Johnson, he despises you. There's no way he's gonna step aside if you get in. He'd love to take you to the convention and beat you. But he was caught in an emotional trap, it was as if inexorable forces were pushing him in the direction of running. And everything he was about in life, was suddenly on the line.
Jack Newfield: He was tortured about it. I remember talking to him and suddenly, this gusher came out about his feelings about Johnson. And he says, I know, he's president today, because my brother appointed him, nominated him for vice president. I know my brother's implicated in the beginning of the Vietnam War. For me, to run against Johnson, I have to run against President Kennedy's judgment, and that was agonizing, agonizing for Robert Kennedy because in a way it would have meant running against the person he loved most in the world, his brother.
Tom Wicker: "Isn't it true people believe that you are the real alternative to President Johnson are going to bring pressure upon you and increase their activities on your behalf?
RFK: "I don't anticipate that that will occur. But, I'm going to continue as I've said and I'm not a candidate for the Democratic nomination."
RFK: "No matter what I do, I'm in difficulty. I don't know what I can do... (overlapping voices)Isn't that what you say is going to happen. I suppose now all kinds of things could happen. I don't know what I can do to prevent that or what I should do that is any different than try to get off the earth in some way."
Wicker: "Senator, nobody wants you to get off the earth, obviously."
RFK: "I don't..."
Wicker: "Nobody is trying to put you on the spot, really everyone appreciates the difficulty of your position..."
Narrator: "The hottest places in Hell," Bobby liked to say, quoting Dante, "are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."
Narrator: While Bobby hesitated, another liberal democrat - Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy- picked up the sword that Kennedy was still refusing to wield.
Senator McCarthy: "I intend to enter the Democratic primary in 4 states..."
Narrator: As McCarthy campaigned through New Hampshire that winter, Bobby watched with dismay and envy.
Jack Newfield: It hurt Kennedy that he was on the sidelines. More, and more college students are not just going to McCarthy's campaign but are starting to heckle him. I mean, he spoke at Brooklyn College one day. You know, there's a, a big sign, RFK, hawk, dove, or chicken. And that, was a razor in his heart. And he was really, reeling around, about what's the right thing to do.
Adam Walinsky: But he did not see how it's practical to run. He took a poll in New Hampshire in January of that year, that showed Johnson beating him there, 67 to 9, or something like that. That was a pretty convincing argument.
Narrator: At the end of January 1968, a miserable Robert Kennedy finally reached a decision. He would not, he told the National Press Club, oppose the president for the Democratic nomination under "any foreseeable circumstances,"
Narrator: That very same day, Vietnamese communists launched a series of attacks that made him bitterly regret his decision.
Television Reporter: "232 GIs killed and nine hundred wounded in just over two days, the past 2 days, two of the worst we have known in Vietnam."
Narrator: The widespread fighting convinced many Americans that the war was far from over. Frustrated with the seemingly endless fighting, more and more turned away from Johnson -- to Eugene McCarthy.
Walter Cronkite: "The big surprise in the first primary in campaign '68 has been the strength of Senator Eugene McCarthy. The volume with which New Hampshire voters today endorsed his effort signals trouble for President Johnson's as yet undeclared election bid."
Dan Rather: "President and his advisers are most concerned about what tonight's returns mean in terms of Bobby Kennedy. Will Gene McCarthy's showing be enough to tip Kennedy into an open race for the Democratic nomination? 'We just don't know what Bobby will do,' one of the president's closest friends said tonight, adding, 'And until we do know, we'll be wary.'"
Reporter: "Would you accept the draft Senator?"
RFK: "I don't think anybody suggested that."
Reporter: "Well, I'm suggesting that now. Would you accept it..."
RFK: "I don't think that's a practical matter."
Reporter: "Would you refuse it?"
RFK: "I just don't think...would you accept one?"
Jeff Shesol: He retreats into a deep funk. He stops taking phone calls. He paces around his office, he won't talk to his aides. He goes back to Hickory Hill and seems to disappear for several days. What he's doing during this time, besides castigating himself for making such a mistake, is deciding that he's gonna run for president. And when he emerges, he comes out swinging.
RFK: "I'm announcing today my candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man but to propose new policies.
Arthur Schlessinger: Jackie Kennedy was much concerned by Robert Kennedy's entry into the presidential contest. She said, I believe that they're going to do the same thing to him that they did to Jack.
Narrator: Kennedy's campaign in the state primaries was part politics, part crusade, part circus. In fifteen days he stormed through sixteen states with tens of thousands of people screaming his name.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend: My father was mobbed, wherever he went. People were trying to touch him, trying to feel him, taking off his cuff links, taking off his ties.
RFK: "I'd like to announce that somebody's taking off my shoe as I speak."
