THE circumstances were cruel enough: son of a house already in tragedy's grip, father of ten with the eleventh expected, symbol of the youth and toughness, the wealth and idealism of the nation he sought to lead—this protean figure cut down by a small gun in a small cause. Crueler still, perhaps, was the absence of real surprise.
It was the unspoken expectation of the veteran campaigners who traveled with Robert Francis Kennedy that death was always somewhere out there in the crowd. Occasionally an ordinary citizen, a Negro more often than not, gave voice to the same fear: They won't let him live. At the first word of the shooting, a reporter with Kennedy workers in San Francisco wrote in his notebook: They seemed almost to expect it. There is grief. But more, there is a kind of weird acceptance. Horrible to see. They've been through assassinations before."
The anthems and eulogies, the bitterness and the indignation, the fears and the rumors, the mind-numbing saturation of television and radio coverage engrossed the consciousness and conscience of a nation. The pronouncements of official bereavement, the calls for constructive action, for conciliation, for wisdom, all were unexceptionable. The United Nations lowered its flag to half-staff—an unprecedented tribute to one of Kennedy's modest official rank. Pope Paul announced at a formal audience the shooting of the junior Senator from New York. Condolences came from Charles de Gaulle, Aleksei Kosygin, Queen Elizabeth, Marshal Tito and scores of other world leaders.
For many, the only solace was tears openly shed. Not just for the young and the dispossessed, but for countless people who watched and waited from a distance and scores of tough-minded men whose lives had become intertwined with his. Richard Cardinal Cushing, witness and minister to so much Kennedy sorrow, concluded: "All I can say is, good Lord, what is this all about? We could continue our prayers that it would never happen again, but we did that before."
Faraway Tomorrow. More than anyone else, Robert Kennedy had long felt the possibility that some day people would no longer be able to mention "the Kennedy assassination" without specifying which one. In 1966, he responded to a question about his long-range political plans by saying: "Six years is so far away, tomorrow is so far away. I don't even know if I'll be alive in six years." More recently: "If anyone wants to kill me it won't be difficult." And he was fond of quoting Edith Hamilton: "Men are not made for safe havens."
Whether gulping fresh air as a tyro mountain climber or rapids shooter, staring down hostile students in South America or frenzied crowds at home, he had only a shrug for death. He made a point of declining police protection when it was offered—as it was last week in Los Angeles—and his unofficial bodyguard went unarmed. To the crowds whose raucous adulation drew him endlessly to the brink of physical peril, he seemed to offer a choice: Raise me up with your voices and votes, or trample me with your strength.