ZAC STUART-PONTIER: You ironed your shirt this morning.
BILL KLABER: I did.
ZAC: I’m impressed. This is your travelling shirt you were telling me yesterday.
BILL: It is because it's got two big pockets in the front.
ZAC: Over the last year and a half, Bill Klaber and I have spent a lot of time traveling across the country together, talking to people who believe that there was a conspiracy to assassinate Senator Robert. F. Kennedy.
ZAC: So the theory is basically that Sirhan is there as a distraction to draw everyone’s attention away from the real assassin who’s going to shoot Kennedy in the back, basically.
BILL: Yeah. I think it’s fair to say that’s the interpretation that makes the most sense out of the evidence as we know it.
ZAC: But the more I questioned Bill’s interpretation the more our conversations started to sound like this.
BILL: And how do the bullets get into Bobby Kennedy’s back? And how do the bullets get into the ceiling tiles above Sirhan’s head? None of those things, none of them make sense by what you’re saying.
ZAC: But you have to judge these things- I don’t know that putting them all together.
BILL: Yes you have to put them together that’s the whole point…
ZAC: That’s how you get in the situation of mind control being the most-
BILL: I’m not going to talk about mind control then for you. I mean you probably have all you need to make me look really stupid.
ZAC: Do you acknowledge that mind control is part of the theory? That’s part of the theory.
ZAC: And it’s difficult for Bill to explore any other theories that don’t line up with what he already believes.
BILL: But the explanation of the extra bullets is really strong.
ZAC: It doesn’t add up. And I’m trying to come up with possible other reasons for why it doesn’t add up. But you’re not open to even considering them.
BILL: No, because your ideas for why it doesn’t add up are totally off the wall.
ZAC: I don’t understand that.
ZAC: Bill and I need to take a break.
So I’m off to do some digging on my own.
And I'm going to start by speaking to people who knew Kennedy on the campaign trail... and who were at the Ambassador Hotel that terrible night.
ZAC: What are the chances that there is some sort of conspiracy?
RICHTEL: I don't see any evidence of a conspiracy. But I do, there is certainly motive. I mean, if you're looking at a murder case, there was motive. But I don’t buy it, it’s just too complicated.
ZAC: I’m Zac Stuart-Pontier and you’re listening to the RFK Tapes.
ZAC: So what was it like to write for him on that campaign?
WALINSKY: That’s what a campaign is, all you have is your words right?
ZAC: Our first stop one of Kennedy's speechwriters, Adam Walinsky. His Colorado home is filled with the memorabilia of a life spent in politics and all around are framed photos of him and Robert Kennedy.
Walinsky remembers one campaign speech in particular.
RFK: Our gross national product now is over $800 billion a year.
WALINSKY: Lyndon Johnson had been bragging about the GNP numbers, which I think at that point had gotten to $800 billion. And said how terrific this was. And it really bothered Robert Kennedy, he didn't like it. And it bothered the hell out of me. So we worked out a little - a little homily about what really counts in life.
RFK: But that gross national product, if we judge the United States of America by that, that gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising.
WALINSKY: The gross national product, that counts air pollution and cigarette advertising.
RFK: And ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.
WALINSKY: And ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.
RFK: It counts special locks for our doors.
WALINSKY: It counts special locks for our doors.
RFK: And the jails for the people who break them.
WALINSKY: And the jails for the people who break them.
ZAC: Walinsky isn’t reading this speech. He’s sitting in front of me, eyes closed, and reciting it word for word, from memory.
WALINSKY: It counts the destruction of the redwoods,
RFK: It counts the destruction of the redwoods.
WALINSKY: and the loss of natural wonder, and chaotic sprawl.
RFK: ...and chaotic sprawl.
WALINSKY: It counts napalm. And nuclear warheads.
RFK: It counts napalm. And it counts nuclear warheads.
WALINSKY: And armored cars for the police to put down riots in our cities.
RFK: And armored cars for the police to fight riots in our cities.
WALINSKY: And television programs that glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
RFK: And the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
WALINSKY: And, he said, if it includes all this, there is much that it does not count.
