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A Friend's Tale of a Nation's Loss

1968: With the nation in turmoil, Bobby Kennedy carried a message of healing and justice. One June night, it all ended.

June 07, 1998|RAFER JOHNSON | The 1960 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, Rafer Johnson is chairman of the board of governors of Southern California Special Olympics. His autobiography, "The Best That I Can Be," will be published by Doubleday in August

Thirty years ago, in the first days of June, I was in Los Angeles with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. I had been a close friend of Bobby's and Ethel's for eight years and I felt like an uncle to their children. But this was about more than friendship. The country I loved and had represented at the Olympics was in turmoil, perilously divided by the war in Vietnam and racial tension at home. Like many others, I felt that Bobby was the one public figure who could bring the nation together. I had seen him grow as a man and a leader. I knew that his compassion was deep and his commitment to peace and social justice was genuine.

Euphoric, I stood not far from Bobby just after midnight as he gave his victory speech before 2,000 jubilant backers at the Ambassador Hotel after winning the California Democratic presidential primary. He thanked those of us who had worked on his behalf and concluded with the words, "Now it's on to Chicago [for the Democratic National Convention], and let's win there." As cheers filled the room, he turned and stepped off the back of the platform to take a shortcut through the kitchen instead of working his way through the crowd as planned. Ever since, I have pictured in my mind what might have been had he not changed his route.

I had resigned my position as a sports anchor at KNBC to work full-time for the Kennedy campaign. People thought that former NFL star Rosey Grier and I were bodyguards. In fact, we were Bobby's friends and supporters, but we used our size and athletic ability to help shield the candidate and his wife, Ethel, from the exuberant throngs that turned out at every stop. On the fateful night of the primary, I instinctively pushed past some dignitaries to get to Ethel's side. She was pregnant at the time, and I had taken it upon myself to look after her. I reached her as she entered the hotel pantry, a few steps behind her husband.

That's when I heard the shots. I thought they were balloons bursting. When I turned in the direction of the sounds, I saw smoke, Then I saw a gun aimed at Bobby's head. Holding it was the man we would come to know as Sirhan Sirhan. I shoved Ethel out of harm's way and lunged toward the gun.

Everything unfolded as if in a dream, at both lightning speed and slow motion. Amid horrified shrieks, people darted about in a panic. When I reached the gunman, others were already trying to wrestle him down. I heard someone yell, "Grab the gun, Rafer!" My hand clamped down on the weapon. Rosey's hand clamped down on mine. We pinned Sirhan to the floor. I twisted his fingers to free up the weapons, then helped fend off the vengeful mob that was trying to get to the assassin. We did not want another Jack Ruby on our hands.

Before long, the chaos turned to eerie silence. Bobby was in the hospital, vainly fighting for his life, and Sirhan was arrested. I was in such a state of shock that it was not until hours later that I realized I had shoved the murder weapon into my pocket and the police were looking for it.

I remained dazed and numb for months, refusing to speak about the assassination except in court, even building a fence around my home to fortify my privacy. This was not only a personal loss. I felt that Bobby would have won the election, ended the war and done his best "to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world," as he himself had put it when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

I sometimes imagine Bobby looking down at us. I think he'd be disappointed. I think he'd tell us to stop bickering among ourselves, fix our sights on the common ground and do something to make life better for the poor, the disadvantaged and the children who represent our future. He would urge us to do what he had done: "Dream of things that never were and ask 'Why not?' "

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