ZAC STUART-PONTIER: How did you come to work with Senator Kennedy?
ADAM WALINSKY: So first I met him, I was in Office of Legal Counsel which does high level legal work for the White House and the Attorney General.
ZAC: This is Adam Walinsky. In the spring of 1963, he was just beginning a career at the Office of Legal Counsel. Under the Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
WALINSKY: And I got an assignment. There was a guy named AJ Muste. AJ Muste was a great peace crusader and he was in his 80s. And he announced that he was going to lead a march, a peace march, from Washington to Guantanamo. So he was going to walk from Washington all the way to Florida with you know a few followers, and then they were going to get on a boat and go to Guantanamo and they were going to say we should have peace between the United States and Cuba.
ZAC: But this was the middle of the Cold War. Cuba was an enemy. And so the Justice Department decided to seek an injunction to try to stop Muste from going on his protest.
WALINSKY: And I was given the papers to review. The papers have to be personally signed by the attorney general. So in this case they had to be signed by Robert F. Kennedy.
And he said, “Let me get this straight. There’s an 80 year old man wants to walk all the way down to Florida and then go to Cuba because he says it’ll help bring peace. And you want me to sign a piece of paper that says we’re not going to let him do that.” He said, “Fuck it I’m not going to sign that paper.” and just threw it back to me and that was the end of it.
And I was just stunned. I was just stunned. I couldn’t- I just I couldn’t believe it. I thought that was the most wonderful thing I’d ever heard.
ZAC: Today on this bonus episode we’re going to feature some of the best Robert Kennedy stories and speeches that we couldn’t fit into the show.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY: I think we have to be angry enough of the injustices that still exist within our country and all around the world to speak out and do something about them. I
ZAC: I’m Zac Stuart-Pontier. You’re listening to the RFK Tapes.
ZAC: How did you meet Robert Kennedy?
WILLIAM VANDEN HEUVEL: Well I knew the Kennedy family in the 50s. I think the first time I met Robert Kennedy that was 1956.
ZAC: This is William Vanden Heuvel. He was special assistant to Robert Kennedy and a close friend of the Kennedy family.
ZAC: In 1964 at the DNC there's that famous thing where Bobby introduces the film about JFK, can you tell me about that?
VANDEN HEUVEL: That was in Atlantic City, it was the Democratic National Convention.
ZAC: On August 27, 1964, just nine months after President John F Kennedy’s assassination, Robert Kennedy introduced a tribute to his brother.
VANDEN HEUVEL: But as he came into the hall, there was a twenty three minute ovation.
It was the most extraordinary thing to witness. People literally crying. It was the first real opportunity that those who had worked in the political era of the Kennedy’s had to say how much grief they carried with them on this.
RFK: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Chairman. I first want to thank all of you for all that you did for President John F Kennedy. He not only had his own principles or his own ideas but he had the strength of the Democratic Party. So that when he became president he wanted to do something for the mentally ill. For those who are not covered by social security. For those who are not receiving an adequate minimum wage. For those who did not have adequate housing. For our fellow citizens who are not white who had difficulty living in this society. To all this he dedicated himself.
VANDEN HEUVEL: It was a beautiful speech. And he quoted Shakespeare. Things that you don’t hear anymore in politics.
RFK: Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet: “When he shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars, And he will make the face of heaven so fine, That all the world will be in love with night, And pay no worship to the garish sun.” And I realize as an individual and really -
I realize that as an individual and even more importantly for a political party and for the country. That we can’t just look to the past. But we must look to the future. My thanks.
VANDEN HEUVEL: It was the single most gratifying expression that I had ever seen by a political body in this case a convention for someone that was not candidate or whatever.
ZAC: And what do you think it meant for him personally?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well I think he was reassured that the heart and soul of the Democratic Party was still Kennedy. And I mean everybody just assumed he was going to be a candidate for president.
ZAC: And four years later Senator Robert Kennedy was a candidate for president.
WALINSKY: The very first major speech of the campaign it was in Kansas at Kansas State University.
ZAC: By now Adam Walinsky was one of Kennedy’s speechwriters, and they were working on the first major speech of the campaign. It was to be given on March 18, 1968 and there was one subject that Kennedy knew he needed to address, the Vietnam War.