RFK: The Gross National Product does not account 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, and the strength of our marriages. The intelligence of our public debate, or the integrity of our public officials.
WALINSKY: It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America, except why we are proud to be Americans.
RFK: And it can tell us everything about America, except why we are proud that we are Americans.
WALINSKY: And the thing about that was that was the passage that he used in speeches more than any other during the rest of that campaign. And I would be hesitant often to put that into the speech because, you know, we'd just done it so much. And I'd give him the draft and he'd would write little notes with a black pen, And he would just put down GNP. And underline it. So I would put it back in. Because those were the things that, to him, were important about the country and important about the way we should live.
Who else is there who talks like that?
MURRAY RICHTEL: He was just so inspiring. He said everything that you wanted to hear.
ZAC: I met Murray Richtel in a brick townhouse on a narrow cobblestone street in Philadelphia.
ZAC: Why did you decide to get involved in the Kennedy campaign?
RICHTEL: Because of the war. Mainly mainly because of the war. I vividly remember the Tet offensive. Vividly, I mean I remember hearing it on the radio.
NEWS: 232 GIs killed and 900 wounded makes one of the heaviest weeks of the Vietnam War. And it is not a week, it’s just over two days. The past two days, two of the worst we’ve known in Vietnam.
RICHTEL: Americans and the South Vietnamese were losing. I vividly, vividly remember that.
NEWS: It will be difficult now to believe the United States has been doing as well as officials have said.
RICHTEL: And there were just massive crowds against the war everywhere. And that was just, you know it was our generation. I was 27 that felt right.
ZAC: So, Murray Richtel and his law partner showed up one day at the Kennedy campaign headquarters and volunteered.
RICHTEL: And we said you know we’re two young lawyers we want to work we don’t want to stuff envelopes. Two days later they called us, it was amazing.
ZAC: Murray Richtel became one of Kennedy’s advance men, making sure everything ran smoothly.
RICHTEL: Plane lands at such and such a time. Speech is at such and such a place. You move him from the airport to his speech. You had to arrange for what the routes would be. Who was going to be on the podium with him. And who would introduce him.
ARCHIVAL: I present to you the great senator from the State of New York, Robert F. Kennedy.
ZAC: Talk about now you’re going to get to work on the campaign. What was that like?
PETER EDELMAN: Uh. It’s like working on a campaign. It’s intense. You don’t get much sleep.
ZAC: I talked to Peter Edelman, one of Senator Kennedy’s senior aides, in his office at Georgetown law school.
EDELMAN: Phenomenal, phenomenal crowds. Places you wouldn’t think of - Kansas, Kansas State. 20,000. 25,000 people.
RFK: So I come here to Kansas to ask for your help.
The state of Oregon, this great great state.
Gentleman, I’m delighted to be here in San Diego.
STEVE ISENBERG: Jammed, it is jammed for us to get through.
ZAC: Steve Isenberg was another campaign aide.
ISENBERG: And he’s reaching out and people are- the car is surrounded. It’s surrounded by people. Screams of, “Touch me, touch me!” There’s no secret service then. His bodyguard has his hands around Bobby’s waist, I’m holding Bobby around the knees.
ZAC: How are you feeling. Are you excited this is your big shot, are you nervous, are you confident?
WALINSKY: You’re workin. That’s what you’re doing is you’re workin. You don’t have time for all of that bullshit. You’re just workin.
EDELMAN: You know you just do it. There’s no sort of bright line between yesterday and today and tomorrow, you just keep on keeping on.
RFK: So will you give me your vote? Will you give me your hand?
EDELMAN: Everything’s operating at a very high pitch. Very high temperature. Very very hot.
RFK: And we’ll win the election in November.
RICHTEL: And we always had to have a 6-pack of Heineken beer in the car for the end of the day. With ice also.
ZAC: That was for him?
RICHTEL: Yeah, cause I remember after that for awhile I drank Heineken beer with ice in it.
WILLIAM VANDEN HEUVEL: I had almost a sense of fear, it was going too fast, it was too explosive, ‘68 was as turbulent a year as any we had in the 20th century.
