ZAC STUART-PONTIER: What are we listening to here?
BILL KLABER: We’re listening to an old PBS show called Firing Line with William F. Buckley.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Who Killed Cock Robin it is a lucky thing the troops haven't raised the question...
BILL: Buckley was an important conservative thinker. He was the founder and editor of The National Review. And he had a talk show.
BUCKLEY: ...and everybody would demand a new trial for chicken little. It is an old story in respect to John F. Kennedy who was apparently killed not by Lee Harvey Oswald but by a grassy knoll. There are also the serious revisionists and one such as our venerable young antagonist Allard Lowenstein who does not believe that Robert Kennedy was in fact killed by Sirhan Sirhan. Mr. Lowenstein was educated at the University of North Carolina became a lawyer at Yale. He was in Congress for one term. But right now he is spending most of his time on the reexamination of the death of Robert Kennedy his old friend.
BILL: Buckley’s guest is Allard Lowenstein. It’s 1975, seven years after Robert Kennedy’s death.
BUCKLEY: I'd should like to begin by asking Mr. Lowenstein whether there is any reason to believe there is a motherload down there of vital information for America. If your surmises are correct.
ALLARD LOWENSTEIN: What I found when I started to look at this case is clearly the tip of something whether it's an iceberg or whether it's a simple pin that has a tip I don't know. All one can honestly say is that since the facts don't fit the present version I think you have to pursue what the facts are wherever they lead. I still fantasize when I'm not careful to look at the facts that it was a lone assassin that nothing else was involved. I do that because I was so conditioned to believing that I suppose I want so much to believe it. When I was in Congress my arrogance in retrospect is almost embarrassing to even admit because I was convinced only people who were really unhinged would plunge on in this ghoulish way. My wife said the other day that I'm now in transit from being former congressman to being current kook and you have that sense when you listen to the way in which anyone who raises these questions is stigmatized. It is not kooky, it is not irresponsible. It is not flamboyance or dogma to raise these questions. These are questions which have to be faced.
ZAC: You’re listening to The RFK Tapes. I’m Zac Stuart-Pontier.
BILL: And I’m Bill Klaber.
ZAC: So what are we doing today, Bill?
BILL: Today on the program we’re going to follow Allard Lowenstein who was the first major political figure to start asking questions about the RFK murder.
ZAC: And we’re going to learn about the case too, you’re going to finally tell me what the discrepancies and what all the problems are.
BILL: I’m going to tell you some of it.
ZAC: Alright. Well what kind of stuff are you going to tell me?
BILL: Why are you asking me all of these stupid questions? Just wait! Stick around. You’ll find out.
LOWENSTEIN: Um. Alright. I’m very very cautious on microphones…
JEAN STEIN: It’s harmless. Anyway but let me explain one thing.
BILL: This is a tape of an interview with Allard Lowenstein made by an author named Jean Stein. Just weeks after Kennedy’s death.
STEIN: Remember that conversation. It’s about you talking to Bobby urging him to run…
BILL: They’re talking about the fall of 1967. When Robert Kennedy was a Senator from New York and hadn’t yet entered the presidential race.
STEIN: ... you said Bobby said he wouldn’t run unless there was some unforseen- remember that? Will you tell that please.
LOWENSTEIN: Well he said he would not run unless there was- except in the event of some unforeseeable circumstance. And so I just marched in and said I’m an unforeseen circumstance, now you run.
BILL: Lowenstein was a well-known liberal Democrat and a friend of Robert Kennedy. But when he approached Kennedy to run for president Kennedy said “it can’t be put together.”
LOWENSTEIN: I think the phrase was “it can’t be put together.” I just glared at him and I said, you will understand of course that those of us that think the honor and direction of the country are at stake don’t give a damn whether you think it can be put together or not. I said, “so now I’m going to do it without you and that’s too bad cause you could have been President of the United States.” I turned, like any sort of fly landing on an elephant, and flew out. He came sort of storming out after me and that most familiar gesture of turning around with his hand on my shoulder, and he just said, “Well I hope you understand I want to do it and that I know what you’re doing is what should be done but I just can’t do it.”
ZAC: So what was Lowenstein doing?
BILL: He was trying to get someone to run against President Lyndon Johnson.
BILL: Well he’s trying to end a little thing known as the Vietnam War.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: I came here to speak to you about Vietnam.
BILL: The war was in full swing.
ARCHIVAL: The US military may now have to rethink basic tactical and strategic concepts in Vietnam. Troops may have to be redeployed. There were over half a million American soldiers over there, and they were coming back in body bags by the thousands.
