He wants children. He thinks he would like them to go to church.
"I see many of these children in this room . . . when the families of these children come in, with all the little toddlers," Sirhan Bishara Sirhan says. He looks around quickly, at the hospital-green walls of Soledad prison, the bathroom with its door left ajar, the small barred window and the August sun outside. "And I often wonder when I'm going to have my issue."
Issue: Robert Kennedy's assassin, taut and compact in his California prison dungarees, sits in the maximum security conference room and speaks of family with an odd, faintly biblical formality.
"Just a few days ago, I was rereading the Magna Carta, and the history that led up to it," he says, as though the thought has just struck him. "Those members of the parole board seem to me to be a true reincarnation of King John himself."
His pronunciation is careful, still softened by the spare traces of an Arabic accent. He sprints through references to the Constitution: "My due process . . . my equal protection rights . . . the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments." Does he know the Preamble?
Sirhan Sirhan squints, considering, and smiles. "We, the people . . . " he stops, sits back in his chair.
"I'm too nervous," he says.
The room goes quiet.
Sirhan shakes his head.
"Hold these truths to be . . . self . . . it'll come to me . . . self-evident, and all that." He looks distressed. "Wasn't it Jefferson's authorship?"
He wanted, once, to be a jockey. It was 1963, five years before he walked into the Ambassador Hotel and fired a loaded gun at Robert Kennedy's head. Sirhan was a teen-ager, a bookish Palestinian immigrant in Pasadena, Calif. "He wants to do something, to live, to be happy," says his mother, remembering. "And when he tried and was accepted, he used to take care of the horses. And he wanted to learn a lot about them."
Sirhan graduated from high school at 19. He was older, smaller, and darker-skinned than many of his classmates, who would dredge up memories afterward for the reporters who came scrambling: "So weak and scrawny, but always so neat . . . won a prize as one of the best in the candy sale . . . a very hard worker after school . . . calm and well-mannered . . . withdrawn, alone."
He had worked hard at his English, which was so unfamiliar to him, when he arrived in Pasadena that other schoolchildren, according to the Sirhan biography by Godfrey Jansen, used to toss obscenities at him so he would repeat them later without knowing what they meant.
His father had left the family, returning to Taibeh after what Mary Sirhan says was a dismal seven months in southern California; she remembers her husband trying to beat Sirhan with a garden hose because the boy had stepped in some wet cement. "He wasn't respected, as he used to be in the old country," she says. "That was very hard on him. He used to be nervous, very nervous." Hesitant with his English, and unfamiliar with the American versions of the machines he had once used, Sirhan's father had not been able to hold a job, Mary Sirhan says. When he left, he took what money the family had.
Sirhan spent a year and a half at Pasadena City College but dropped out, his mother says, in part because he was distressed by his sister's death from leukemia. He took a series of jobs working in service stations and as a gardening assistant, and then got hired on at the Santa Anita racetrack. He cleaned stables. He exercised horses, and walked them to cool them off. He wanted to ride the way a jockey rides, but the scrawny, neat boy from John Muir High was 5 feet 4 and 120 to 125 pounds, and that, for a jockey, was just too big.
On September 25, 1966, in a southern California fog at the racetrack near the town of Corona, Sirhan was thrown from a filly he was exercising and was knocked unconscious. He was taken to a nearby hospital with a bloody face, and although he was released without report of serious injury, he quite riding a few months later and spent much of the next year complaining of blurred vision and pain in his eyes. He filed a workmen's compensation claim -- settled finally for $2,000 -- and for much of the following year, his mother says, Sirhan was edgy, unemployed, and discouraged about job prospects.
"He wants to be alone, to read," Mary Sirhan says. "No lawyer wants to take his case, and that makes him more nervous. He says, 'Why? Is it because I don't have cash or what?' If he stops reading, you know, he looks at himself like this . . . like he has to stay, and get well, and nobody could help with his medical insurance . . ."
He took a job at the Pasadena organic food store. It was a small place, stocked with raw milk, fertile eggs and vitamin jars, and the owner, a vegetarian Seventh-day Adventist named John Weidner, used to talk to Sirhan about religion and the state of the world. Weidner had run a Dutch underground resistance organization during World War II, set up to rescue refugees from the Nazis, and he and Sirhan often sparred philosophically over American society and the future of the Middle East.