Harris Wofford: Bob was at his best in that campaign. He touched people, he was speaking very directly to them. It was very heart to heart. He said he was doing it to save the soul of the country. And I believed him.
RFK: "We can return government to the people. We can change this nation around. We can make a new effort for peace in Vietnam. We can improve the life and the quality of America here in the United States. I ask for your help. Am I going to receive your help?"
Evan Thomas: When he first goes out on the stump, people go crazy, there's so much pent up anger and frustration, and it's explosive when Bobby goes out there. He goes to the Midwest, you would think a bastion of conservatism, and he appears in University of Kansas and Kansas State, these big field houses, and it's like the roof is blown off.
Adam Walinsky: We get there and the place is just, not only is it packed, not only is every seat packed, the entire floor is wall to wall people. And, there are people sitting on the girders, practically hanging from the ceiling, and an unbelievable cacophony of noise.
Jack Newfield: It's 18 thousand, white farm kids, in this big, basketball field house. He gives this powerful speech, against the war, all out, finally, like it's, he's like a tiger let out of the cage.
RFK: "Our country is in danger not just from foreign enemies. But above all from our own misguided policies. This war must be ended and in my judgement, it can be ended. And it does not involve giving up, but it does involve not continuing to follow the bankrupt policy we're following at the present time."
Adam Walinsky: And the stronger he gets, the louder the cheers. And I remember a photographer for Look Magazine, and he looks over. And he yells at me. He says, this is Kansas! This is Kansas! F***ing Kansas! He's going all the f***ing way!
Narrator: In spite of his wild popularity, Bobby knew he was fighting an uphill battle. The nomination was in the hands of the party bosses -- mayors, governors, labor leaders - who would control the votes at the Democratic convention. "I have to win through the people," Kennedy told a reporter. "Otherwise I'm not going to win." Then, on March 31, 1968, he was taken by surprise - along with the rest of the nation.
Lyndon Johnson: "I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president..." With no warning, a physically and emotionally exhausted president had put an end to the contest with Robert Kennedy just 15 days after it had begun. "I wonder," Bobby said, "if he would have done this if I hadn't come in."
Narrator: Four days later, Bobby flew to Indianapolis for a campaign speech in a black neighborhood. On route, a reporter had told him that Martin Luther King had been murdered.
John Lewis: We were trying to pull together people for a mass rally for Bobby Kennedy... and there were some people were saying that evening that maybe he shouldn't come. Because, maybe there would be violence.
Adam Walinsky: The police thought it was dangerous. They didn't want us to go in there. But he went. I scribbled something on a piece of paper. Because I knew he'd want to say something. But he had figured out what he was gonna say. He had written it himself. He brought them the news that Martin Luther King had been shot.
RFK: "I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight."
John Lewis: Most of the people hadn't even heard that Dr. King had been shot. We were stunned. And we all cried. But that evening Robert Kennedy spoke from his soul.
RFK: "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times."
John Lewis: The words, they just rang...they just chilled your body. And he did it not in a...loud, but almost in a prayerful manner.
RFK: "My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote. 'Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'"
Adam Walinsky: In our sleep, pain, that cannot forget, falls drop, by drop, upon the heart, until in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
Narrator: There were riots in more than 100 cities across America after King's death. But that night there was calm in Indianapolis.
Narrator: There was no way that Eugene McCarthy could inspire crowds the way Bobby Kennedy did. But he didn't seem to care. Cool and aloof, he appealed to white middle class opponents of the war, especially college students, scornful of Kennedy's late entry into the race.
Evan Thomas: Bobby Kennedy had a natural affinity for students and it pained him deeply when the best students often signed up with Gene McCarthy.
Jack Newfield: Robert Kennedy loved the McCarthy kids. He once said to me, "it drives me crazy, that Gene gets all the A students, and I get all the C students".
Narrator: On election night, Indiana voters gave Bobby the victory he wanted, but not the knockout blow he needed.
Richard Goodwin,Campaign Aide: This was his first face to face primary with McCarthy. He had to win it. And he did win it. But winning Indiana was just the first inning of a nine inning game.
Narrator: A week later, Bobby proved that he could appeal to farmers, winning again, this time in Nebraska. Oregon was next.
RFK: "The attention of the nation is going to be focused on the state of Oregon. You could very well determine who's going to be the next president of the United States."
Narrator: But Oregon Democrats were mostly comfortable, white, suburban voters. They turned away from Bobby's campaign with its focus on race and poverty. For the first time ever, a Kennedy lost an election. "Let's face it," Bobby told a reporter. "I appeal best to people who have problems."
Richard Goodwin: He was devastated by that loss. He said if only we could've moved a ghetto up here for a day, we could've won this election.
