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Journalist captures ‘Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties’

Bill Eppridge photographed Robert F. Kennedy for Life magazine from his early campaign days in 1966 until his tragic assassination in 1968. Forty years later, Eppridge's collection of photographs, "A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties," offers a glimpse into this era. Journalist Pete Hamill, who was a friend of RFK's, offers his perspective on the politician through an essay that appears in
/ Source: TODAY

Bill Eppridge photographed Robert F. Kennedy for Life magazine from his early campaign days in 1966 until his tragic assassination in 1968. Forty years later, Eppridge's collection of photographs, "A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties," offers a glimpse into this era. Journalist Pete Hamill, who was a friend of RFK's, offers his perspective on the politician through an essay that appears in the book. In the essay, excerpted here, Hamill remembers the complexity of a passionate, courageous man and explores the loss of a great leader.

The Last Campaign

Around 8:30 that night, we were in suite 516 of the Ambassador Hotel, glancing down through tall windows upon Wilshire Boulevard. The Los Angeles night was soft with fog and we could see a smear of red taillights below us and the ghostly halos of street lamps. As always, there were almost no pedestrians.

In memory, there were about thirty men and women in the long, windowed suite, talking in knots, most leaning forward, mouths to ears, like conspirators. They were wealthy California Democrats, big-time lawyers, movie executives (but no stars), political professionals, writers, including my friends Jack Newfield, Budd Schulberg, and Jimmy Breslin, and my younger brother Brian, then a twenty-two-year-old photographer. I remember seeing Warren Rogers from Look magazine and Sander Vanocur from NBC. This was June 4, 1968. We were deep into that great historical unraveling called the Sixties, which truly began with a presidential assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The initial shock of the killing of Jack Kennedy had gone through stages: numbness, anger, rage. And things seemed to be getting worse.

By the first months of 1968, the Sixties had included the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the rise of Eugene McCarthy, the exhausted farewell from Lyndon B. Johnson, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the dreadful riots that followed in most American cities. The enraged spirit of the world’s young could be felt in many places, not all of them American. Generational anger was a driving force in the great changes of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, and among a million revolutionary demonstrators in France in May, where union members joined the young to demand radical change. The slogan was often “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll,” proclaimed in many languages.

But around 8:30 on this foggy June evening, there were no screaming protestors in suite 516 of the Ambassador Hotel, no acidheads, no Black Panthers, no Che Guevara T-shirts. Nobody wore an SDS button or insisted on the moral superiority of Mark Rudd. These were all grown-ups, in dark suits and well-cut dresses, speaking tensely in intimate tones, a few of them chuckling but never laughing out loud. There were no laptops yet in America, or cell phones, or BlackBerries, and no cable TV news either. So telephones rang insistently in the suite, were picked up, and names were called in stage whispers. Or the door would open, someone in shirtsleeves would arrive, murmur the latest news, then turn abruptly and leave. A few journalistic pilgrims carried Leicas or Nikons. One of them was a young man from Life magazine named Bill Eppridge. He had the kind of intense, focused eyes that were accustomed to actually seeing what was in front of all of us.

At the bar, a few people mixed drinks, gently clunking ice, while nibbling from plates of rolled-up room service ham and wedges of cheddar and Swiss cheese. There was no music. No Beatles or Stones, no Marvin Gaye, no Aretha. There was no dancing either. This was not, after all, a party. That would be later, after the results were in, at a place called The Factory. This gathering in 516 was politics. Big-time politics. Presidential politics. This was, in fact, the last stop for the campaign of Robert F. Kennedy in California. If he won here, he might become the Democratic candidate at the convention in Chicago in August. Downstairs, the ballroom was full, waiting noisily for news of a victory and a chance to roar for their candidate. That is, to roar for the man they called Bobby.

While we waited in 516 for the polls to close and the returns to come in, I talked for a while with the movie director John Frankenheimer. The advertising agency Papert, Koenig, Lois, Inc., had hired him in March to work with the Kennedy campaign on promotional material, including some commercials. He and Kennedy had become friends, and the candidate had spent the night before in Frankenheimer’s home in Malibu. On this Tuesday, Frankenheimer had driven Kennedy from the beach to the Ambassador, where they arrived around 7:30 P.M. Like me, Frankenheimer was a native New Yorker, and I noticed that he referred to Kennedy as “Bob,” as I did. Where we came from people named “Bobby” were either nine years old or professional ballplayers. We talked a bit about the town that spawned us, and then about Frankenheimer’s great paranoid masterwork from 1962, The Manchurian Candidate, which starred Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey. It had been withdrawn from public viewing after the killing of Jack Kennedy in 1963 (it would finally be re-released in 1988). There was a decent reason behind the movie’s disappearance: The story, based on a novel by Richard Condon, was about programming a man to assassinate a presidential candidate.

“Do you think it could happen in what is laughingly called ‘real life’?” I asked Frankenheimer.

He smiled in a nervous way, and glanced at the door of the suite.

“Yeah.”

Across the hall, in room 511, Robert Kennedy was waiting too. In 1968, only fourteen states held primaries; all other states left delegate choices to party professionals, most of whom favored Hubert Humphrey, the vice-president under Johnson. The part of Bob Kennedy that was a political professional (he had managed most of his brother’s campaigns) knew that if he won the huge state of California he would prove to delegates that he had one virtue they loved above all others: electability. He had won in Indiana, Nebraska, and South Dakota. A week before, Kennedy had lost the Oregon primary to McCarthy, his first loss in the near-frantic campaign that started on March 16. If he lost tonight, it would be over.

He didn’t look very nervous in room 511. It was, after all, too late to do anything about convincing any more Democrats to vote for him. His wife, Ethel, a few of his children, close family friends, some of the top professionals in the campaign: all went in and out of 511, some to deliver bulletins, others to provide laughter or diversion. Even Freckles, the homely Springer Spaniel who had become a star at Kennedy’s side during the short, frantic campaign, had made it into 511. There, Kennedy sat in shirtsleeves, the cuffs turned up, his tie loose, grinning with a kind of dark Irish fatalism in his eyes. He had no way of knowing that he was living the last hours of his life, and neither had we ...

Excerpted with permission from "A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties" (Abrams). Photographs and text by Bill Eppridge. Essay by Pete Hamill. Copyright © 2008.

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