"He hated the Jews," Weidner says. "He would say that they had taken his home, his belongings, away, and that now they wanted to govern him [in Jerusalem] and he had no freedom there . . . He thought that in America there was no chance for the little guy. Bascially I think it was because he believed he was a great man, and he was an underdog."
Sirhan claimed to have seen an Israeli soldier cutting an Arab woman's breast, Weidner says. Weidner took him to a movie about Arab-Jewish relations in Israel, one that ended on a relatively tranquil note, and Sirhan announced afterward that the film was "baloney." He resented taking orders. He was a steady and reliable worker, Weidner says, but his pride was wounded so easily that in March 1968, when Weidner asked Sirhan why he had reversed some delivery directions, Sirhan flared up, said Wedner was calling him a liar, and ended up quitting his job.
"He had no friends," Weidner says. "He was a lonely guy, always alone. Always alone . . . If I may say what my opinion is, this guy had a terrific pride, like many people did. They think many things about themselves. And he was not recognized. People do all kinds of crazy things to be recognized. So I think that it was boiling in, boiling in, boiling in, I have to do something. And then I think he started to think about killing. I think he had planned to kill someone, or something, to have a big name."
Sirhan Sirhan was 24 years old and unemployed again. He had begun to study the occult sciences, and Rosicrucian mysticism. "He would tell me there are bodies in the universe that we see out of the corners of our eyes, but never bring into focus, and he was trying to focus on them," testified a family friend at his trial. He had read about "cyclomancy," which he described in his own testimony as "nothing but white magic . . . you can take a pan of hot boiling water and put your hands in it and think cool and it was cool . . . and I did it the other way around, I took ice water and put my hand in it and thought hot and it was hot."
In 1968 Robert F. Kennedy announced he was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.
He appeared in May in a television documentary, which was aired in the Los Angeles area and included a reference to the senator's visit to Israel in 1948, when as a young Harvard graduate he wrote a series of dispatches on the Arab-Israeli war for the Boston Post. Sirhan Sirhan was home at the time, watching the program.
"He was laying in the living room, in front of the television," Mary Sirhan says. "He even beat the television with his foot. I said, 'Why did you do that?' He said, 'People don't know what they're doing.'"
"They showed on the television where Robert Kennedy was in Israel helping to, so I thought, helping to celebrate the Israelis, sir, there, and the establishment of the state of Israel," Sirhan testified. "And the way that he spoke, well, it just bugged me, sir. It burned me up. And up until that time I had loved Robert Kennedy, I cared for him very much, and I hoped that he would win the presidency until that monent sir . . . but he was doing a lot of things behind my back that I didn't know about . . . At that time the way I felt about it, if he were in front of me, so help me God, he would have died."
"Kennedy must be assassinated," Sirhan wrote in his notebook, "before June 5."
Kennedy declared publicly, on several occasions, that the United States owed military aid to Israel.
"Sirhan Sirhan must begin to work on upholding solving the problems and difficulties of assassinating the 36th President of the United States," Sirhan wrote in his notebook.
He was going to target practice with a secondhand Iver Johnson pistol borrowed from one of his brothers, and reportedly appeared six times at gun ranges before June 4.
A columnist in the Pasadena Independent Star-News chastised Kennedy for simultaneously advocating American military aid to Israel and military withdrawal from Vietnam. News reports after the assassination said that column -- along with a car key, four hundred-dollar bills, a five-dollar bill, four singles, and change -- was found in the pocket of the "swarthy-skinned assailant," as UPI's photo caption called him, who fired at Kennedy's head in the Ambassador Hotel.
"As far as the loss of a human being, loved by his family and all that, loved by his children -- on that basis, my action was totally undefensible," Sirhan says. "I acknowledge that. And I'm willing to pay the price. But as far as a politician, a self-seeker, getting votes and preferring one ethnic group against another in this great democracy, for personal interest, I have no -- what's the word? I don't feel that he was ever fair in that respect."
"Sirhan prefers to avoid talk of the past: "The slate has been sort of wiped clean," he says. "A new tabula rasa."
His parole date, which was just moved up by four months, has now been set at November 1984. The nation of Libya has offered him asylum, Sirhan says, but he does not want to spend five more years reading Arabic magazines in PHU 1.
