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How Robert F. Kennedy reached across America’s divisions

Fifty years ago, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy gave a victory speech after winning the California Democratic primary. Moments later he was gunned down, and the dreams of him as the progressive hope for American unity died with him. Judy Woodruff discusses his impact with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, his daughter, and Dawn Porter, director of “Bobby Kennedy for President.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, remembering the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy 50 years after his death stunned the nation.

  • Robert F. Kennedy:

    My thanks to all of you. And now it's on to Chicago, and let's win there.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fifty years ago today, Senator Robert F. Kennedy finished his victory speech after winning the 1968 California presidential primary. Moments later, he was gunned down.

  • Man:

    Stay back!

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And when Kennedy died a day later, so did the dreams of many who saw him as the progressive hope for unity in a country deeply divided.

    Dr. Martin Luther King had been killed just two months earlier. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic Democrat and former attorney general in his brother's administration, became a champion of the poor and critic of the wealthy and powerful.

  • Robert F. Kennedy:

    I think that we have to recognize that, those of us who have the advantages that you have and that I have, that we have an obligation and responsibility to those who do not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He held rallies in urban ghettos, farming towns and Appalachian coal country. He supported an end to the Vietnam War and appealed to Americans across race and class.

  • Robert F. Kennedy:

    The way that we're going to make a difference is whether, if people work together, if whites and blacks make an effort together.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    After Dr. King was murdered that same year, Senator Kennedy marched in the funeral procession.

  • Robert F. Kennedy:

    This generation didn't create most of the conditions and the convictions which have led us to this day, but this generation has a responsibility to resolve them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Robert Kennedy's alleged gunman was Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant who hid his pistol in a rolled-up campaign poster. Kennedy was shot three times and died at the age of 42.

    His assassination sent shockwaves through the country.

    Let's talk further about Robert Kennedy's impact over the years and the trauma of 1968.

    Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is his daughter, the eldest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children. She is the former lieutenant governor of Maryland. And Dawn Porter is a filmmaker and the director of the documentary series "Bobby Kennedy For President," which is now available on Netflix. She joins us from Los Angeles.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, it's hard to believe it's been 50 years. How are you and your family marking this day?

  • Kathleen Kennedy Townsend:

    It is hard, and it was a real, as you know, extraordinary loss.

    But, tomorrow, we're going to have a service at Arlington Cemetery, and over 4,000 people are coming. They wrote letters, how much they were grateful to be invited. People are coming from as far away as California, Ireland, Italy, even Australia.

    So it really shows that, 50 years after he died, people still remember him. They remember what he cared for, what he stood for, and they want to come together in unison.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I have to ask you. Your mother is 90, his widow. How is she doing?

  • Kathleen Kennedy Townsend:

    My mother is great.

    She just had her 90th birthday. Joe Biden came, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, with lots of grandchildren, and we sang songs and gave very funny toasts. My mother has a terrific spirit.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dawn Porter, you decided to do this documentary about Bobby Kennedy. Where did the idea come from? Why did you want to do it?

  • Dawn Porter:

    You know, over the course of my career, so many people that I admire told me how much they were influenced and admired Bobby Kennedy. And I was really curious about that.

    So, for example, Attorney General Eric Holder, I interviewed him for a previous film in the Justice Department. And he told me, as a 12-year-old in Queens, he looked at the Kennedy brothers and thought, maybe I could do some public service.

    You know, Bobby Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr. were always really, really important in marginalized communities, in the African-American community. And I thought what a great time to explore that legacy, at a time when politics feels so dark and when so many people feel — are so impacted by the political discourse of today.

    This was — this seemed like a really good time to look back at his life and legacy. And I really wanted to focus on his life, and that's kind of the inspiration for the film.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Kathleen Townsend, you started to talk about his legacy yourself a minute ago.

    How did you — how do you feel it over all these years?

  • Kathleen Kennedy Townsend:

    Well, I think you saw it in the film, which is, first of all, he could reach out to all sorts of people.

    As you know, on his funeral train, it was white working class and black working class standing there, saluting him, singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," feeling that he was talking to them.

    And to the people who were fortunate, he was saying, you have a responsibility. You have — you have been given privilege. Use it for others. Use it to make this world better. Help others.

    He was — he had a very strong moral sense about what we should do with the talents that we have been given.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dawn Porter, from the perspective of someone who wasn't around when Bobby Kennedy was campaigning for president, became the person that he was, what did you see in him?

    I mean, you have talked out the effect he's had over time in this country, but what was it about him, do you think, that made him the standout figure that he was?

  • Dawn Porter:

    You know, there — so, we had the benefit of looking through hundreds of hours of footage. It was a time when the news networks were covering his campaign, independent filmmakers were covering his campaign.

    So there was some rich treasure trove of archived material. And, you know, the editors and I, we really kind of steeped ourselves in it. And the picture that emerges is really extraordinary. It's a person of conviction, of compassion and empathy and intelligence.

    And I think that that moral sense, that sense that he just — as Kathleen is saying, Bobby Kennedy understood acutely the privilege and the talents that he had. And what he challenged America to do and what he did himself is, he used those talents for people who didn't have a voice.

    It was really emotional and impactful. And it said a great deal to all of us about leadership and the importance of having people who have compassion and empathy and intelligence, and who aren't afraid to reach out to others who have different experiences.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, from your own knowledge of your own family…

  • Kathleen Kennedy Townsend:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … what does family tell you about where that came from in your father?

  • Kathleen Kennedy Townsend:

    Well, I think it came a lot from his parents and from the Irish experience, first of all, because his mother and his father grew up in a time where there were the signs that said, "Help wanted, no Irish need apply," because his own father had to leave Boston to go to New York because there was such prejudice against the Irish.

    He always had a foot in his camp that understood what it was to be marginalized, because he heard it over and over. And yet, because he had — obviously, his father had done very well, because he was very well-off, he understood power.

    So it's an interesting situation where one person has both come from a discriminated group on one hand, but also has power on the other, and doesn't forget where they came from.

    But I would like to say, just to build on what Dawn said, because one of the things he was great about — and Dawn mentioned it — is that — his ability to bring people up that disagreed with him. When he went to college campuses, or when he was in Japan or South America, and people were throwing, you know, apples or bananas or whatever at him because they didn't like him, he said, I'm glad they don't have better aim.

    But then he would say, OK, come up on stage. Let's talk. Let's discuss this. And rather than, say, push them out, he wanted to actually talk with people who most leaders are usually afraid to do so.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The very last thing I want to ask you both about very quickly, and that is, here we are 50 years later, and, Kathleen, you have made a statement recently that you think that there's reason to believe Sirhan Sirhan didn't act alone.

    We only have a few seconds, but you're saying this is something that needs to be looked at.

  • Kathleen Kennedy Townsend:

    I think — I talked to my brother Bobby, who has looked into this a great deal, and I think he makes a very powerful argument that it should be looked at again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dawn Porter, you — it comes up in your film.

  • Dawn Porter:

    You know, we dedicated the last episode.

    I think what is clear is that Sirhan Sirhan had a trial that is not a trial that anyone would have wanted for their loved ones. And so I leave it to others to continue to investigate that question.

    But that's — it's important for us to feel like the criminal justice system is fair, and there's a good reason to feel like perhaps this wasn't so fair.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are certainly going to continue to follow that.

    Thank you.

    Dawn Porter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, thank you both very much.

  • Kathleen Kennedy Townsend:

    Thank you.

  • Dawn Porter:

    Thank you so much.

  • Kathleen Kennedy Townsend:

    Thank you very much.

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