WALINSKY: He said now you know he said I was in those meetings I was there in those discussions. And so we're going to talk about that. I've got to go in there and make sure they know that I'm not trying to hide from that I was I was part of it. And so that's how we started the speech.
RFK: Let me begin this discussion with a note both personal and public. I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path. But past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation as in Sophocles: "All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and he repairs the evil. The only sin,” he said, “is pride."
WALINSKY: So then he goes on and he speaks and it was a good speech. It was a really tough speech. And it said the things that had to be said you know he talks about the fact you may remember there was a there was a village that was full of of you know Viet Cong and air cav you know blew them out.
RFK: An American commander said "It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it." Where does it end? If it becomes necessary to destroy all of South Vietnam in order quote to save it, will we here in the United States, will we do that too? Is that what we want? Is that what we stand for? I can’t believe that’s true.
WALINSKY: And as he went on he could tell that he was really he really had them, he could feel that. You know if you're if you're speaking if you can't feel the audience you should be in another line of work. He could feel his audience.
RFK: So I come here today, to this great University, to ask for your help. Our country is in danger, not just from foreign enemies; but above all, from our own misguided policies. There is a contest on, not for the rule of America, but for the heart of America. So I ask for your help, in the cities and the homes of this state, in the towns and on it’s farms, contributing your concern and action, warning of the danger of what we are doing and the promise, and the promise of what we can do in the future. I ask for your help.
WALINSKY: And and so you know when he got to the end of it and said you know you give me your hand, you give me your help and we will have a new America.
RFK: And I pledge if you give me your help, if you give me your hand, that I will work with you and we will have a new America! Thank you very much.
WALINSKY: They were just going nuts. He understood how how a real political figure should act. He understood what it meant to ask other people to follow him and to listen to him. And that was the same human being that would go out in those poor places or the migrant labor camps in upstate New York or the you know shacks in rural Mississippi or whatever it was. Or the guy who could go out as you know and talk to talk to a big crowd of black people from a ghetto in Indianapolis when Martin Luther King was assassinated.
ZAC: On April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis, Robert Kennedy gave one of his most famous speeches. Adam Walinsky was there but he’s the first to admit he didn’t write a word of it.
WALINSKY: I had written some stuff on a scratch pad. I was elsewhere in you know we were driving me to get frantically to get me to meet him at the - where the speech was going to be given. So I could give these pathetic pieces of paper to him. He didn't need them. He just brushed them aside because he knew in his head what he was going to do.
It was dark. It was really dark. There weren't a lot of street lights. The crowd was just a large indistinct mass of people. And they didn't know about this. They didn't know that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed. Had no idea.
And we didn’t know, but we could suspect that there were a lot of people in that crowd who had brought chains they brought gasoline cans. There were guns in there. There was a lot of stuff there. And the potential. It wasn't as if there hadn't been - I mean the country by that time had been through a lot of riots.
You know the then mayor of Indianapolis was threatening to have fire hoses out and you know and fire trucks and everything to keep Robert Kennedy from going there and speaking because he was so afraid that that would lead to violence right there.
ZAC: Was there any question of whether he was going to go on?
WALINSKY: Never was in his mind.
There's a there's a flatbed truck which had been parked there. As a platform. Because there are no platform there and there's just a bunch of people milling around.
There was a lot of confusion and people didn't know so you can hear him on the tape saying do they know.
RFK: Do they know about Martin Luther King?
WALINSKY: And he gets told. No I - they don't know.
RFK: Ladies and gentlemen, I’m only going to talk to you for a minute or so this evening because I have some very sad news for all of you.
WALINSKY: You know he started out saying I have some very sad news for you. And for all those who love peace in this country and around the world.
RFK: ...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.
WALINSKY: The news made its way through the crowd. The people at the back of the crowd were still celebrating. So you didn't know, you could just sort of see and feel the news making its way and you could kind of feel people coming to grips with it.
RFK: 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 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.
WALINSKY: And you hear him talking to them about what his own loss meant to him. How he had felt after his brother was killed. Which he had never talked about before.
RFK: We have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond or go beyond these rather difficult times.
WALINSKY: And that was where he quoted Aeschylus.
RFK: My favorite poet was Aeschylus and 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.
