Assassination: The night Bobby Kennedy was shot

After the deaths of JFK and Martin Luther King, he was America's great hope. Then Bobby was murdered too. As a new film tells his story, Liz Hoggard explores how history was changed at the Ambassador Hotel

Sunday 21 January 2007 01:00

For many, 5 June 1968 represented the end of hopes for a better America. Two months previously, Martin Luther King had been murdered. Now senator Robert F Kennedy, heir apparent to his brother's presidency, was dead too.

The night of 4 June was one of triumph for Bobby and his supporters. Five years after the assassination of President John F Kennedy, his younger brother Bobby had assumed the political mantle. He had just won the Californian primary for the presidency. He was on his way to the White House.

But at 12.15am, just after he had given a victory speech, he was shot at close range by a 24-year-old Palestinian, Sirhan Sirhan, in the kitchen of The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

America was plunged into mourning. The actor Emilio Estevez remembers hearing about the assassination on the news, aged six. He rushed to wake up his father, the actor Martin Sheen - Sheen had worked as a campaign volunteer for Bobby in 1965. The memory stayed with Estevez and, nearly 40 years later, he has written and directed a film, Bobby, out on Friday, which relives the senator's last moments.

Bobby is part fact, part fictional account. Estevez tells the story through the eyes of the "little people" who were there that night. It reminds us of the five by-standers who were shot alongside Bobby, and whose lives were changed irrevocably (see below).

In many ways Bobby Kennedy was heir to Martin Luther King's legacy. He campaigned for civil rights and made urban poverty a chief tenet of his campaign. While the Democrat President Lyndon Johnson had escalated the number of soldiers in Vietnam, Bobby openly questioned the war. He was mobbed at rallies. Journalists compared him to a rock star. Many young people, black and white, ducked out of college for the summer of 1968 to join Bobby's campaign.

Anti-war protester Diane Huber was 20 and working for Bobby's campaign team on the night of the shooting. "He was a surrogate father for many of us, " she tells me. "Bobby was real. Back then we really believed that one person could make a difference."

In Estevez's film, Huber, played by Lindsay Lohan, marries a male friend at the hotel to save him from being drafted to Vietnam, just as Huber did in real life. "A lot of men I knew in 1968 had come back from the war in flag-draped caskets; others returned missing an arm or a leg. Bobby meant so much to me, not just because he would have taken us out of Vietnam sooner rather than later."

Bobby was already looking like a president elect. In March 1968 President Johnson stunned the nation by dropping out of the election race. Bobby had established a clear lead in the primaries. On 4 April, when Martin Luther King was murdered, Bobby gave an impromptu speech from the back of a pick-up truck in a black inner-city ghetto of Indianapolis. He spoke about the shooting of his brother five years before, explaining that, like King, John had been killed by a white man. He is widely credited with averting the sort of rioting that broke out in 100 other cities across America.

On the evening of 4 June, Bobby was in his room in the Ambassador Hotel with his wife Ethel, who was six months pregnant with their 11th child, watching the election results on TV. By 8pm the party downstairs was in full flow: 1,800 people in evening dresses and tuxedos were in the ballroom. Guests included the writer George Plimpton, Olympic gold medal decathlete Rafer Johnson and professional football player Rosey Grier. Singer Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney's aunt) was there with her two children.

When Bobby was announced winner of the primary, cries of jubilation filled the hotel. He got up on stage and gave a speech. Afterwards he left the ballroom through a service area to greet supporters working in the hotel's kitchen. He was accompanied by his wife and Grier, who was acting as her bodyguard.

Kennedy was engulfed by a mass of wellwishers in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel. Typically, he was not surrounded by security staff. Shortly after midnight shots rang out. At first people thought it was balloons or firecrackers popping, then someone screamed, "Blood!"

Sirhan Sirhan had opened fire with a .22 calibre revolver and shot Kennedy, shouting out, "Kennedy, you son of a bitch." Bobby's aides and the hotel maître d' grabbed the killer but he carried on shooting. A bullet entered Bobby's skull from behind the right ear and he fell to the floor.

Finally Grier wrestled the gun from Sirhan. A restaurant assistant, Juan Romero, knelt by the senator's side, comforting him and cradling his head - only moments earlier he had been presented to Bobby in the kitchen and shaken his hand. A young man pushed through the crowd and passed a rosary to Romero.

