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COLUMN ONE

His hero's death sets a man's life adrift

David Steiner became a symbol after he grabbed a mike when RFK was killed. Forty years later, the L.A. native has found his voice.

June 05, 2008|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

The laughter went flat. The smiles froze before they had time to disappear. In the back of the Ambassador Hotel ballroom, David Steiner couldn't tell what was happening. But a change in mood raced through the crowd like an electrical charge, arcing from face to face.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had just finished his victory speech after winning the California primary and exited through a door near the podium. It was just after midnight on June 5, 1968.

At 25, Steiner, who left his job at the Justice Department to join the campaign, had never before felt so giddy with purpose.

Now an awful energy emerged from the closed door. He felt a rush of dread.

Steiner ran toward the door and found himself suddenly smashed against it in the pandemonium. Women in straw boater hats cried. Men covered their mouths in shock. Steiner tried to pry the door open. But the crowd pushed against him. He saw one woman go under, another shoved hard against the wall.

Steiner dashed to the microphone where Kennedy had just spoken.

"Is there a doctor in the house?" he asked. His voice quaked. "Would a doctor come right here?"

In desperation, people asked him what happened. Steiner didn't have any information. He was just trying to help anyone who might have been injured in the frenzy. But the movement in the room portended a greater calamity.

Television cameras zoomed in on him as if he were a spokesman, capturing his face forever in that moment.

And then, the cavernous room was nearly empty. The Klieg lights were gone. Steiner was sitting on the stage. Now he knew that Kennedy had been shot in the head and rushed to the hospital. He felt that if he stepped off the stage he would free fall into an abyss.

All his life, Steiner had been on a track somewhere, focused and striving. But like so many young people whose trajectories converged in that era's burst of idealism, the assassination of Kennedy 40 years ago today would set him adrift.

Steiner grew up in Encino. His dad owned a patio furniture business. David played basketball, football and golf at Birmingham High School and was obsessed with girls and movies.

His parents were of a generation that hunkered down and tried to survive world events -- not seek to change them. His mother was stoic. His father had a salesman's view of human relations. He spent his money on sports cars and imported shoes, drank Scotch and didn't come home much.

By contrast, David was excitable and sentimental, with a voice that caught whenever emotion overcame him. Seeing the hatred in Southerners' faces as the National Guard escorted black students into school upset him profoundly. He wanted to fight for social justice. When he went to UC Berkeley in 1960, he decided he would be the next Clarence Darrow, largely based on Spencer Tracy's portrayal of him in "Inherit the Wind."

He stayed vaguely attuned to events. John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired him. But it was movies that planted in him a sense of soaring potential, a need to do something of human consequence. One weekend, when his parents had guests in town, he holed up in the Encino Theater and watched "Shane" at least half a dozen times.

In college, he met his dad and a younger sales associate for dinner in San Francisco.

After a few drinks, the salesman blathered on about how he was going to make it big in the paper clip business. On his way back home, Steiner thought, I don't know what I'm going to do with my life. But it ain't going to be paper clips.

In his final year as an undergraduate, he was accepted to Boalt Hall School of Law.

Steiner was fascinated as the Free Speech Movement roared up at Berkeley. But he didn't have an impulse for rebellion. Only one time did he step into the fray: He joined the massive sit-in at Sproul Hall.

When police told students they would be arrested if they didn't leave, he left.

He felt like a coward as he walked away. But he was just a mainstream kid.

His image of a man fighting for justice looked more like a bespectacled Atticus Finch than longhaired Jerry Rubin. After law school he took a job in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington.

On Oct. 20, 1967, he noticed workers setting up a podium outside his office window on Constitution Avenue. Soon, a crowd of demonstrators coalesced, chanting against the Vietnam War and the draft.

Steiner pictured all of them looking in through the window and seeing this young government lawyer in his rolled-up sleeves. Oh my God, I'm the bad guy, he thought.

The next day, Steiner joined thousands of protesters marching on the Pentagon.

One of his colleagues, Kermit Lipez, recalls that Steiner had an infectious energy.

"He was always an inspiring figure," says Lipez, who is still friends with Steiner. "He had this Pied Piper quality. He was just eager and bubbling over with ideas."

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