WALINSKY: “Until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Now there isn't. There are not only isn't an American politician I don't know if there is a human being who at that moment with that crowd could have reached back into his memory and into his own heart and come up with those words. And that's why he was irreplaceable.
ZAC: Coming up.
RFK: With your help, we can win here in Oregon. If we win here in Oregon we’ll go on to win in California, we’ll win in Chicago.
ZAC: The campaign goes to Oregon.
ZAC: Just so I can get some levels tell me what you had for breakfast.
STEVE ISENBERG: Uh. Onion bagel...
ZAC: This is Steve Isenberg. In 1968, he was working for the office of the Mayor of New York City, but he wanted to work on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. So he talked to his boss, who talked to the Mayor, who talked to Kennedy’s close aide William Vanden Heuvel.
ISENBERG: Vanden Heuvel told him, tell the kid you know get on the next plane to Portland. You know I really have no fuckin idea what I’m getting into and I fly to Portland.
ZAC: Kennedy was campaigning in the Oregon primary. Once Isenberg landed in Portland, he met up with another Kennedy aide named John Douglas.
ISENBERG: He brought me into a room which was covered in maps and John Douglas looked up and said “Do we have a county open?” And it turned out that they had just outside of Portland a small county with no one running it. Nothing. And in two minutes, that was my county.
ZAC: Isenberg became the coordinator of the Kennedy campaign for Columbia County, in the northwest corner of Oregon.
ISENBERG: Well how do I do this?? I mean I really had no idea.
ZAC: He was given a few hundred bucks and told to set up shop in a town called St Helens.
ISENBERG: It is a really tiny town and as you came off the highway to turn into St. Helen’s there was a building that just had an empty office. I said, “Well how much is the rent?” and he goes like “Uhh...30 dollars a week.” I take it and it was perfect. Now I’ve got an office, just starting to get telephones. Where am I gonna get people to come into this headquarters? So I go I’ve got to do this over the radio.
ZAC: Isenberg went to the local radio station to put out a call for volunteers.
ISENBERG: And I say who I am and I’m opening up this headquarters and I say where this is and we really would like volunteers. And the guy goes “Well does it matter how old they are?” I said, “I don’t care.”
That day after school, suddenly like 15 kids about 12 years old come in.
ZAC: Isenberg called his young workforce the Kennedy Action Corps.
ISENBERG: So I tell them go buy a zillion index cards and every index card cut out the name of a registered Democrat from the rolls. Get the phone number and that.
Here’s what you gotta do, cut this out paste this and I want you to make a call. I’m gonna show you how to make a call. I mean you just guess at this stuff.
And I started to really drive around the county. I went into some of the places where the unions were very heavy into manufacturing and the rest of it. And I started to really get a feel for something which was that you know as in so many states and we know you got the big city in Portland but you have the rest of the state.
So now we'll come to the sort of more punchline. I bumped into John Douglas again.
ZAC: John Douglas was the Kennedy aide who had given Isenberg his county.
ISENBERG: And he says how's it going and everything and I told him and he sounds great. I said you know. I really think Senator Kennedy needs to get out of Portland more and he goes well. Okay, come to the Benson Hotel, 4 o’clock this afternoon. So I do and this is the kind of thing you never forget. They take me upstairs and suddenly we’re in the bedroom of Senator Kennedy. And Kennedy is sitting on the bed, got his shoes off. Kennedy looks over and goes, “So you’re the guy that wants to ruin my afternoon tomorrow so I don’t get a nap?” I said, “Yes sir.” He said “Well, make the case for going there.” I said well “President Kennedy had campaigned here and I promise I’m gonna give you a great crowd.” And he just looked up and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Now I mean I was like so hyped up. I go right to the radio station.
I go “Attention attention Columbia County and surrounding areas! Tomorrow afternoon Senator Robert F. Kennedy will be here in St Helens! Kennedy Action Corps! Report immediately after school!”
ZAC: The next afternoon, Isenberg told the Kennedy Action Corps what to do when they saw the motorcade driving through town.
ISENBERG: I go here’s what I want you to do. You’ve all got your bicycles. I said as the car comes down, I want you to be on the corner, get all of you up there, be waving. As soon as it goes past you ride your bicycle two more blocks park it and then run up...They loved this.