JOHNSON: We have sought to strengthen free people against domination by aggressive foreign powers.
BILL: A majority of Americans, thought that we had to stand up to the Communists somewhere, and Vietnam had become that somewhere.
JOHNSON: The United States is therefore prepared to take all necessary steps including the use of armed forces in defense of freedom.
ZAC: But both Lowenstein and Johnson were democrats, right?
ZAC: So it was a little bit of a brave controversial thing for Lowenstein to do then, go after a sitting president from his own party.
BILL: Yeah. And to get rid of Johnson, Lowenstein needed to find someone to run against him.
ZAC: And Bobby had told him no.
BILL: Yup. So he found Senator Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota.
EUGENE MCCARTHY: The entire history of this war in Vietnam no matter what we call it has been one of continued error and of misjudgement.
BILL: The first primary was in New Hampshire, and nobody thought Senator McCarthy had any kind of a chance against President Johnson. But when the results came in, Johnson won, but by only 7 points. Robert Kennedy looked at those results and he saw the unforeseen circumstance.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY: I am announcing today my candidacy for the presidency of the United States. The remarkable New Hampshire campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy has proven how deep are the present divisions within our party and within our country. Until that was publicly clear, my presence in the race would have been seen as a clash of personalities rather than issues. But now that that fight is won over policies which I have long been challenging, I must enter that race.
BILL: And then, just two weeks later.
JOHNSON: I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president…
BILL: President Johnson drops out of the race.
JOHNSON: Goodnight and God bless all of you.
BILL: Lowenstein gets what he wants. Except he’s now caught between McCarthy and Kennedy. Soon after Kennedy joined the race, Lowenstein found himself on a bus with Kennedy on the way to a campaign event.
LOWENSTEIN: I got on the bus and he was sitting there and the Times had announced that day that I was going to switch.
BILL: The New York Times had published an article saying Lowenstein was about to join the Kennedy campaign.
LOWENSTEIN: And he was all smiles and waving at me and he dragged me over and I said, “don’t smile at me”, I said, “don’t believe anything you read in the New York Times.” And he said, “well you’re going to switch aren’t you?” And I said, I looked at him and I said, “I’d rather fight than switch.” And he pulls me into the seat and he starts jabbing at me and he says “now come on.” And we went through the whole McCarthy discussion again and I got up and I left him I went to the back of the bus. And a note came back and I thought, who the hell is sending me a note on a bus. And it was from Kennedy and I opened the thing and what it was was this extraordinary note. It said “To Al who taught us- who knew the lesson of Emerson and taught it to the rest of us”...you should get the note I’m going to screw it up but it’s something like “they did not see, nor did thousands of young men pressing to the barriers of their careers yet see, that if a single man plant himself on his convictions and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.” And it said “from his friend Bob Kennedy.”
BILL: Lowenstein wouldn’t switch. So Kennedy started to campaign without him.
VO: Robert Kennedy has always fought for the family farmer.
BILL: In Indiana.
RFK: I’m doing a tremendous amount just personally for the farmer, with 10 children. So...if the farmer does well in Indiana, we’re going to do better in New York.
WOMAN: How can we make the people in the city understand our problems.
RFK: Well you elect me president of the United States.
VO: Indiana can choose the next President of the United States. BILL: Then while Kennedy was in Indianapolis, something terrible happened.
RFK: Could you lower those signs please. I have some very sad news for all of you, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
BILL: In cities across America riots were breaking out. The crowd in Indianapolis was mostly black and there was a fear that the news of Dr. King’s death could provoke violence. But Kennedy was determined to talk to them.
RFK: Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. 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.
BILL: That night, there were no riots in Indianapolis.
RFK: 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.
BILL: A couple days later many American politicians and civil rights leaders gathered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for the funeral of Martin Luther King. Kennedy and McCarthy were there. And so was Lowenstein.
LOWENSTEIN: Let me see if I can remember. I think Kennedy was one pew- one was one pew ahead of the other, I mean lower down. I think that Kennedy was a pew ahead and McCarthy was with his wife.
STEIN: You said you felt like hiding under.
LOWENSTEIN: Well I mean here are all my heroes gathered in one place. It seemed a bit much.
LOWENSTEIN: We sang “Earnestly tenderly Jesus is Calling” which has to be the most moving hymn in the world, you know that. You should really use that in the book.
LOWENSTEIN: “Earnestly tenderly Jesus is calling.” You know that? CHOIR: Earnestly tenderly Jesus is calling...
