My Modest Encounter with RFK

By Larry Kelly

Well, not modest to me.  It left quite an impression on me, an idealistic freshman at Purdue University the spring of 1968.

I was in the same frame of mind that many young men of my age shared:  I was going to get drafted and die in Vietnam in a war that made no sense (unlike today’s wars – yeah).  The draft lottery hadn’t come along yet, so we all thought the draft would get us after college.  We were “Clean-For-Gene” and were coming off a high from Gene McCarthy’s humbling Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary with an end-the-war campaign.  He was to be our salvation.

Robert Kennedy was on campus because of the Indiana Primary.  It was important that he win either the Indiana or Oregon primary before he moved on to the decisive California primary.  For that reason, he was making many campaign stops in Indiana.   In April, Kennedy had made his famous Indianapolis Martin Luther King speech that for all purposes stopped a riot after the MLK assassination.  The first of May, Kennedy was slated to speak at Purdue’s six thousand seat “Hall of Music” auditorium.

I found myself sitting in that very hot, crowded hall, wearing my one ragged sports coat.  Times were a changing, but agriculture-engineering Purdue still required a student to wear a jacket if attending such events.   Kennedy was a half-hour late, and a piss-poor Dixieland band with a repertoire of six songs was trying to entertain the restless crowd.  The students were mostly hostile to Kennedy at the get-go, figuring him an opportunist for entering the race only four days after McCarthy made the courageous New Hampshire fight.  By the time RFK arrived, applause was sparse and silence greeted his short prepared speech.  Then the Q&A started, and the questions from the audience were downright rude.   One I remember was “would you be running if your name was anything but Kennedy”.  After a few of these, someone asked RFK about his New York Bedford Stuyvesant restoration project.  He greeted the question with a long pause, and then said in a soft voice, “My God, I have a friend”.  That turned the tide, and by the time he finished answering questions, he had won over the crowd, leaving to a standing ovation.  I was left awestruck.  To this day I have not seen someone take command of an audience like that other than, perhaps, Barack Obama.  I believed he could and would end the Vietnam War.

I rushed out of the hall from one of the many exits only to find Kennedy exiting as well, getting in the back of a big convertible.  Next thing I knew, I was wedged in between his rear bumper and the front bumper of a trailing car.  RFK was standing and shaking hands with the crowd.  He bent over and shook my hand, then rotated shaking other hands.  I was trapped and couldn’t move so when he turned back, he shook my hand again.  Not wanting to seem rude and do that a third time, I searched my person for some scrap of paper I could get him to sign, but no such luck.  I do remember thinking as I moved my hand in and out of jacket pockets that security seemed nonexistent.

So anyway, now I had done it.  I had actually met and touched someone who was likely to become President of the United States.  Not an image in a newsreel, on TV, or in a magazine, but a real person; a great man.  A month later he was gone, and I cried.  It was personal.

Follow @Larry_Kelly on Twitter.

Bobby Kennedy: Watts 1968

June 3, 2010 OTOOLEFAN Edit 1 comment

I’ve been a fan of Bobby Rivers since I first saw his VH-1 talk show in the late 1980’s. His funny, intelligent presence caught my attention and has stayed with me to this day. Recently, I was glad to find him on Twitter, and discover we share a love of classic movies, among other things. After seeing the RFK pieces on Tomfoolery, Bobby mentioned his own kiss with history with the Senator on a sunny afternoon in South Central Los Angeles in June of 1968. “Bobby was my hero,” Rivers told me. Upon hearing this, I asked him if he would write of that very special day in his life, and he was kind enough to do so. It’s an honor to post this. — OTOOLEFAN

By Bobby Rivers

After all these years, I still feel that thorn prick my heart and bring tears to my eyes when I think of what America lost in June 1968.

I was a kid then, growing up in South Central Los Angeles.  Our community was still physically and spiritually charred with the after-effects of the Watts Riots.  We needed hope.  Funny, hope was like an irresponsible dad that had been divorced out of your life.  One who had said that he might show up on your birthday with something  special.  You’d wait and wait and wait.  Maybe you saved him some cake.  Maybe your ice cream had melted but you continued to wait for him to show up.  It wasn’t even about the gift or gifts he might have brought.  You just wanted him to show up.  But he never did.

For thousands of us in the South Central L.A. area, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was that hope.  And, one day, he showed up.

I attended an all-boys Catholic high school in Watts.  Many of us in my class had known each other since first grade at a Catholic elementary school.  To us, the Kennedys were heroes.  The late John F. Kennedy had become the country’s first Catholic president.  Robert F. Kennedy was following in his brother’s footsteps and running for the presidency.  In the turbulent, violent, changing America of the 1960s, he seemed to absorb the pain of the poor into his soul.  His campaign stops weren’t photo opportunities.  We felt that he cared about us.  He heard us.  That son of wealth came to our poor neighborhoods and sat on our depressed front porches, looked us in the eye, asked us how we were and listened to the answers.

