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Excerpt from "Robert Kennedy: His Life"
  by Evan Thomas


In a Los Angeles hotel, moments after declaring victory in the crucial Democratic presidential primary in California, Robert F. Kennedy was shot by an unemployed drifter named Sirhan Sirhan. It was just after midnight on Wednesday, June 5, 1968; the following day in the hospital, Kennedy was pronounced dead. For two nights and a day, his body lay in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, where lines of mourners stretched for twenty-five blocks in wilting heat. At the funeral mass Saturday morning, his brother Edward Kennedy delivered a simple and powerful eulogy. Then it was time to take the body to its final resting place.


On Saturday afternoon, June 8, Kennedy's body, like President Lincoln's 103 years before, was carried by a funeral train from New York to Washington. As they had for Lincoln, many thousands – perhaps, for RFK, a million people – lined the tracks. The coffin, on a bier close to the floor of the observation car, could not be seen by bystanders. So Kennedy's pallbearers lifted it up and placed it, a bit precariously, on chairs. Along the route of the train, Boy Scouts and firemen braced at attention; nuns, some wearing dark glasses, stood witness; housewives wept. Thousands and thousands of black people waited quietly in the heat, perhaps because they lived close to the tracks, but also because they had felt for Kennedy, and knew they would miss him. "Marvelous crowds," said Arthur Schlesinger, staring out the window as the train slowly rocked south. "Yes," said Kenny O'Donnell [a long – time friend and aide]. "But what are they good for now?"

Inside the score of railway cars carrying a disparate melange of family, friends – real and would-be – celebrities and secretaries, true believers and hangers-on, grief was observed in manifold ways. The Catholics, Frank Mankiewicz [RFK press secretary] said, drank and told funny and sentimental stories. The Protestants weren't quite sure what do, except to vaguely disapprove of anyone having a good time. The Jews wept – "they'd have torn their clothes if they had thought of it," recalled Mankiewicz. Carter Burden, Kennedy's young aide in the New York office, came down to the last car and glimpsed Ethel, alone with her slain husband. "It was the only moment, then or since, that I saw her cry," he recalled. "She sat there, immensely still, and hunched over in a plain, straight-backed chair. She had a rosary in her hands, and her head was resting against the casket."

She collected herself. She wanted to greet the other mourners and thank them for coming and for sharing her husband's life. Roosevelt Grier told her that the train stretched for twenty cars. It was stifling hot. Was she sure she wanted to go? "We're going to go," she said, and she did. So did the eldest Kennedy son, Joe, 16, flashing his father's toothy smile and remembering "Kennedys don't cry." Seeing the two of them, determinedly gracious, just about everybody else broke down.

The trip from New York to Washington, normally about four hours, took twice as long. Two bystanders who had jumped on the tracks in Elizabeth, New Jersey, were killed by a train passing in the other direction. The food ran out, the water ran out; finally, the liquor ran out. The thousand or so passengers stumbled off the train at Washington's Union Station shortly after 9 p.m., to the booming drums of the Navy Band.

Down Constitution Avenue, past the Justice Department ... to the Lincoln Memorial where everyone sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" one last time ... across the bridge to Arlington National Cemetery. A light rain had stopped. The moon hung heavy and full over the Potomac. By candlelight and TV light, the weary pallbearers – old friends like David Hackett, trusted aides like John Seigenthaler, family champions like Steve Smith – hoisted the casket and stumbled up the hill to the knoll where John F. Kennedy lay buried. A gravesite had been chosen for Robert about thirty yards away.

When Robert had helped design JFK's grave, he had disagreed with his brother's widow. RFK wanted a plain white cross. Jackie desired a grander and more elegant memorial. Today, President Kennedy's grave spouts an eternal flame, and a massive black slab bears his name. On a sweeping curve of marble are carved the heroic words of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, "Let the word go forth from this time and place ... that the torch has been passed ....." Beyond lies the federal city and the great, glistening monuments to Lincoln and Washington.

Robert Kennedy's resting place is to the side, down a narrow alley shielded by some small trees. On a block of marble facing his grave are carved fragments of his two best speeches, his peroration from the Day of Affirmation speech to the South Africans ("Each time a man stands up for an ideal ... he sends a tiny ripple of hope ....") and the lesson from Aeschylus he delivered in a slum in Indianapolis on the day Martin Luther King was shot ("In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair .... comes wisdom ...."). A small, plain white cross stands by a stone slab inscribed with his name and the years of his birth and death. In contrast to the grandeur of JFK's grave, the effect is unadorned and a little lonely. One thinks of his struggle to overcome fear and wonders what, if he had lived, he might have done.
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