LOWENSTEIN: Calling for you and for me.” And it ends up “Come home, come home. Ye who are weary come home, come home…”
CHOIR: ...you who are weary come home…
LOWENSTEIN: It is the most extraordinary hymn. And to sing it right after Martin King had died was- “Ye who are weary come home.” I mean that was when everybody broke apart I think. That was the moment in that church. Everything after that was sort of redundant.
CHOIR: ...come home.
STEIN: But you were going to say what Bobby said about-
LOWENSTEIN: Death. Yeah I don’t think he said anything to me he hadn’t said to people before but it was this um. The sense of imminence of the, imminence of the possibility of death. It’s totally untrue to say that he had any premonitions at all, but what he did have was just an awareness and an acceptance and a feeling that this made life something that you live now. And you have to do what you can do. So on that happy note. Well we’ll talk some more.
BILL: And that’s the end of that tape.
AUTHOR: You initially went to Kennedy and asked him to run and he turned you down, is that accurate?
LOWENSTEIN: It is but it isn’t. But since we’re not going to get into all of that in the book the point of this simply to…
BILL: The tape you’re hearing now is Lowenstein discussing his investigation into Kennedy’s murder for a book he’s writing. The book was never published and these tapes have never been heard by anyone outside his family.
AUTHOR: Reconstruct what happened here the night of June 4th, 1968.
JENNY LOWENSTEIN: Mhmm. We were at a large election returns party. And it seemed clear by the time we left the party, that he was winning.
AUTHOR: That Bob Kennedy was winning in California?
JENNY: Right. Right. BILL: Here, Lowenstein and his wife, Jenny, speak to Lowenstein's co-author. They start with that fateful night of the California primary. The two of them were at home in NY, and Lowenstein was talking on the phone.
LOWENSTEIN: Now, the phone call is going on. And the operator breaks in. And says, “I have an emergency phone call, will you please hang up. I have an emergency phone call from Senator Robert F. Kennedy.” I’d never had a phone call interrupted that way before. We hang up. The television is across the hall, in that room, and Kennedy is on the television. Phone rings again, two minutes later, and it’s Dick Goodwin.
BILL: Dick Goodwin was an advisor to Robert Kennedy.
LOWENSTEIN: Goodwin says, “Why do you chatter so much on the phone? Bob-” he always calls him Bob, “Bob has been trying to reach you for an hour and he’s gone down to make his victory statement, but would you please stay off the phone because as soon as he gets back up here he wants to talk to you.” I go upstairs. Jenny was in the bedroom. And we’re talking on the bed. Sitting there.
JENNY LOWENSTEIN: We were having this very soulful conversation about what Al felt about Robert Kennedy.
LOWENSTEIN: And I said to Jenny, “I don’t know why I love this man this much…”
JENNY: “I love him so much. I love him more than anyone in public life.”
LOWENSTEIN: “He means more than any public figure since Mrs. Roosevelt. He means more to me than any public figure since Eleanor Roosevelt.” The phone rings as I said that.
JENNY: And I said, “Well he certainly picked a very good line to come in on.”
LOWENSTEIN: I picked the phone up and I said, “Wow, you really pulled it off.” And it’s someone calling telling me he’s been shot.
JENNY: We ran downstairs. And the television was going. And we stayed up all night. In tears. In tears trying to find something, something to say about it all.
LOWENSTEIN: Goodwin called me back, he said, “You oughta get out here right away.” And so I left the next morning for California. On the flight out they kept having bulletins about his health. That is, about every hour they’d interrupt the flight and they’d say optimistic things.
REPORTER: He was breathing well, has a good heart.
LOWENSTEIN: So I got off the plane and I didn’t know what to expect but I was hopeful when I got out that something might be salvaged. BILL: Lowenstein lands and is driven to Good Samaritan Hospital.
LOWENSTEIN: I go up to the fifth floor where he is. I remember one thing about that that I don’t mind telling you I don’t want to discuss being on the fifth floor very much because it’s all self-serving that whole business of saying that I was there when he died is really a bit thick. There was one magazine on that floor. It was sitting on a table, the only one that I saw, and it was the Life Magazine dealing with the assassination of Martin Luther King.
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 am today, June 6, 1968. With Senator Kennedy at the time of his death his wife Ethel. He was 42 years old.
LOWENSTEIN: When he died. I walked out and I got onto the elevator on the 5th floor. As the body was wheeled on. On a moving cot. With the body was Edward Kennedy. I was crying. Sort of out of control, not sort of moderately. The elevator went to the basement. As we got to the basement it turned out that the body was being wheeled into the autopsy room. And I walked with it, with Kennedy, til they went in and I left the hospital. Having left the body in the autopsy room. Having no notion that 5 or 6 years later when I finally read the autopsy it would say what’s propelled me into this whole business. Because it was the autopsy that made it impossible to accept the official version.