He wants out.
"As far as murders go -- I know how heinous and callous it might sound on my part to speak of it like that -- as far as murders go, Robert Kennedy's death was not, ma'am, first degree murder," he says. "And it does not warrant, as far as my opinion goes, the imposition of first degree murder as the California law allows . . . in my case, the element of malice aforethought, which is a requisite for legal authorities to obtain, was missing."
What is an example of a true first degree murder?
"They had one guy in here one time who after he shot his victim decapitated him and fornicated with his head," Sirhan says heatedly. "That is first degree murder. They have guys who kidnap children, and do the same thing with them. They had this doctor, he killed his wife over a lengthy period of time, and tortured her. Execution-style murders are first degree murders, or at least deserving the maximum punishment. I can't be held totally responsible for the act of firing bullets from that gun. After the first shot, I was not in control of that gun."
He pays attention to the news, and he followed the conviction of former San Francisco supervisor Dan White, who shot to death Mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk in what White's attorney described as a fit of rage. White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. His prison sentence was seven years, eight months.
"Who was Robert Kennedy?" Sirhan demands. "Was he a greater creation of God? Was he more loved by God than, say, Moscone or Milk?
"Take Robert Kennedy, ma'am. Had he murdered a common citizen on the street, how would society have treated him? Would they have wanted him locked up for the rest of his life because he was a bad man? Chappaquiddick illustrates that. Dan White's trial illustrates that. What makes those lives any less valuable than Robert Kennedy's?"
Suppose one offers -- as arguments, not as legal theory -- the suggestion that it does not matter how Sirhan committed the murder, or how he felt at the time. He assassinated a presidential candidate. He sabotaged the American political process. Is that perhaps so enormous a crime that he deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison?
"I offered the American people my life in the gas chamber," Sirhan says. (He is reported to have told the judge at his trial that he would rather plead guilty and face execution than allow people to believe he was receiving a fair trial.) "I never bargained with them to waste it and rot away in these prison dungeons, and do nothing but sit and collect resentment, which is what I've been doing these last few years. The whole thing is contrary to the theory of rehabilitation."
Sirhan smiles, expansive, touches his chest. "Do I seem degenerated or unrehabilitated to you?"
Where would he go?
"That call -- that call back home still plays in my mind," he says. He means Palestine, but he says he would go anywhere in the Arab world. "They're all people of my heritage, and I relate to them all," he says.
"I was reading Time magazine a few months ago, where Rosalynn Carter was talking on the theme -- everybody needs roots, where you can call home. And that hit me. That made me like those people. Where the hell is my homeland? Where are my roots?"
He has said he would fear for his safety even in the main prison area, and certainly on the public streets. Would he want to stay in America if he did not think it dangerous?
"I've been in this country over 22 years, and well over half of them I've spent in prison," Sirhan says. "After I've seen how the system works -- you probably did read the book called 'The Ugly American,' with all the machinations employed in that. I would still say that ugliness exists, ma'am. I want no part of it, to be honest about it . . . that Statue of Liberty means nothing to me. I hate to say that. But to be frank and honest about it, it means nothing to me. In fact, it means the opposite of what it says, because I have been victimized by this country, deprived of my homeland, dispossessed.
On June 6, 1978, the widow and brother and children of Robert Francis Kennedy drove to Arlington National Cemetery for a memorial service to mark the 10th anniversary of his murder. The service was held in the early evening, on the portico of the Custis-Lee Mansion in plain sight of the eternal flame over President John F. Kennedy's grave. A thousand people stood on the open grass nearby, listening. Michael Kennedy, who was 10 the night his father died, read from a speech Robert Kennedy had made in Cape Town, South Africa.
". . . Let us then give our strength and our sweat, our lives and our labor, and together we will make a hemisphere full of such freedom's sons as will make the earth sing and tremble in their passing," Michael Kennedy read.
His mother walked to the grave, stood for a while in the settling darkness, and then gathered her children and drove away. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 6, Sirhan Sirhan; Copyright (c) 1979 by Peter Tatiner/Liaison for The Washington Post;Pictures 7 and 8, no caption; Copyright (c) 1979 by Peter Tatiner/Liaison, for The Washington Post