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The night Bobby Kennedy was shot: The awful scene a Post reporter witnessed

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) speaks to his presidential campaign workers in Los Angeles, with his wife, Ethel, at his side, minutes before being shot just after midnight on June 5, 1968. (Dick Strobel/AP)

He wanted to watch the California primary returns with his family and friends in Malibu. But Sen. Robert F. Kennedy changed his mind after the TV networks implored him to appear at the Ambassador Hotel, where they had already set up their equipment, Thurston Clarke recounts in his book, “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America.”

Kennedy obliged, arriving at the Los Angeles hotel at 7:15 p.m. on June 4, 1968 — a  night that started with political triumph and ended in gunfire and despair.

Who killed Bobby Kennedy? His son RFK Jr. doesn’t believe it was Sirhan Sirhan.

The former attorney general, the brother of slain president John F. Kennedy, was “in good spirits all evening, joking about his young wisdom as a campaign manager eight years ago and his unwisdom as a candidate himself,” Richard Harwood wrote in The Washington Post.

“ ‘I thought I knew everything then,’ ” Harwood quoted the New York Democrat as saying. “ ‘Now all I know is what they tell me on television.’ ”

Because Harwood had been skeptical of Kennedy, he wrote 20 years later, he was assigned to cover the campaign by The Washington Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee. But as the hardheaded reporter followed the senator through Indiana, Nebraska and California, he grew so attached to the candidate that he asked his editors for another assignment after the California Democratic primary was over.

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Now Harwood waited with everyone else for the results. Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) had won a surprising victory over Kennedy in Oregon a week earlier and led Kennedy in the early California tallies, “but CBS projections gave Kennedy a comfortable lead,” according to Clarke, and the network predicted Kennedy would be the beneficiary of record turnout by Hispanics and African Americans.

“By 11 p.m., it seemed clear that Kennedy had won California, a huge triumph that would erase the comparatively minor shame of defeat in Oregon,” journalist Pete Hamill wrote in 2008.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) was shot and killed in 1968, while running for President, but 50 years later, doubts linger on who pulled the trigger. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

The all-business atmosphere in the senator’s hotel suite eased.

“The TV set was on, the sound off, showing Kennedy ahead. Most people had glasses in their hands. Beer. Harder stuff. Soft drinks,” Hamill recalled. “The mood was light, almost giddy.”

Kennedy had entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination less than three months earlier after McCarthy posted a surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary against President Lyndon B. Johnson.

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At the very least, a victory in California promised to give Kennedy added momentum as Democrats prepared to gather in Chicago in August for their quadrennial convention. But that night, according to Clarke, political aides and some of the reporters covering the campaign started to think something bigger was unfolding: “[E]ven the most skeptical reporters and aides began believing he might win the nomination.”

As midnight neared on the Pacific Coast, Kennedy headed to the hotel ballroom packed with TV cameras and cheering supporters. He thanked farmworkers organizer Cesar Chavez, noted the support of Mexican Americans and African Americans for his campaign and spoke of his desire to end the war in Vietnam.

“We have certain obligations and responsibilities to our fellow citizens, which we talked about during the course of this campaign — and I want to make it clear that if I’m elected president of the United States with your help I intend to keep them,” Kennedy said to cheers.

“So my thanks to all of you, and on to Chicago and let’s win there,” he concluded, flashing a victory sign.

He left the microphones and started toward the hotel kitchen. “Kennedy moved slowly into the area, shaking hands, with people from the stage behind him, at the head of a platoon of reporters, photographers, campaign staffers, TV men, and the curious,” the delirious din still reverberating from the ballroom, Hamill wrote. The senator shook hands with a kitchen worker and “started to walk on,” according to Harwood.

Read Richard Harwood’s account of the assassination

Then the gunfire — “The shots sounded like firecrackers,” Harwood wrote — started.

The chants and cheers in the ballroom turned to gasps and screams.

Harwood was about 20 feet away. The Post reporter ran closer and saw Kennedy lying on the floor, bleeding from the right side of his head.

“He looked dead,” Harwood wrote in an account of the shooting’s aftermath. “The kitchen erupted into madness.”

Harwood described a “small young man,” later identified as Sirhan Sirhan, standing five feet away from Kennedy “firing rapidly with a small pistol.” The gunfire wounded five bystanders, including a 17-year-old campaign aide named Irwin Stoll.

“I didn’t even know that I was shot,” Stoll told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “I thought I was kicked in the leg until I looked down and saw that the color of my pants had changed from blue to dark blue. Right after that, we heard the senator was shot.”

Others suffered more serious wounds. Labor organizer and Kennedy supporter Paul Schrade was shot in the head but survived.

In the decades that followed, forensic evidence and inconsistencies in witness accounts led Schrade and others to conclude that a second gunman, not Sirhan, fired the shots that killed Kennedy. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the third oldest of RFK’s 11 children, now believes this, too. 

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, however, all attention focused on the slightly built Christian Palestinian refugee with the .22-caliber revolver.

Witnesses and Kennedy supporters moved to subdue Sirhan. Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, one of the “Fearsome Foursome” defensive linemen for the Los Angeles Rams, slammed Sirhan into a serving cart, Harwood wrote, and “began wrestling for his gun,” while Olympian Rafer Johnson and Bill Barry, Kennedy’s sole — and unarmed — security guard, jumped on him.

Sirhan continued to struggle. “Grier threw him on top of a serving cart, and people in the passageway rushed over to beat him and strangle him,” Harwood wrote. “Grier and Barry and Johnson knocked them back.”

Meanwhile, Kennedy lapsed in and out of consciousness. When medics arrived and lifted him onto a stretcher, he “gained consciousness again and said, obviously in great pain, ‘Oh no, no, don’t,’ ” Harwood wrote.

An ambulance eventually took the wounded senator to a nearby hospital. Harwood raced to a telephone to call the Post newsroom, where it was 3 a.m.

“We were all still in the newsroom, waiting for the final edition of June 5, 1968, to come upstairs from the composing room, headlining Bobby Kennedy’s victory,” Bradlee recalled in his memoirs. “Then I heard those dreadful words, ‘Kennedy’s been shot.’ ”

Bradlee shouted “Stop the presses!” for the only time in his career. Moments later, Harwood was on the phone, which he had to wrestle away from a woman who was recounting what she had seen to a friend, Bradlee wrote in his memoirs. The reporter conferred with his editor and hung up. “He was to call us back with everything he had in thirty minutes,” Bradlee wrote.

In Washington, the newsroom buzzed with activity in the early morning hours as Harwood reported from the scene, and editors wrote headlines and laid out pages to get the extra edition together. At 6 a.m., Bradlee wrote, the extra hit the streets.

“It wasn’t great, but we had been doing what we had been put on this earth to do, and we felt good about that,” he remembered. But soon the adrenaline rush gave way to something else — something that much of the rest of the country was feeling that morning.

“And then I went home in the morning’s early light, sat down at the kitchen table, and cried uncontrollably for an hour,” Bradlee wrote. “I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t speak.”

As for Harwood, there would be more stories about the assassination to write. In one, he recounted how RFK, his wife, Ethel, and John Seigenthaler, a newspaper editor and longtime acquaintance, joined in a carefree round of song as they drove to the San Francisco airport the day before the primary.

In Harwood’s telling: “They sang and sang and no one would ever have known that he was 24 hours from a primary election that could make or break him or that he was only 30 hours away from a rendezvous with a man with a gun.”