By that time, I’d already made up my mind that I wanted a career in broadcasting.  I wanted to do things I didn’t see other Black people doing on TV.  In February 1968, I got to stay up late enough to see the “Tonight” show.  It came out of New York City then and Johnny Carson was on vacation for a week.  Carson picked Harry Belafonte as his guest host.  A big deal for the Black community!  My parents and I watched together because it was historic.  Black talent was not hosting network shows then.  Belafonte had a stellar line-up that week:  Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, The Smothers Brothers, Zero Mostel, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Belafonte battled NBC executives to book Dr. King, I was told by a former “Tonight” show staffer who worked there at the time.  NBC brass felt that King was “too radical” and that sponsors would not be pleased.  Belafonte won the battle.  A couple of months later, Sen. Kennedy would be seen on network news informing Black Americans at a rally that our Dr. King had been killed.  Kennedy’s heart was heavy.  I felt that, in his grief, the fire of his political mission had intensified.  His mission was to help heal our nation.

Senator and Mrs. Kennedy were coming to L.A.  Not only that, he was scheduled to make an appearance in Watts just a few blocks from our high school late one school-day afternoon.  According to the local news, his appearance was scheduled for about ten minutes after classes were done for the day.  None of us could keep his mind on his lessons that afternoon.  We wanted to run down to the park and see Bobby Kennedy in person.  That was the buzz on campus.  All our teachers — priests and lay teachers — knew it and did not mind.  By today’s standard, it was if Jay-Z, Beyoncé, a couple of “American Idol” stars and a cast member from “Twilight” were coming to the community for a personal appearance.  That’s how electric with anticipation the air at Verbum Dei High School was that day.  Not for the in-person sight of music or movie stars, mind you.  But for a politician!

I remember the sunshine when Bobby Kennedy arrived.  It was a sunny day in early June with a sweet Southern California breeze.  Most of the classrooms had the doors open to take advantage of that breeze.  In the second to last class, we unexpectedly got announcements from the principal.  Fr. Robinson told us the usual stuff — Student Council updates, sports practice news, etc.  He’d saved the big announcement for last.  Because the student body was so excited about the scheduled appearance of Sen. Kennedy to our community, classes would be dismissed early.  You’d have thought our home-team had just won the World Series.  Cheers erupted from every single classroom.  Teachers were grinning, thrilled that these young Black and Mexican-American men had embraced the cause of a middle-aged politician.  There I was, a teenager wearing a necktie (the parochial school requirement) standing along the side of South Central Avenue when the motorcade approached going well-under the speed limit.  The car was a convertible.  The senator had stood up on the back seat.  Ethel was seated next to him.  Tanned, lean, strong, smiling and robust, Bobby Kennedy had a charisma so overwhelming that it made me audibly gasp.  He didn’t wear a jacket.  He wore a long-sleeved white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, ready for business.  He cut a mean figure.  His life-force, his spiritual magnetism was so powerful that it rendered some of us classmates immobile for just a moment.  Then, as if on cue, we began shouting, cheering his name as we waved and ran behind the car, trying to touch his hand.  Hope had arrived and the gift was enormous.  I walked home later feeling as if I’d witnessed a miracle.  Two days later, I awoke for school to the dark news.  That hope had been taken away from us.  Taken the same way President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been taken.  I was young and afraid of the world.

One afternoon in 2006, I went to a Manhattan critics screening of “Bobby,” the film about various characters at the Ambassador Hotel when and where Sen. Kennedy was shot.  Harry Belafonte is in the film.  When I saw him onscreen, I thought back to when I was a kid in L.A. and was allowed to stay up to see him interview Bobby Kennedy on the “Tonight” show.  I was working on a New York City morning radio show at that time as the weekly film critic.  The movie was not a box office hit and not a great movie, but it had some good performances and touching scenes.  The most touching one was delivered by Nick Cannon as a young RFK supporter from my neighborhood.  When he spoke about how proud he was to run behind Bobby Kennedy’s car as it drove through South Central L.A., tears streamed down my cheeks.  When the movie was over, we left the small screening room and headed to the elevators.  The late Joel Siegel of ABC had just seen it too.  He was telling others rather grandly that he’d been a speechwriter for Kennedy.  I did not pipe up with “I was one of those Black kids running behind his car in Watts that Nick Cannon talked about” as I stood behind him.  But I did notice that I was the only Black person at the screening.  I thought of how few African-Americans I’d seen reviewing movies on network morning news show like Joel Siegel did.  I wondered if Joel, a fine movie critic, ever noticed that racial detail as well as he noticed details on film.  The message of Bobby Kennedy’s speeches still needs to be embraced.