ZAC: William Vanden Heuvel was a close Kennedy adviser. And as the campaign crisscrossed the country, he said he began to detect something darker brewing.
VANDEN HEUVEL: There was too much violence, there was hatred. Everywhere. And I had a great deal of concern about it as many people did. There was violence in the air.
RICHTEL: We were in the lead car of the motorcade.
ZAC: Advance man Murray Richtel.
RICHTEL: I was the passenger, my law partner was the driver, and he saw someone with a gun.
Larry said, “There’s a guy with a gun, there’s a guy with a gun.” I don’t know what I was thinking. But I jumped out of the car and I ran back.
ZAC: Murray raced to warn the Senator.
RICHTEL: His car had stopped, it was a First Communion for some little girls that were on the front steps of a church and he had gotten out of the car to go talk to them. And then he came back to the car. Then he came back to the car. By then, I was in the backseat of this white Cadillac convertible and I said, “Get down Senator, get down, get down."
ZAC: Kennedy didn’t move. He just stared at Murray.
RICHTEL: I always thought that he knew why I was saying that and he just was going to ignore me. He had a very - just a strange look on his face is all I can say.
ZAC: The gun turned out to be fake, but Kennedy's look gave Murray Richtel a bad feeling.
RICHTEL: This sense, you know this sense of foreboding that hung over- that’s too strong to say a sense of foreboding. Maybe not. It was on everybody’s mind.
ZAC: Do you think it was on his mind?
RICHTEL: Yes. I do. Because that’s what that look was to me.
ZAC: Adam Walinsky says that Kennedy knew he had enemies. Powerful enemies.
WALINSKY: I think it was while we were in Indiana. Robert Kennedy's in the bathtub,
ZAC: His usual?
WALINSKY He did that a fair amount. You know cause he didn't get to soak that often. Time was precious.
ZAC: Walinsky was working on a speech with Kennedy when, he said, a campaign worker knocked on the bathroom door with a message from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a notoriously mobbed-up union.
WALINSKY: And he said, "Senator, I don't really want to bother you with something like this, but you have to know about it." He said, "The teamsters came to us." And you know, Jimmy is - by this time he was in prison.
ZAC: Jimmy as in Teamster Boss Jimmy Hoffa. The Jimmy Hoffa who would go missing in 1975 and whose body has never been found. You see, Jimmy and Bobby had some history.
HOFFA: He wasn't a good Attorney General, in all probability a worse Senator. I would hate to think what would happen if he became President of the United States.
RFK: We have shown that Mr. Hoffa has made collusive deals with employers, that he's betrayed the Union membership, that he sold out the Union membership, that he's put the gangsters and racketeers in important positions of power within the Teamsters Union.
ZAC: In fact, Kennedy was the Attorney General who was finally able to put Jimmy Hoffa behind bars.
WALINSKY: He's in the prison. I think he was working in the laundry. And he said, “It's really bothering him because the lint gets into his lungs and, you know, and he coughs a lot, it's very uncomfortable, and so the Teamsters want you to know that if you would get Jimmy transferred from the laundry to the farm where he could be outdoors and breathe some fresh air, they'll contribute $500,000 to your campaign." Now, $500,000 fifty years ago - it's a lot of money.
Robert Kennedy says quizzically, "Really? They said that? You go back to the Teamsters and you tell them that not only am I not gonna get Jimmy transferred to the farm," he says, "You tell them, if I get to be President, he's never getting out of prison."
You know from time to time, somebody would show up, one of his gangster people, and sometimes we would get word- word that, you know, Hoffa had idly talked about blowing up Robert Kennedy and his whole family or something like that. There was a fair amount of that.
He said a number of times he said, when they would say to him “You are going to be President it’s going to work!” “There’s a lot of guns between me and the White House.” He knew that. He wasn’t some poly anna and he didn’t think that he was bullet-proof.
“There are a lot of guns between me and the White House.”
ZAC: After the break, the Ambassador Hotel.
ZAC: What do you remember about that day? California primary, it must have been a busy day.
