On the evening of what had been America’s year of hell in 1968, the night of Tuesday, June 4 began as an evening of national hope at a time of American nightmare. It was to end in hopeless despair.
That night, Robert Francis Kennedy won the California Democratic Presidential primary. At that time, his victory made it irrevocable, had he lived, that he would have been elected as the 37th President of the United States in November, 1968.
His nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago would have been guaranteed by Chicago Mayor Dick Daley who was a close friend of the Kennedy family and, unknown to most, one of the most convinced doves on the Vietnam War in the nation. The Convention would have been a Democratic Party unification love festival.
How ironic it was that as it turned out, under the direction of Daley, at the Convention, the Chicago police force conducted a “police riot” against anti-Vietnam War demonstrators. This was a major factor in the defeat of the Democratic presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey in the November, 1968 election by Richard Nixon. And there is no question that had RFK been the 1968 Democratic presidential nominee, he would have easily won over Nixon.
The America of 1968 was a nation torn asunder by the war in Vietnam and racial disturbances throughout the nation. The Tet offensive by the North Vietnamese Army in January, 1968 had brought home once and for all the undeniable truth that there was to be no American military victory in this quagmire of a war. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April, 1968 and the ensuing racial conflict in American cities had made manifest that racism continued to be a virulent cancer, destroying the very social and economic fabric of our nation.
For millions of Americans of all races, colors, and creeds, the candidacy of Robert Francis Kennedy inspired faith in an American future free of race hatred and senseless wars. They had followed him with devotion from his announcement in Washington in March and then throughout the primaries. His message motivated individuals to work for peaceful change through the democratic process rather than through violent upheaval. In our home state of New Jersey, two examples of RFK-inspired individuals are of particular note.
The first is Jim Florio. He has stated that more than anybody else, RFK motivated and inspired him to pursue his career in public service.
Jim first encountered RFK on a campaign stop at the Trenton Statehouse in 1968. He described RFK as “serene in his idealism.” One year later, Florio would seek and win his first public office as a New Jersey Assemblyman.
Jim Florio would go on in his career to serve as a member of the US House of Representatives and Governor of New Jersey. His sponsorship and successful efforts to enact the Superfund legislation distinguish him, in my view, as the greatest Congressman in the history of New Jersey. And his enactment as Governor of the military assault weapons ban, despite the ferocious opposition of the gun lobby made him a national model of political courage, for which he was honored by the Kennedy Library Foundation with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
We can thank RFK for the accomplishments of Jim Florio.
The second is Marty Herman, a man I am proud to say was my first boss as a civilian lawyer after I served three years as a Lieutenant in the US Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Although I was a Republican serving under a Democratic member of the New Jersey Assembly, Marty provided me with a priceless education not only as to the practice of law but also as to the practicalities of New Jersey state politics.
Marty served as a New Jersey Assemblyman representing Gloucester and Salem Counties from 1974 to 1986. He was a giant of the legislature, sponsoring and succeeding in securing passage of such landmark legislation as the New Jersey Generic Drug Law and the Revised New Jersey Crimes Code.
After his legislative service, Marty became a judge of the New Jersey Superior Court. His judicial service was distinguished by integrity, legislative insight, and fundamental fairness.
Marty will readily acknowledge the model of public service set for him by RFK. He took his admiration for him one step further by naming his second son, Robert after him.
Robert went on to become an exemplary officer in the United States Army and now is a distinguished member of the New Jersey Bar. Bobby Kennedy would have been proud.
I do not think Robert Kennedy was always a good man. Great leaders are often at times less than good.
The two world leaders outside of America that I have most admired, Charles de Gaulle of France and David Ben-Gurion of Israel are perfect examples of this. De Gaulle extricated France from the Algerian War and enabled France to avoid a civil war. Ben- Gurion led Israel to victory in the 1948 War of Independence and avoided a catastrophic defeat that would have resulted in a Second Holocaust of the Jewish people. No serious historian, however, would ever suggest that either De Gaulle or Ben-Gurion qualified for sainthood.
Perhaps the most balanced account of RFK is Larry Tye’s New York Times Bestseller, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.