Ex-VH1 talk show/Food Network TV host. Movie critic for ABC News & Whoopi Goldberg Premiere radio show. Major classic film fan. Find BobbyRiversTV on YouTube. Follow Bobby Rivers on Twitter @BobbyRiversTV. http://www.bobbyrivers.com/

Categories: Uncategorized

The Day I Met Robert F. Kennedy

May 16, 2010 OTOOLEFAN Edit 1 comment

By Joe Santorsa (Marnus3)

I grew up in a household deeply rooted in the tradition of Democratic politics. Discussions of the political landscape were as common at the breakfast table as cereal and milk. My father was a local businessman and my mother was a democratic committeewoman since the days of Roosevelt. She loved to tell the story of when working as a waitress at a local hotel, she had to serve a group of Republicans at a dinner. All night she listened to them belittle the suffering the depression had brought to average Americans. After an evening of hearing the vile contempt with which these people held her own people, she threw to the floor the dinners she was serving and stormed out, vowing to do whatever she could to prevent them from ever having power over her.

In March of 1964 the bitterness of the previous November still permeated our home like a dark fog. My parents had been mourning the death of President Kennedy as if they had lost a brother. But on one March day there was a ray of hope shining through the fog, because Robert Kennedy would be in town addressing the annual “Irish Sons of St. Patrick” dinner. Scranton was buzzing with excitement because for one day in that long, sad winter, something good was about to happen.

Bobby Kennedy was to be the overnight guest of a friend of my parents, a local county judge. The judge was a very generous man with a large Irish Catholic family, much like the Kennedys’. To my good fortune, he invited a small number of friends, including my parents and me, to his home to meet Bobby. It would have to be brief, but the opportunity to be in his company for just a few seconds was enough for me.

Now, you will be hard pressed to find a bigger Beatles fan than me, but I must admit that on this day, if given a choice between meeting the Beatles or Bobby Kennedy, the Beatles would have lost. Yes, even at the age of 14, I was hopelessly hooked on politics. As we drove over to the judge’s house, I went over in my mind what clever things to say to this hero of mine. It was fruitless. I decided to ad lib.

We were greeted at the door by the judge’s wife and brought into the living room. There he was, sitting like anyone else, but with the air of someone you knew was special. As he got up, we were introduced one by one. When he reached out to shake my hand, all my preparation evaporated as my mind went blank. I swear I almost fainted. I don’t even remember what I said or what he replied. It was an awe stricken moment that flashed before me and then was over. But I will always remember his eyes, clear and sincere and the softness of his handshake. I remember my father telling Bobby that he, too, had lost a brother in the war to a kamikaze attack. Bobby thanked him for his service and his family’s sacrifice, and my mother for her dedication to the party and his brother. And that quickly it was over. In that fraction of a lifetime, my life was touched by greatness. I was told that his speech that night was so moving, that the audience was in tears.

Some days later we were told by the judge’s wife that Bobby Kennedy, in his haste to leave, left his overcoat on the rack in their foyer. They offered to ship it to him but he told them he would pick it up on his next trip to Scranton. They kept it as a treasure.

Four years later, on June 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy won the California presidential primary. By then I was in college, and the war in Vietnam was raging. I was dedicated to ending the war and Bobby Kennedy was my hope, my candidate. I stayed up with friends until after 3:00 AM to hear his victory speech and the famous words “Now on to Chicago and let’s win there”. Then came the chaos, and I never got to sleep that night, trying to make sense of what had just happened. I hoped against all odds that he would somehow survive, but it was not to be. Robert Kennedy died the next day. All that remained was a coat that would never be retrieved, the memory of a warm handshake on a cold March day, and the promise of peace that would not be fulfilled. I thought at that moment I would never dream again.

RFK’s Finest Hour

May 9, 2010 OTOOLEFAN Edit 4 comments


Robert Kennedy found himself some 20,000 feet above the earth just minutes after learning that down below, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King had been shot. All Bobby knew, as he flew to Indianapolis to speak at a rally in a poor black neighborhood, was that King was in critical condition. His mind was already, no doubt, flashing back to Dallas and his own brother’s fate. Now what?

Kennedy’s advisors were divided. Some felt he should cancel his appearance and just issue a statement, while others thought he should go to the event.

Two of RFK’s black staffers, John Lewis (now Rep. D – GA) and Earl Graves Jr., were already at the site of the rally and believed that most of the people there didn’t even know King had been killed. Lewis felt that Bobby had to go, saying, “You can’t have a crowd like this, and something like this happens, and send them home without saying anything at all. Kennedy has to speak, for his sake and for the sake of these people.”

