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Kennedy: The ability to inspire

June 3, 2018

Coming into San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club on Friday, May 31, for his noontime speech, Bobby Kennedy walked right past me. He looked tense, a bit distracted, young, vulnerable and full of anticipation about this particular crowd. I felt sorry for him, but I was watching his face and didn’t notice he had his hand outstretched to shake mine. No one at the table I was sitting with had stuck out his hand. It was a very orderly audience, after all — no typical screaming and shouting and grabbing. In fact, we didn’t even stand up when he entered. In any case, I didn’t shake his hand because I hadn’t seen it. I’ll always feel awful about that.

His speech was terrific. He offered his suggestions for ending the war in Vietnam and they weren’t like Eugene McCarthy’s — my candidate at the moment. He didn’t suggest getting out and letting the Vietnamese fight the war themselves, but he was very critical of the corruption and apparent disinterest of the Vietnamese people. The speech won several interruptions of applause from that conservative, generally Republican audience. My Republican boyfriend, Tom, clapped and liked him.

Later that day, Tom and I waited for him at the Japanese Trade Center on the fringes of San Francisco’s Western Addition. Kennedy arrived in an open limousine looking totally exhausted but enthusiastic. He spoke to a crowd made up more of blacks and whites than Japanese.

He asked if anyone knew the alma mater song of Waseda University. A man standing next to me said, “Yes.” And then — encouraged by Kennedy — he hopped on the hood of the car and Kennedy said, “My best friend here and I will now sing to you.” And they did. He was very funny — “Da da da-ing” when he didn’t remember the words. He mentioned that he knew the words of that particular song very well because when he was in Japan several years ago speaking at the Waseda University, the students were getting loud and threatening and the one sure way to keep them quiet, the student president felt, was to get them singing their alma mater.

When he finished, Kennedy grinned and said, “I bet you don’t know any other presidential candidate who knows the words to the Waseda alma mater.”

We followed him down Fillmore Street to a housing project where he spoke to a crowd wholly made up of blacks — some passing out pamphlets supporting Kathleen Cleaver, the Black Panther activist.

And that was the last time I saw him.

Finishing up my canvassing for McCarthy the next day, I felt strange talking about a candidate I no longer essentially supported. The things I had said about McCarthy were still the same reasons that I had originally believed in him. Except now I felt Kennedy had those qualities and was far superior for his ability to inspire. Kennedy had an ability to convince people of his sincerity. McCarthy didn’t have that. And that ability was what was needed to win.

Tuesday in Los Angeles, Kennedy gave a humorous victory speech a little past midnight. He introduced people around him, including his brother-in-law, Stephen Smith: “He’s ruthless, but he’s very efficient.” After joking he had received a telegram from Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty saying that he had overstayed his visit, he turned to leave — and as an after-thought, held up his hand in the sign of V for victory, popular in those hippy days in California.

Our local NPR reporter was chatting with Gov. Pat Brown and son, Jerry, when he interrupted himself: “I’m sorry — we’re going to have to switch back to the Kennedy headquarters.”

From then on the evening turned into a living nightmare. At 4 to 4:30 in morning, there was nothing to do but finally go to sleep. Wednesday was awful. No one knew much until later in the day when Frank Mankiewicz, Kennedy’s press aide, made an ominous report. I kept thinking as long as Kennedy was still alive it would be all right. But around 2:15 in the morning, Mankiewicz made the dreaded announcement and left the room.

Friday they took him home to New York, and the scene was all too familiar. Loading the casket on the plane, with the Kennedy family all in black. Teddy Kennedy came out of the plane and picked up a wreath of flowers that had fallen off the casket. It was by far the saddest sight. The plane landed in the dark, JFK airport in New York City, where Kennedy was taken to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the service.

Later, on the train to Washington, D.C., Teddy Kennedy would come out on the platform in a couple of cities, lifting his hand slowly to wave to the crowds lining the rails from New York to D.C. As the train rolled by, all could see the flag-draped, heavy coffin inside. Six hours later, the train pulled into D.C., and the cortege drove past the Poor People’s camp at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial on the way to Arlington National Cemetery. Then a fast burial some 46 feet away from President John F. Kennedy’s grave. John Glenn took the folded flag to Teddy, who gave it to young Joseph Kennedy, who gave it to his mother.

And I knew it wouldn’t stop — that feeling of such a damned waste — such a sad loss for the entire country. It didn’t stop.

Linda Osborne is a retired journalist living in Santa Fe. In 1968, she was in her 20s living in San Francisco, working for Eugene McCarthy’s campaign in the California Democratic primary. After hearing Bobby Kennedy speak, she switched her loyalties. This piece is something she wrote a few days after Kennedy was killed.