Tye points out all the facts in Bobby’s record prior to the JFK assassination in Dallas that indicated serious past character flaws: Bobby’s eager role as a friend and aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, his disdain for Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination, his hatred of homosexuals, his use of dirty tricks against political opponents, the wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr. — whom Kennedy never trusted or liked — his role in an assassination plot against Fidel Castro.
There is no question, however, as Tye affirms, that by 1968, RFK had highly evolved and that his idealism and commitment on the issues of the Vietnam War, race, and poverty were genuine. In my view, he was now a man of greatness with the capacity of moral leadership to unite the different generations and races behind his compelling message.
Accordingly, as RFK left the lectern at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles that evening of June 4, 1968 after giving his victory speech in the California Democratic Presidential primary, millions of Americans watching at home began to rejoice in joyful hope. Their hope was to turn to horror within seconds, as best described by Theodore H. White in his book, The Making of the President 1968:
“His (RFK’s) passions had aroused the best and the beast in man. And the beast waited for him in the kitchen.”
The beast was Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Arab immigrant who hated Israel with every fiber in his being.
Sirhan had watched RFK voice support for American assistance to Israel in his debate with Eugene McCarthy a few days before the primary. Then, he wrote the following in his notebook:
“R.F.K. must die – RFK must be killed Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated… before June 5 ’68.”
And so Sirhan shot and assassinated RFK in front of millions of horrified Americans. Never did the evil act of one person so adversely affect the course of American history.
Had Sirhan not assassinated RFK and had Bobby Kennedy become president, all the horrors of the Nixon years would have been avoided.
There would not have been an unwarranted extension of the Vietnam War for three years, with the resulting loss of over 20,000 more American lives.
There would not have been the illegal war in Cambodia and the resulting murder of the white antiwar demonstrators at Kent State and the black anti- war demonstrators at Jackson State.
There would not have been the Watergate scandal, the worst abuse of power by any president prior to Donald Trump’s impeachable offenses.
There would not have been the worsening polarization of the races and generations.
All these Nixon administration horrors were the result of the assassination of RFK. Indeed, this is the America that Sirhan Sirhan wrought.
In truth, Sirhan Sirhan is a Palestinian Arab terrorist, and his assassination of RFK constituted the first consequential act of Palestinian Arab vengeance following Israel’s victory in the June, 1967 war.
So I recoiled in horror when I heard last Friday that a two-person panel of the California Board of Parole Hearings determined that Sirhan’s request for parole should be approved. There is a no more inappropriate subject for sympathy than Sirhan. As for the blather about him being rehabilitated, there are some crimes that are so dastardly that no opportunity for rehabilitation should be granted. The crime of Sirhan, a crime resulting in massive historical damage to America, is such an offense.
If Sirhan is released, this will result in rejoicing by Al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists, who hate Israel, and by white supremacist anti-Semites throughout the world. The thought of his release is unconscionable.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has the power to reject the parole decision. In a most compelling column this weekend in the Los Angeles Times, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, the son of RFK, accurately calling the assassination of his father a crime against America, called for Newsom to reject the parole.
Americans of both political parties should support this request of Governor Newsom to reject the Sirhan parole.
There is another reason for Democrats in particular throughout the nation to support the rejection of the Sirhan parole.
Governor Newsom is facing a recall election. If he loses, Republican media personality Larry Elder would become the governor. He is a right-wing lunatic, grossly unfit for any public office. Governor Newsom will almost certainly lose the recall election if he acquiesces in the Sirhan parole.
That’s horrible enough, but even worse, the ascension by Elder to the California governorship could well result in the Republican Party, now under the suzerainty of Donald Trump, gaining control of the United States Senate. There are growing rumors about California Democratic US Senator Dianne Feinstein soon leaving the Senate because of her health and age. And a Governor Larry Elder would certainly replace her with a Republican, giving the Republicans a 51-49 advantage and thus control of the US Senate. This would in reality give Donald Trump control of the US Senate.
A paroled Sirhan becoming the hero of the Arab terrorist and white supremacist antisemitic worlds, a Larry Elder becoming the governor of California, and Donald Trump gaining control of the US Senate – all this together constitutes the worst political nightmare in modern American history. For Governor Newsom, there is NO choice. He must reject the Sirhan parole.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission