Bobby Kennedy Gunned Down on Campaign Trail

Bobby Kennedy making a speech moments before he was shot. Inset: killer Sirhan Sirhan at the time of his arrest
Bobby Kennedy making a speech moments before he was shot. Inset: killer Sirhan Sirhan at the time of his arrest

by Ray Setterfield

June 5, 1968 — Tragedy once again rocked the ill-starred American Kennedy family on this day when Bobby, campaigning for the presidency, and hoping to pick up where his slain brother left off, was struck down by a gunman's bullets. He died the next day.

He had just won the Californian primary and was almost certainly on his way to the White House.

But at 12.15am, just after the 42-year-old Senator had given a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan stepped forward, a rolled-up campaign poster concealing his .22 revolver. He was barely arm’s length away when he fired several shots at Kennedy and wounded five bystanders before being wrestled to the floor.

According to the New York Times, Sirhan, then aged 24, later said he believed that Kennedy was “instrumental” in the oppression of Palestinians.

He confessed to the murder at his trial and was sentenced to death. However, before the sentence was carried out the California State Supreme Court abolished the death penalty, so Sirhan has spent his days since the shooting in prison.

Over the next 50 years he would make sixteen appeals for parole, all of them rejected until 2021 when the parole board approved his release from prison after two of Kennedy’s sons argued in his favour.

Douglas Kennedy, who was only a year old when his father was murdered, attended Sirhan’s 2021 appeal and said later he was moved to tears by the killer’s remorse.

Calling for his release he said: “I’m overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr Sirhan face-to-face. . . I see him as a human being worthy of compassion and love.”

Robert Francis Kennedy Jr, another son who also met Sirhan, said he found him to be “gentle, humble, kindhearted, frail and harmless”.

However, six of the slain senator’s nine surviving children argued against Sirhan’s release. Former congressman Joseph P Kennedy II, the oldest son, said at the hearing:

“The prisoner killed my father because of his support of Israel. There are differing views about ending the sentence of this killer, including within my own family. But emotions and opinions do not change facts or history.

“The man was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Yet he now may walk free, no doubt to the cheers of those who share his views. Let there be no mistake, the prisoner’s release will be celebrated by those who believe that political disagreements can be solved by a gun.”

He also spoke of growing up without a father: “We miss him every moment of every day, and struggle to understand why the prisoner should be able to enjoy the golden years of his life when he so viciously stole them from our father.”

After the board found that Sirhan no longer poses a threat to society and should be released, the recommendation was sent to California’s governor, Gavin Newsom.

In January 2022, noting that the assassination was “among the most notorious crimes in American history”, he rejected the 77-year-old killer’s appeal.

Newsom said: “Mr Sirhan has failed to address the deficiencies that led him to assassinate Senator Kennedy. He lacks the insight that would prevent him from making the same types of dangerous decisions he made in the past.”

Vowing to fight the governor’s decision, Angela Berry, Sirhan’s lawyer, said: “Not an iota of evidence exists to suggest Mr Sirhan is still a danger to society.”

Robert Francis ("Bobby") Kennedy was the 3rd son of Joseph Kennedy, a multi-millionaire businessman, investor and, from 1938 to late 1940, United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Joseph Kennedy had nurtured presidential hopes for his eldest son, Joe Jnr, but these were dashed in 1944 when, as a Navy lieutenant, Joe was killed in action during the Second World War.

The mantle was to be passed to the second son, John Fitzgerald ("Jack") Kennedy, who, with the help of his father's millions, was elected president in 1960 – only to be assassinated three years later.

Bobby had served as Attorney General from 1961 to 1964 and when JFK's successor, Lyndon Johnson, announced that he would not stand for office in 1968, the assassinated President's brother threw himself into the race for the White House.

After RFK's murder, the Democrats turned to Hubert Humphrey as the party's standard bearer but he narrowly lost the election – ironically to Richard Nixon, the Republican who was defeated by John Kennedy in 1960.

Choking back grief, younger brother Edward aka Ted Kennedy delivered an emotional eulogy at RFK's funeral, in which he said:

"My brother need not be idealised, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it; saw suffering and tried to heal it; saw war and tried to stop it.

"Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.

"As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

Some men see things as they are and say, Why?
I dream things that never were and say, Why not?"

The Ambassador Hotel was demolished in 2006. Donald Trump wanted to build the world's tallest building on the site, but instead it was used for the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools project, a $580 million complex of public schools serving over 4,000 students.

Published: May 13, 2018

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