Upon landing, RFK was given the news that Martin Luther King was dead. “Oh God, “ Kennedy replied, “When is this violence going to stop?”

While still on the plane, Robert Kennedy made up his mind he would go. Soon after getting out of the plane, the Chief of Police of Indianapolis implored Kennedy to call off the rally, saying it was too dangerous for him to go, and that riots were sure to break out.

The crowd of about 3000 waiting for Robert Kennedy at Seventeenth and Broadway was a volatile mix. Many of the people had got there early and hadn’t yet heard of King’s death; the other group of people there were those who had jammed into the streets after learning the news. Some of these were Ten Percenters, a young black militant group who hoped to start a riot or worse. There were only a small amount of whites in the audience, and most of them were standing near the flat bed truck that would function as a speaking platform for RFK’s speech—if he lived to give it.

Robert Kennedy waded into this swirling cauldron and proceeded to give the finest address of his life. It wasn’t really a speech at all, it was more of a prayer – an updated Gettysburg Address, for a country just as divided. He very likely saved his own life along with countless others that drizzly evening. What makes this speech even more remarkable is that RFK didn’t use a prepared text. He spoke from his heart for nearly seven minutes without notes, or even anything written on his hand.

From “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy And 82 Days That Inspired America, by Thurston Clarke: “When Kennedy finished, some in the crowd behaved as if he had just delivered a campaign speech. They rushed the platform, cheering and reaching for him.  But most stood still, weeping and stunned into silence. They disbursed quietly and within minutes the park had emptied. A month later, one of the militant Ten Percenters told researchers Karl Anatol and John Dittner of Purdue University, “We went there for trouble after he {Kennedy} spoke. We couldn’t get nowhere.” Another militant told them, “After he spoke, we realized the sensible way was not to kill him the way {they} killed his brother.” Another claimed that Kennedy’s speech had saved Indianapolis from violence, saying, “The black power guys didn’t get no place after the man speak.”

Had Kennedy skipped the rally, or delivered a less successful speech, there would have been a riot at Seventeenth and Broadway that evening.  Anatol and Dittner speculated that “a racially mixed, congested crowd would have erupted into physical conflict between black and white with lives being lost and women and children caught in the melee. Furthermore, if a riot had taken place, a national television audience would have been witness to its commencement. The prospect of chain reactions in other areas cannot be over-ruled.”

During the next twenty-four hours, riots broke out in 119 American cities, leaving fourty-six dead, twenty-five hundred injured and destruction unmatched since the Civil War. But in Indianapolis, where race relations were notoriously tense, no guns were fired or Molotov cocktails thrown, and it was the only major American city to escape the violence. Three decades later, former Mayor {and now U.S. Senator} Richard Lugar would call Kennedy’s appearance at the rally “a turning point” for his city.”

Ladies and Gentlemen – I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because…

I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are black – considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible – you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

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 and lawlessness, but is 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 whether they be black.

(Interrupted by applause)

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

(Interrupted by applause)

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Why can’t people talk this way anymore?

As we all know, two months later, Robert Kennedy himself would be dead.  In 1988 writer Jack Newfield called RFK’s assassination “a wound that hurts more, not less, as time passes.”


If You Can’t Count It, It Doesn’t Count

April 12, 2010 OTOOLEFAN Edit 2 comments

A Moment In Time With RFK

Here in America, one of our tragic flaws is that we measure everything in dollars and cents. If you can’t count it, it doesn’t count. This problem was never addressed more eloquently than when Robert Kennedy spoke the following words at, of all places, the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968.

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Can you imagine these words coming from the lips of any politician today?

  1. Kathy Randall
    August 4, 2011 at 1:52 am

    Don-this is beautiful! RFK was my hero & I believe our only hope. It reminds me of an incident on the Obama campaign trail. As you could guess, there were several attempts to get at Obama. One occasion that I witnessed was of 2 young men who’s activities raised suspicion. I ordered them out of the area where Barack & michelle were. I looked around and saw a local (Reno) cop sitting guarding one of the doors. I gave him a description of the two characters I had confronted. He reacted reluctantly so through gritted teeth I said, “You find those guys NOW! I remember Bobby! Together we found them. They had knives and other weapons on them and were arrested. Don, you are the first person I’ve ever told all this to.

  2. August 4, 2011 at 1:15 am

    I was too young to know firsthand of sixties politics or RFK, but I feel like I know more now after reading these five accounts. They don’t ‘make’ politicians like this any more and that is our loss. This guy was the real deal.

    Bobby Poole “Psycholyst” on Twitter.

  1. May 12, 2016 at 10:52 pm

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