WALINSKY: Not for me! I didn't have to write a speech that day.
ZAC: The day of the California primary was quiet for Kennedy speechwriter Adam Walinsky.
ZAC: You didn't have to write a victory speech or?
WALINSKY: No, I mean there were- the victory speeches weren't new speeches. He wasn't going to get up there and give a half hour speech or a twenty minute speech, he was going to say a few words and I didn't have to do those.
From that standpoint, I got to relax a little bit.
ZAC: A little bit. But when it was clear that RFK would go all the way, at least in California, Walinsky was there with the Senator in his suite at the Ambassador Hotel.
WALINSKY: And you know, everybody was around, there was a lot of good feeling.
I remember Robert Kennedy sitting there on the floor of the room where a few of us were talking and he had a cigar lit. In moments like that, he would light the cigar.
I said to him, "You know, Senator, I want you to know - you should really understand, this win was yours. This was really yours. It wasn't about any of these people, it wasn't about your staff. Nobody else did this. You did it." So.
ZAC: What’d he say?
WALINSKY: He sort of patted my arm, said, "Thanks, Adam." Then the rest is just- the rest is just something else entirely.
RICHTEL: We were going to lead the motorcade to The Factory, which was a nightclub where the victory party was gonna take place.
ZAC: Advance man Murray Richtel.
RICHTEL: And so we waited in front of the hotel in the lead car and when the speech was over that we heard on the radio, I got out of the car to line up the rest of the motorcade.
Larry yelled, "Get in the car, get in the car, get in the car!"
ZAC: Kennedy had just been shot.
RICHTEL: And we just left. We drove right out of the front entrance of the Ambassador Hotel on to Wilshire Boulevard and the cops just waved us by. They didn't ask us who we were. Like we'd gone there for dinner or to a wedding. They just they just waved us out. I mean, we could have been the killers. It was crazy.
ZAC: Where'd you go?
RICHTEL: Home. I know I drank a bottle of scotch.
EDELMAN: We were lying on the floor at 3:00 AM here and we heard a kind of a commotion.
ZAC: Senior aide Peter Edelman was back in Washington DC preparing for the upcoming New York primary when he heard the terrible news.
EDELMAN: The television was on.
TELEVISION: Senator Robert F. Kennedy has been shot.
EDELMAN: That’s how we found out.
ZAC: And what did you think?
EDELMAN: Fell apart. That’s one of those things where you have the numbness. So I have a picture in my mind of being at St. Patrick.
TED KENNEDY: My brother need not be idolized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life...
EDELMAN: It’s really a series of photos rather than a film.
TED KENNEDY: He saw wrong and tried to right it, he saw suffering and tried to heal it, he saw War and tried to stop it.
ZAC: Robert Kennedy's funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
EDELMAN: I have a blank. I’m on the train.
ZAC: Kennedy’s coffin was loaded onto a train and taken to Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington DC. People lined the tracks to pay their final respects.
EDELMAN: Seeing the people on the outside. Oh. Deeply deeply moving.
RICHTEL: People were standing right next to the railroad track I mean there were crowds.
ZAC: Murray Richtel was also on the train.
RICHTEL: They were crying just crying people. I remember mostly the African American faces. And I’ll tell you when I was emotional. I think it was in Baltimore, Baltimore train station. And they were singing and you could hear them. The battle hymn of the republic. It was amazing. Amazing.
EDELMAN: And then I remember being at the side of where he was going to be buried. Well it just changed my life. It both made my life and changed my life. Without him but then at some level you get through the grief. In another way you never get over it. It still hurts.
ZAC: Did you follow the trial or Sirhan?
EDELMAN: No, I'm not into that.
ZAC: Steve Isenberg.
ZAC: What was it like to have the conspiracy of it all linger?
ISENBERG: I’m not a conspiracist. Sirhan was just a mad dog.
ZAC: William Vanden Heuvel.
ZAC: Did you ever question the official report of what had happened to Bobby?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I did not.
ZAC: Murray Richtel.
ZAC: What are the chances that there is some sort of conspiracy in this?
