Remembering the RFK Campaign

Forty years ago, Kennedy inspired the audacity of hope

Forty years ago Senator Robert Kennedy declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. His campaign lasted eighty-five days. It began on Capitol Hill in the ornate and cavernous Senate Caucus Room on March 16 and ended on June 5 in the Embassy Room of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. I was one of about thirty reporters assigned to the campaign, and during those eighty-five days my life was an exhilarating blur as we moved from one city, one courthouse rally, one Indian reservation, one logging site, one labor hall to another. It was Fargo to Portland to Eugene to Indianapolis to Vincennes to Omaha to Redondo Beach to Valparaiso, and back to Eugene.

In Portland I had put together a piece for the CBS Evening News on Kennedy’s traveling staff—baggage chief, bodyguard, secretaries, speech writers, TV ad men, and his dog, Freckles. One of my sentences read, “On the road, the traveling cadre is jammed into a chartered plane with a press corps of thirty and a covey of stewardesses who seem to spend most of their time as barmaids.” When I caught up with the campaign two days later, Ethel Kennedy presented me with a gift for my distinguished reporting. It was one of those red and black waiter’s jackets with the piping and the gold epaulets. On the back of the jacket in white adhesive tape she had written, “Personally I Never Touch the Stuff.”

Following primary victories in Indiana and Nebraska, Kennedy flew into California, stopping in Redondo Beach, Sacramento, and Davis. At every stop he fell further and further behind so that when he reached Eureka in the northwest corner of the state he was almost two hours late. After a speech to the Humboldt County Democrats and a private session with the local Hoopa Indian tribe, it was 10:15 p.m. but Kennedy could not leave the airport without working the crowd along the fence, grabbing hands in a sort of Australian-crawl overhand stroke. Over my shoulder, I watched as a flying phalanx of cameras, lights, bodyguards, policemen, and teenyboppers bore down on me. I was racked and exhausted and barely in time did I drag my typewriter out of the way as the phalanx—with Kennedy in the vortex—went roaring by. Suddenly the human wedge halted. Kennedy broke out and trotted back to where I was standing. Kennedy looked me right in the eye and said, “Roger, half the trick is to look like you’re having fun.”

Each Friday I had to break off from the campaign to anchor the CBS Evening News on Saturday. On one of those flights back to Washington, my seatmate was Ethel Kennedy, a notoriously hyper flier. The smallest bump or pilot warning about “a little turbulence up ahead,” would turn her rigid. On our final approach in Washington that day, the pilot, without warning, yanked the plane up to avoid another jet still on our runway. Ethel lunged at my arm and dug in with her nails. The woman who was potentially the nation’s first lady not only broke my skin. She also drew blood.

Covering Kennedy, reporters got used to marathon motorcades, crowds lining the streets, kids running or riding their bikes alongside, women grabbing and pawing at him in his open convertible. One afternoon in Indianapolis, we heard police sirens in the distance, and within minutes came the Nixon motorcade—half a dozen long, black limousines, their closed and darkened windows making Nixon and his entourage invisible—nosing through downtown without slowing or stopping, on its way in from the airport to the local country club for dinner and a fundraiser. The comparison between the chaotic and jubilant Kennedy motorcade and the cocooned and joyless Nixon procession set the press to laughing—howling, actually, some of us even chanting the Republican campaign slogan, “Nixon’s the One.” Every time Kennedy saw someone in the crowd holding a “Nixon’s the One” poster, he would stop in mid-sentence to ask, “Nixon’s the one what?” It always got a big laugh.

The chaos, the shrieking, and the madness that followed the shooting at the Ambassador Hotel on June 5 have almost been whited out from my memory. I do recall falling down a grassy embankment outside the Good Samaritan Hospital during the deathwatch, tearing the trousers of my blue suit as I scrambled to hear the final bulletin. I recall flying to New York to anchor a special broadcast on the senator and not saying a word to anybody about anything—not my seatmate, not the stewardess, not the taxi driver. I recall the outrage I felt as I watched thousands of New Yorkers going about their business as if it were just another Thursday in June, wondering why they were not also enraged.

That night on CBS, Douglas Dillon, former Treasury secretary; Charles Evers, field secretary of the NAACP, Frank Mankiewicz, the Kennedy’s press secretary; Peter Edelman, the senator’s legislative assistant; and William Walton, an artist and family friend, sat in the studio on West 57th Street and talked for an hour about Kennedy. They talked about his “perpetual sense of outrage,” about his total identity with children; his gentle sense of humor. He was ruthless, they thought, but ruthless toward the unjust and cruel. In the end, they agreed that what made so many Americans admire him and oppose him was that he meant what he said. Though I barely uttered a word during the hour, it was as cathartic for me as it was for them.

The Kennedy campaign was, in my time, unequalled for its spontaneity, tenderness, spirit, grit, camaraderie, wackiness, exhaustion, humor, but in the end, devastation. May there never be another one like it.

Roger Mudd, a former Washington correspondent for CBS News, is the author of the forthcoming book, The Place To Be/Washington, CBS and the Glory Days of Television News.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Roger Mudd was a congressional correspondent for CBS News for eighteen years and chief Washington correspondent for NBC News for five (and a co-anchor there for two years). He has also been a political correspondent for the NewsHour, documentary host on The History Channel, and taught at Princeton and at Washington and Lee. His book The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News will be published by PublicAffairs in March. Mudd is one of several veteran journalists who are appearing as guest writers for CJR's Campaign Desk during the course of the presidential campaign.