NEWS: Based on the evidence that we have available to this day and all the credible evidence we have, we are satisfied that Sirhan Bishara Sirhan is the murderer of Senator Robert Kennedy and only he alone is the murderer.
AUTHOR: 1969, the trial of Sirhan Sirhan, did you react to that in any way?
LOWENSTEIN: I wanted him in the gas chamber. That was my complete and total reaction.
BILL: So Lowenstein, like everybody else, said “Hey they got the guy, gun in hand, no doubt about it.”
LOWENSTEIN: I felt it was inexcusable to allow this man to live. That was that.
BILL: And over the next few years a few people started raising questions about what happened that night, but not Lowenstein.
LOWENSTEIN: I had nothing to do with the assassination inquiries. It was much too painful and I was convinced when it was raised, it was being ghoulish. And I think that all of that would have stayed permanently my attitude until the enemy list.
BILL: The enemies list. That’s coming up, after the break. [BREAK]
RICHARD NIXON: Having lost a close one eight years ago and having won a close one this year I can say this. Winning’s a lot more fun.
BILL: So in 1968, after Kennedy had been killed, Richard Nixon became President of the United States. The war in Vietnam went on and. Yeah we got Tricky Dick. And then, a few years later, Watergate happened.
ARCHIVAL: Five people have been arrested and charged with breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the night.
BILL: It was well-known that Lowenstein had no great love for Nixon.
LOWENSTEIN: Now I’m convinced that the president is guilty of a good many of these offenses and I believe he should be removed from office.
BILL: And during the Watergate hearings it became public that the Nixon administration had something called an enemies list. A list of people that Nixon wanted to get. And he was willing to use the government, IRS or anything else, the Justice Department, to go after these people in some way or another. Number 7 on that list was former congressman Allard Lowenstein.
LOWENSTEIN: The trip wire that made me feel that I should look at things was precisely the fact that if there was someone in the highest most sacred office willing to use power so improperly on someone as obscure as I, what made me think that there weren’t other people in less high office willing to use power improperly against major figures. And in that event, don’t I owe it to look at what may have occurred in the case of the assassinations.
BILL: Lowenstein looked at how Nixon had abused his power and it raised his suspicions into the murder of his old friend Robert Kennedy.
LOWENSTEIN: I went into this convinced that I would find it was nothing to it, and it would put my mind to ease. I would have done my duty, which was what I thought it was to deal with this difficult question and be finished with it.
BILL: So the first thing he did was he takes a look at Kennedy’s autopsy report. And he described it something as, the world moved. Or I forget his exact words.
LOWENSTEIN: As I remember it what I said was, my God the cosmos shook. But it was true the first time I read that the repercussions to me of having my cosmology, not the cosmology but my cosmology, suddenly shaken by the discovery that everything I always assumed, now had to be reexamined.
THOMAS NOGUCHI: The autopsy findings revealed that there were three gunshot wounds.
BILL: Here’s Thomas Noguchi, he was the Coroner of LA county. He’s the one who did the autopsy on RFK.
NOGUCHI: One gunshot wound was found behind right ear. And were abundance of powder deposit on the edge of the right ear.
BILL: From the gunpowder deposits on Kennedy's ear, Noguchi could determine how far away the gun was when it was fired.
NOGUCHI: And we came to conclusion that the muzzle distance would be
ZAC: Which was how far?
NOGUCHI: ...one inch BILL: One inch.
NOGUCHI: ...from the right ear.
LOWENSTEIN: The autopsy says that the bullet that killed Senator Kennedy entered at one inch from behind his right ear.
BILL: Here’s Lowenstein on the Buckley show again.
LOWENSTEIN: And that he was hit by three bullets all of them fired at point blank range. The fourth went through his right shoulder pad. Every credible eyewitness insists that what they saw was that Sirhan was standing at an average of two feet to a yard away and in front. And when you tell them that the bullets went in from behind at an inch they flatly say that there is no way Sirhan could have fired those bullets. The people closest in, and it's worth perhaps stressing this point. One was the assistant maitre d' Karl Uecker.
KARL UECKER: We start going...I’m leading Senator Kennedy. Leading him towards the kitchen.
BILL: Karl Uecker was maitre d’ in the hotel. A German fellow and he was either given the job or assumed the job of leading Kennedy through the pantry.
UECKER: I grabbed his hand right here and said, “Senator we have to go now.” And he starts looking at me and we start going. The same time was when somebody moved into me between the steam table and myself. I heard one shot and I thought it was a firecracker or something. I heard a second shot going off and then I realized I saw that gun...