RICHTEL: I don’t see any evidence of a conspiracy. It’s just too complicated.
ZAC: None of these men believe there was any sort of conspiracy to kill Kennedy. Except Adam Walinsky.
WALINSKY: It's pretty clear that Sirhan did not fire a single bullet that had anything to do with the death of Robert F. Kennedy. The question is who shot the bullets that did kill him. And that's pretty clearly a very well worked out scheme. And as with John Kennedy's murder the real key to it was the cover up afterwards.
ZAC: And Walinsky says that whoever murdered Robert Kennedy murdered his brother, John, in Dallas, five years earlier.
WALINSKY: Anybody who knew Robert Kennedy knew that if he could find the people who killed his brother - you wouldn’t want to be that person. And you wouldn’t want to be that agency. So you think they’re going to sit still and let Robert Kennedy become President of the United States and come looking for ‘em? But once you start into that you're really going down you're really going down the rabbit hole.
ZAC: I’ve heard Bill suggest this same motive for the murder of Robert Kennedy using very similar language.
BILL: So for a moment accept the fact there there were some dark forces that murdered the President of the United States. Are they now going to sit still five years later and watch his brother ascend to the presidency, where he’ll have all the levers of power at his disposal? I don’t think so.
VANDEN HEUVEL: It’s hard to believe that the people like the President of the United States or a Senator who is prominently running could be the victims of assassins. Hard to believe that.
ZAC: William Vanden Heuvel spoke to Robert Kennedy about the official government report on his brother John’s assassination. A report that concluded Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone.
ZAC: Can you tell me about that?
VANDEN HEUVEL: My recollection of that, he accepted the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone. Now some people say he changed his mind later in life, that may be. He didn't to me.
My attitude toward those things is both the President's assassination and Bobby's murder were events that were the most highly scrutinized events in American history. When you have any event like that, there's so many things- everybody looks so intensely at every blade of grass. These events probably couldn't have happened except for the very simplistic way they did happen. I mean who would ever expect Sirhan Sirhan to be an assassin? It was all fateful circumstance. And fate is the word that you have to associate with the Kennedy family.
ZAC: Maybe it was fate. Maybe this whole thing is a lot simpler than it seems. Maybe all I've been doing with Bill is studying every blade of grass and coming up with connections that don't really exist.
But, then how do you explain the problems with the evidence that Bill’s based his theory on?
The discrepancies between eye witness accounts of Sirhan’s distance from Kennedy with the autopsy that says he was shot at point blank range.
How do you explain the photos of cops standing next to possible extra bullet holes?
How do you explain the LAPD keeping the entire police files secret for decades?
And even destroying crucial pieces evidence?
How do you explain all that?
DAN MOLDEA: The LAPD knew they had screwed up. And I think that’s one of the reasons why they kept the files secret for so long is they knew they screwed up but they didn’t know how they screwed up. I showed how they screwed up. And this is why I say they may have solved the murder but goddammit I solved this case.
ZAC: That’s next week.
Crimetown is Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling.
The RFK Tapes is made in partnership with Cadence 13.
The show is produced by Jesse Rudoy, Bill Klaber, Ula Kulpa, and Max Miller.
Our senior producer is Austin Mitchell.
Editing by Marc Smerling. Fact checking by Jennifer Blackman.
This episode was mixed and sound designed by Robin Shore, with a score by Kenny Kusiak and additional music by John Kusiak.
Our title track is Maria Tambien by Khruangbin. Our credit track is Everybody Got a Baby by Sylvia Terry.
Music supervision by Josh Kessler and Dylan Bostick at Heavy Duty Projects.
Archival footage courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.
Archival research by Brennan Rees. Production assistance by Kevin Shepherd.
Our website is designed by Curt Courtenay.
Thanks to Emily Wiedemann, Jean Klaber, Greencard Pictures, Alessandro Santoro, Chris Isenberg, Steve Isenberg, Murray Richtel, and the team at Cadence 13.
For more information on the Robert Kennedy murder, pick up a copy of Bill’s book, Shadow Play, from St. Martin’s Press. You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @theRFKtapes.
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