Have you seen the movie “Bobby”? It’s about a day in the life of some people at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The day is June 4, 1968.
When the movie was released last November, my dear friend Denise in Seattle asked if I was going to go see it. “Haven’t decided yet,” I said. “Well, I’m not going. I just can’t,” she told me.
Denise and I have been friends since freshman year of high school. In March 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for president. Denise and I, along with two other classmates, walked into Kennedy Headquarters at the Del Amo Shopping Center in Torrance to volunteer. We were 17-year-old high school seniors.
In 1968, you had to be 21 to vote. Perhaps that frustration fueled our passion. And we were passionate. Television had brought civil rights confrontations, the Vietnam conflict, marches and protests right into our living rooms. We were only 13 when President Kennedy was assassinated and then that spring Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down. We found comfort in the words of Bobby Kennedy, “Some people see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”
The office work at campaign headquarters was necessary, but we found interaction with the senator and his entourage much more exciting. We met him at the airport, greeted him at a rally, and one memorable evening, escorted the Senator from his car to backstage at the Los Angeles Sports Arena where he would speak to thousands. He paced slowly, looking over his notes. We stood just feet from him.
All of our precinct walking, polling, envelope stuffing and phone calling revolved around winning the California Democratic primary. Eugene McCarthy had just taken Oregon and the campaign was heated. Our focus was on winning June 4. It was Tuesday, a school day. After school we headed to downtown L.A. to the Ambassador Hotel to wait for the election results with the rest of the campaign workers.
The mood at the hotel was festive and upbeat. We mingled in crowds that included celebrities and the media. Denise and another friend boldly went upstairs to find the senator’s suite and saw him as he turned to ask, “Where’s Ethel?” Denise said he took his wife’s hand and headed down the hallway. It was nearly midnight. He gave his victory speech to the crowd gathered in one ballroom and was making his way to the other ballroom where we were waiting for him. He used a passage through the kitchen.
The news of the shooting first came through as a whisper. Then the music stopped and we heard moans and wails as people around us cried and sobbed, “No, not again, not Bobby.”
The senator was shot at 12:15 a.m. the morning of June 5 and died 25 hours later on Thursday morning. We graduated from high school that weekend, after spending a day at headquarters shutting it down.
Recently I got a Monday morning email from Denise. She said that Saturday she had rented “Bobby” and watched it alone, and cried. I told her that by some weird coincidence I had rented the movie the very same night, watched it and cried. Our tears were for all that was lost that night in June 39 years ago. We were young and innocent in our political hopes and dreams. The dreams and the innocence vanished in a heartbeat.
NOTE: Occasionally I meet readers who tell me their favorite column since I started writing them in May 2007, is the one about being at the Ambassador Hotel the night Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, originally published June 4, 2007. I've written about that experience a couple of times on the anniversary of the senator’s death. This is the first column.