Evan Thomas: It was not going to be victory march that he had hoped for, he had to win California, he just absolutely had to win.
Narrator: California was pure mayhem.
John Lewis: People treated him like he was some rock star, it was young people, it was blacks, white...Hispanic, just pulling for him.
Jack Newfield: It was the most emotional adulation, I've ever seen in politics, particularly in the black, and Mexican areas. The Sunday before the primary, he invited me to ride in his car, going through Watts, in East LA. He said to me, I want you to see what I see. And I see this ecstasy, in the eyes of blacks, and Mexican Americans.
RFK: "If we make the effort, if we have that love and friendship and understanding for our fellow citizens we will have a new America. And you here in Watts, you here in Los Angeles, and in California, you will have made it possible. And I will work with all of you. Give me your help!"
Narrator: Not since Abraham Lincoln had a white politician been so embraced by people of color. "These are my people," he told an aide. "These are my people."
Narrator: On the final day of the campaign, Bobby and Ethel rode slowly through San Francisco's Chinatown. As usual, there were no armed bodyguards or secret service agents. "You've just got to give yourself to the people and to trust them," Bobby said, "and from then on... either luck is with you or it isn't."
Narrator: What sounded like shots turned out to be Chinese firecrackers. Bobby flinched, then went right on campaigning.
Jack Newfield: Robert Kennedy was fearless to the cusp of reckless. I think there was some daring, of death, and fate, in, in what he did.
Narrator: On election night, there was only good news.
Bobby got the victory he needed, with blacks and Hispanics voting for him in overwhelming numbers. The 1500 volunteers jamming the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles were ecstatic as they waited for Bobby to appear.
Adam Walinsky: It's a lot of people there. There are a lot of people. And everybody, you know, is really having a wonderful time. And getting ready for a terrific party that was gonna take place later. This was really his win. Hadn't been done by staff; hadn't been done by all these people around him. He did it.
Jack Newfield: He had liberated himself from leaning on his brother's myth. He had found that inner voice.
Narrator: "I feel now for the first time," Bobby told an aide, "that I've shaken off the shadow of my brother. "
John Lewis: We watched him speaking, from the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel. And we all was feeling very, very good.
RFK: "What I think is quite clear is, is that we can work together in the last analysis and what's been going on with the United States over the period of the last three years, the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions whether it's between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups or the war in Vietnam, we can start to work together, we are a great country, a selfless country, a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running over the period of the next few months. So, my thanks all of you and now, it's on to Chicago, and let's win this!"
Jack Newfield: I left the suite, on the fifth floor, during RFK's acceptance speech, and got into the ballroom. just as he was leaving the podium and he goes into, into the kitchen area. And then, I hear the, this moan, this cry, screams.
Narrator: As Bobby had reached out to shake the hands of the men and women who worked in the kitchen, twenty-four year old Sirhan Sirhan fired a bullet into his brain.
Jack Newfield: All delirium broke loose. And we realized that he had been shot. And, the people just went nuts. I saw people punch the walls, lie on the ground, weeping. John Lewis and I, just hugged each other, and sobbed.
John Lewis: Dr. King, two months earlier, and now Robert Kennedy. It was just too much.
Narrator: On June 6, 1968, Bobby died. Like his brother less than five years before, Robert Kennedy passed on into legend.
Narrator: Two days after Bobby's death, his body was carried to Washington's Arlington Cemetery accompanied by family and friends
John Siegenthaler: It was like an Irish wake. Everybody was in pain. Everybody was numb...in shock.
Adam Walinsky: Just, one, just one long cortege of grief, hour, after hour, after hour.
John Lewis: All along the way you saw these unbelievable crowds carrying signs saying "We love you, Bobby," "Goodbye, Bobby."
Peter Edelman: You saw, white faces and black faces and Latino and, and all the diversity of America. It was all there on the side of the tracks as the train went back to Washington.
Nicholas Katzenbach: It was quite remarkable really, what Bobby Kennedy suddenly meant to the American people. and I say, suddenly, because it, it had happened in just a couple of years really. I mean, it would've been laughable to think of Bobby Kennedy as a presidential candidate in 1961. And it certainly wasn't laughable in 1968.
John Lewis: He had the capacity, to open up himself. We saw him grow. We saw him change.
Jack Newfield: He was 42 when he was killed. We'll never know, would he really have gotten us out of Vietnam? Would he have really dealt with poverty and racism? He was cheated out of his chance to test his ideas and his values.
Adam Walinsky: It seems to me that what we're doing when we mourn Robert Kennedy is mourning um, our own lost possibilities.
Narrator: Thirty yards from his brother's grave, Robert Kennedy was laid to rest. Carved on the marble gravestone are the words from Aeschylus that he could recite from memory:
"He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God."