It is June 5, 1968 — a Wednesday — and Robert Kennedy is lying motionless in the intensive care unit of the Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles, California.
It has only been a few hours since the Senator from Massachusetts celebrated his win in the California Democratic primary, making him frontrunner for the presidency in an election year dominated by the war in Vietnam and civil unrest at home.
On March 16, 1968, Bobby Kennedy announced he would challenge sitting President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination for president. (Wikimedia)
Despite the late hour, a crowd of about 1,800 supporters, blazing TV lights and early summer heat had made the Embassy Room of the Ambassador Hotel sweltering and airless, yet electric.
Senator Kennedy, looking tanned after spending the afternoon making calls and resting by the side of the Ambassador’s pool, concluded an energetic speech claiming victory after midnight, with the rallying cry:
“And now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there!”
Stepping off the stage to loud cheers, he had been directed by hotel security towards a kitchen pantry — the quickest way, they said, to the adjoining Colonial room, where he was due to hold a press conference.
He had stopped briefly to speak to hotel staff. Somewhere a balloon burst, making people jump and laugh.
Then, just as Senator Kennedy had taken the hand of 17-year-old busboy Juan Romero, two shots were fired from near a large coffee urn. A third shot was then fired at point blank range into the politician’s head, behind his right ear.
His knees buckled, and he slumped to the ground.
People screamed and pushed.
Five more shots were fired before the gunman had emptied his chamber. Others were hit.
No Secret Service guard for candidates in 1968
There was no Secret Service protection for presidential candidates in 1968. Senator Kennedy’s friend and bodyguard Rosey Grier, a towering former NFL footballer, had been unable to keep up with him in the crowd. Grier and journalist George Plimpton took the .22 calibre pistol from the gunman after a struggle.
Mr Romero, who had brought a room service meal to the Senator in his fifth-floor suite the previous afternoon, cradled Senator Kennedy’s head as it hung limp and a large, dark pool of blood spread on the concrete floor.
TV and newspaper cameras captured every shocking detail. In the middle of the commotion, Senator Kennedy licked his lips and asked: “Is everyone alright?”
As he was lifted onto a stretcher, he cried out “No, no, no, no!”
In a three-hour operation, surgeons remove two bullets and fragments of bone from the back of Senator Kennedy’s head, while one bullet remained lodged in the back of his neck.
As well as the physical trauma of the bullets to the brain, Senator Kennedy lost a lot of blood, which surgeons fear may have damaged his “mid brain”, which a hospital spokesman explained governed vital signs like pulse and level of consciousness, “although not directly the thinking processes”.
A glimmer of hope?
Bobby Kennedy served as his brother’s attorney general before JFK was assassinated. (Wikimedia)
JFK, Dr King and now Bobby Kennedy
On this historic Wednesday, Senator Kennedy is breathing on his own, with the assistance of a resuscitator, but his condition is listed as “extremely critical”.
Hours pass. America seems to hold its breath.
Mr Romero returns to work clearing tables in the Ambassador Hotel with dried blood still under his fingernails, refusing to scrub them clean while Senator Kennedy clings to life.
It is less than five years since the assassination of Senator “Bobby” Kennedy’s older brother, John F. Kennedy, in Dallas, Texas, and barely two months since the slaying of civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee.
The night Dr King was killed, Senator Kennedy had broken the news to a crowd in Indianapolis. Amid fears the assassination would trigger more deadly race riots, he reflected on the fact that like Dr King, his own family member had been killed by a white man.
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”
Unlike in many America cities, there was no riot in Indianapolis that night.
Robert Kennedy had come to represent more than just another politician, more than the heir to an already fabled dynasty with a commitment to social justice despite their patrician ways and wealth.
Kennedy forced LBJ to drop re-election bid
For many, Robert Kennedy was the best chance of ending America’s deepening involvement in the Vietnam war.
Robert Kennedy speaking to civil rights demonstrators in front of the Justice Department on June 14, 1963. (Wikimedia)
His candidacy, and that of fellow anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy, had forced President Lyndon Baines Johnson — “LBJ” — to drop his re-election bid.
Senator Kennedy, very much part of the political establishment, was telling the American people the uncomfortable truth — that their mighty military could not win the war his own brother helped to escalate.
“A total military victory is not within sight or around the corner; that, in fact, it is probably beyond our grasp; and that the effort to win such a victory will only result in the further slaughter of thousands of innocent and helpless people”.
Ever since assuming the presidency following JFK’s death, Mr Johnson had feared his younger brother would seek to reclaim the office, and in 1968 it was happening.
The men loathed each other, bitterness lingered from the 1960 campaign when Bobby Kennedy was his brother’s campaign manager and Mr Johnson was his chief rival before joining the winning ticket.
‘Is he dead yet?’
Now, as Senator Kennedy lay in his hospital bed, at the White House an agitated Johnson could not sit still. He’d gone on TV to express his “shock and dismay”, but back in the Oval Office he strode back and forth, clutching the phone, repeatedly calling the Secret Service for updates on Senator Kennedy’s condition.
“I’ve got to know, is he dead? Is he dead yet?” Mr Johnson asked.
Twenty-six hours after Robert Kennedy was shot, his long-time press advisor Frank Mankiewicz, wearing the same suit, tie and KENNEDY campaign button as the moment of the attack, stood before reporters gathered at the hospital and delivered a brief statement.
“Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1.44am today, June 6, 1968. With Senator Kennedy at the time of his death were his wife, Ethel, his sisters Mrs Stephen Smith, Mrs Patricia Lawford, his brother-in-law, Mr Stephen Smith, and his sister-in-law, Mrs John F Kennedy. He was 42 years old. Thank you.”
Richard Nixon wins presidency
With Senator Kennedy dead, the anti-war movement had lost its greatest hope.
The presidential election was fought out between two essentially pro-war candidates, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and former vice president Richard Nixon. Mr Nixon won on a promise he would restore law and order and a secret plan for peace.
That plan failed, American troops stayed in Vietnam another five years. More than a million more lives were lost on all sides.
Arguably not since Sarajevo in 1914 had the shooting of one person had such catastrophic human effect.
John Barron hosts Planet America on ABC TV and is the author of three books, including Vote For Me, about the American presidential election process.