Guests were collapsing and crying in shock. "Adults were behaving in ways I'd never seen before, falling to their knees, walking in a daze like zombies," recalls one guest, David Bender, who was 12 years old on the night of the shooting. Bobby was carried out on a stretcher - his last words were "Is everybody all right?" - and rushed to the Good Samaritan Hospital for brain surgery, but died during the day.

When the LA police arrived, Sirhan was held down on a pantry table in a headlock. He was handcuffed and bundled through the crowd.

On 9 June 1968, President Johnson declared a day of national mourning following Kennedy's death. Rumour has it that the Rolling Stones were recording Beggar's Banquet when Bobby was shot. A lyric in "Sympathy for the Devil" was subsequently changed from "I shouted out, who killed John Kennedy?" to "I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys?"

Bobby's body was returned to New York City, where he lay in state at St Patrick's Cathedral for several days before the funeral mass held there. Later his body was transported by special train to Washington. Thousands of mourners lined the tracks and stations, paying their respects as the train passed by. Kennedy was buried at night near his brother John, in Arlington National Cemetery. Bobby's last child, Rory, was born six months after her father's assassination.

There are so many 'what ifs' about Bobby's death. What if Kennedy had gone on to win the next primary in Illinois? Would he have beaten Senator Eugene "Gene" McCarthy to become the undisputed anti-war candidate? Would he have cut short the agony of Vietnam, spared the United States the shame of Watergate (Richard Nixon was elected as Republican president on 5 November that year)? And would he have dramatically changed US foreign policy in countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador?

In court, Sirhan blamed the killing on Kennedy's support for Israel during the Six-Day War (which had begun exactly one year before the assassination). Born in Jerusalem, Sirhan and his family, who were Maronite Christians, had survived the trauma of being refugees in Israeli-held territory. When Sirhan was 12 years old the family moved to the Unites States, and some see Sirhan's shooting as one of the first acts of Palestinian or Arab terrorism to take place on American soil.

Inevitably there has been a slew of conspiracy theories, including the notion that Sirhan was acting under the influence of "hypnotic brainwashing" which many attribute to the CIA's MK-Ultra program (Sirhan claims not to remember the shooting). The conspiracy theory with the most credence, however, is that Sirhan arrived at the hotel with a couple - many witnesses recall a blonde wearing a polka dot dress. The police didn't follow up these accounts. As recently as November last year, Newsnight reported new evidence that two CIA officers were at the scene, which had been denied. It has long been suggested that the CIA, angry over what was seen as betrayal over Cuba, was involved in both Bobby and JFK's murders.

Sirhan was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison. He remains in Corcoran State Prison in California - his 13th appeal earlier this year failed. After the shooting, the 1,000-room Ambassador Hotel, once a playground for celebrities and kings, fell into neglect. It was demolished last year, and Estevez's team filmed there at the end. On the site there will be a new learning centre for children from poor communities, to teach the importance of civic values. It will be named after Robert F Kennedy, the man whose dream of a presidency ended just at the moment it seemed possible.

'Bobby' is released on 26 January


Five people were shot with Bobby that night. Their names are forgotten, but at the time they were major figures. One of them, Ira Goldstein, 19, was a trainee radio reporter who had just shaken hands with Kennedy when he was shot in the hip. For six months afterwards he said Secret Service agents shadowed him. The stories of the other victims are below:

1. William Weisel, 30, of ABC News was shot in the abdomen. He returned to his job on the White House bureau, but said people would whisper in corners, "You see that guy? He took the second bullet." Weisel met briefly with Sirhan's family; the gunman's mother, Mary, wanted to apologise. He moved out of politics to open a b&b.

2. Democrat activist Elizabeth Evans, 43, was grazed on the forehead by a bullet as she bent to retrieve a shoe she'd lost in the crowd. She had supported Kennedy's opponent, but went to the Ambassador that night because she loved a party.

3. Volunteer Irwin Stroll, 17, was shot in his left leg. His parents saw him on television, stumbling out of the Ambassador' s kitchen,his trouser leg stained with blood. He later became a successful interior designer. He died in 1995.

4. Paul Schrade, a friend of Kennedy and director of the United Auto Workers union, survived being shot in the head. "I started shaking violently. I thought I must have been electrocuted. It felt just like that - an electric shock." He campaigned on behalf of the Kennedy family for a school on the site of the Ambassador.

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