ZAC: So your idea is just..
ISENBERG: They are a moving crowd…
ZAC: So it seems like more people...
ISENBERG: Exactly. You see this paper, I want to see if this is the one. I mean take a look at this. These yellow sheets, they’re fifty years old. This is local local, now here it is. Here’s the picture in the paper right done as fast as they could get it out. Pictures of you know. Look at the crowd here in front of this City Hall where he’s speaking. Here I am right here. Here’s Bobby. And here’s the headline. Childhood Dream: RFK Pays St Helens Visit. “What brought Kennedy to this smallish town this late in a perhaps crucial campaign. Every vote could count of course. This aside, does Bobby Kennedy know that his late brother campaigned in St Helens? Steve Isenberg on loan to the Kennedy organization says he doesn’t know. It was purely a personal decision.” It was just too good.
RFK: ...I’m going to spend a lot of time in Oregon. I believe that Oregon is a key state for me. I think it’s a key state for what happens in the future of the United States.
The fact is that none of these problems are easy. The problem of Vietnam is not easy. The problem of our great divisions within our country is not easy. The answer to them is not easy. But the fact is that I believe that we can do better. /
There’s a lot that needs to be done and there’s a lot that we can do.
CROWD: Sock it to em Bobby!
RFK: I ask for your help, I ask for your assistance, and I think we can turn this country around. Thank you very much.
RFK: I have sent the following telegram to Senator Eugene McCarthy. My sincerest congratulations to you and to your dedicated supporters on your victory in Oregon.
ISENBERG: That was first election a Kennedy had ever lost. The - in Oregon.
ZAC: Kennedy lost the democratic primary in Oregon. But Isenberg’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed.
ISENBERG: That night about 2:30 in the morning my phone rang, and a voice said “Steve, this is Bob Kennedy. We lost tonight but four counties won, and one was yours. He said “And I have a memory like an elephant. Goodnight.”
NEWS: This is the beginning of what Senator Kennedy hopes will be a comeback trail. A comeback that will somehow offset his stunning loss to Gene McCarthy in Oregon. It will take a very big win a spectacular win in California to repair the badly shattered Kennedy image.
WALINSKY: Listen we could go on forever.
ZAC: That’s true.
ZAC: Speechwriter Adam Walinsky.
WALINSKY: I mean I know that there are stories that - there are things that were really almost so wonderful as to make them hard to describe.
There’s a picture over there, that’s Robert Kennedy you know after one of the things he’d seen somewhere. And he’s thinking about it. And you can see he used to really get troubled - he would lose sleep he would lie there at night thinking about these people who were in trouble here or suffering there. These you know the kids getting the napalm on them in Vietnam or the ones who didn’t have enough to eat in West Virginia or whatever it was. Those were the kind of things that really really troubled him and then he would find he couldn’t get to sleep.
Politicians today. You think any of them are losing sleep over what’s happening or might be happening to my grandchildren? You gotta be dreaming.
It makes you realize how stunningly fortunate you were to get to work with and for Robert F. Kennedy. And how dreadfully unfortunate it’s been that the country has not had him since that night in Los Angeles.
ZSP: Very well said. Very well said.
Crimetown is me, Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling.
The RFK Tapes is made in partnership with Cadence 13.
This episode was produced by Ula Kulpa and Kevin Shepherd.
Our senior producer is Austin Mitchell.
Editing by Marc Smerling.
This episode was mixed and sound designed by Ernie Indradat.
Music by Kenny Kusiak. Additional music by John Kusiak.
Our title track is Maria Tambien by Khruangbin. Our credit track this week is Ambassador Hotel (3400 Wilshire Blvd.) by Gabriel Kahene.
Music supervision by Josh Kessler and Dylan Bostick at Heavy Duty Projects.
Archival footage courtesy of the California State Archives and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
Archival research by Brennan Rees.
Our website is designed by Curt Courtenay.
Thanks to Emily Wiedemann, Greencard Pictures, Alessandro Santoro, Peter Edelman, Chris Isenberg, Michael Schwartz, Murray Richtel, and the team at Cadence 13.
If you like the RFK Tapes, please consider leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. It really helps others find out about show.
You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @theRFKtapes.