BILL: Karl Uecker hears two shots and after the second shot he grabs Sirhan and grabs the gun hand and wrestled him down to the steam table.
UECKER: I had his hand with the gun in so I pushed him down I put him over the steam table and here Sirhan starts shooting very rapidly.
ZAC: So wait, wait slow this down for me. Where was Uecker when Kennedy was shot?
BILL: He was between Sirhan and Kennedy. And if anybody knew where the gun was, it was Uecker.
ZAC: And where did he say it was?
BILL: Said it was a foot and a half to two feet from Kennedy.
UECKER: About a foot and half I would say foot and a half, two feet.
BILL: Said it was a foot and a half to two feet from Kennedy.
UECKER: But if the bullet which autopsy said from Doctor Noguchi that a bullet must have been about an inch away from his head, no. Sirhan never came that close to Kennedy.
WOMAN: A man came up from in front of him or the direction he was going in and the shots started…
MAN: He sort of approached the senator from the front and he was sort of smiling and then suddenly it seemed like there was one shot…
MAN: Now how far was Sirhan from Senator Kennedy at the time.
MAN: I would say approximately from three to six feet.
LOWENSTEIN: I was astonished at the autopsy which completely jolted me. More astonished when I talked to eyewitnesses who reiterated that there was no way that anyone but Sirhan could have done it because they saw him doing it and proceeded to tell me that he was standing here shooting this way, thinking that would calm my concerns. None of whom could explain the autopsy. I then thought the autopsy must be wrong. It was just step by step that I was obliged to realize that short of closing my mind totally, there was no way that I could accept the official version.
BILL: By this time, both Sirhan and the police files for the case had long been locked away. So Lowenstein flies to Los Angeles to present his questions to the district attorney.
LOWENSTEIN: I went like a child to parent expecting and hoping they’d be able to say look ‘this is what this is, this is what that is.’ And I’d come out of it with the sense that there was no reason not to accept the official interpretation or answers. And I got there and it was a very large meeting there were- it wasn’t like there was one man there, they had their whole staff, their expert on this, their expert on that, their PR man, in what was called the Sirhan Room where they had some of the trappings of the case, I mean they tried to show me artifacts which would be impressive to show me how careful they’d been. In that session they were not prepared to concede the merits of any of the questions. In effect they said then what they’ve said ever since, the business about only kooks and nuts were raising the questions and self-seeking people.
BILL: They told Lowenstein “only kooks and nuts were raising questions.”
LOWENSTEIN: We had a sort of almost like a tank battle over some of the things that were clearly on the record where they flatly said things weren’t on the record that were on the record. Now after going through all that I realized that there were two possibilities, one was they didn’t know the case, or they were deliberately trying to mislead me, there was no third possibility.
BILL: Lowenstein felt that either they didn’t know what they were talking about, or they were lying. He walked out of the Sirhan room even more suspicious than when he walked in.
LOWENSTEIN: I remember driving that night through a dark mountain road to Malibu over the edge of the rim of the mountains to the coast with a friend and saying. That this. I couldn’t deal with this. Because my cosmology depended on not having conspirators destroying the democratic process. And yet, now, I couldn’t, as a matter of faith, any longer simply assert that. It had to be looked into. I had to deal with the question of how much was I prepared to do. How does a private citizen investigate anything as mammoth as this, how do you get the resources, where do you go next, what do you do?
BILL: Next week on the RFK tapes. Lowenstein, figures out what to do.
SCHRADE: Allard came and slept on that sofa. He was known as a sofa hopper.
ZSP: And me and Bill hit the road for california.
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 Ryan Murdock. The senior producer is Austin Mitchell. Editing by Marc Smerling. Fact checking by James Williamson.
This episode was mixed, sound designed, and scored by Kenny Kusiak. Additional music by John Kusiak. Our title track is Maria Tambien by Khruangbin. Our credit track is Pressure by CORNERS. Music supervision by Josh Kessler and Dylan Bostick at Heavy Duty Projects.
Archival footage courtesy of the University of North Carolina and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. Archival research by Brennan Rees. Our intern is Kevin Shepherd. Web design by Curt Courtenay.
Very special thanks to Kate, Jenny, and the entire Lowenstein family. Thanks to Jean Klaber, Emily Wiedemann, Greencard Pictures, Alessandro Santoro, Jennifer Skarbek, Aaron Smithers, Judith Farrar, Paul Schrade, and the team at Cadence13.
You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @theRFKtapes. For more information on the Robert Kennedy murder, pick up a copy of Bill’s book, Shadow Play, from St. Martin’s Press.
If you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.