Bobby Kennedy in The Sixties: A Photographer's ReminiscenceHistorians/History
tags: RFK, Kennedys
I was in the Colorado Rockies listening to the news on a transistor radio when I first heard that Robert F. Kennedy had announced his candidacy for president of the United States. Immediately, I jumped into my rented jeep, and drove twenty miles down four-wheel drive-only trails to a phone so that I could get my bid in to be Life’s permanent photographer on the Kennedy campaign. My boss at Life, Dick Pollard, was happy to hear from me because none of the other photographers were interested in the long hours, the hassles, and the mobs of people that would come with this assignment.
Life’s attitude was different this time. This was the real campaign and I was doing straight news coverage as part of a three-person writer-reporter-photographer team. There was not much time to look for carefully thought out concepts as we had done in 1966. Weekly deadlines had to be met. And deadlines weren’t our only problem.We were fighting for space against other Life teams who were with the McCarthy and Nixon campaigns. We were also fighting the Republican leanings of Time Inc.’s management (Life later editorially endorsed Richard Nixon for president).
The general feeling on the campaign wasn’t that different from 1966. Bobby was the same man, but this time he seemed more driven, and it seemed that he had a direction. Almost overnight, he had assembled his own advance team and backup staff with full funding.
The campaign started well and Bobby was running full tilt. He had forced Lyndon Johnson to announce his retirement and was catching up with Eugene McCarthy—antiwar candidate and poet. When we started to hit the first towns on the campaign trail, we all noticed that the signs in the crowds finally, in unison, said “Bobby for President.” We knew then he wasn’t working for other campaigns, and he wasn’t endorsing other politicians. He was going for it - the presidency, and his message against the war in Vietnam rallied the crowds.
At each campaign stop, we no longer wondered what the crowd reactions would be. Everyone sensed that this man was a great figure. People wanted to see Bobby, and they came out in large numbers. Somehow within the span of those two years his reputation seemed to have grown. He was now acknowledged as his own person. So we all knew when we got to a town that we were going to work, and work hard. There were thick crowds to get through and crowds to photograph. Very few people were anti-Kennedy like the ones we had seen in California in 1966. We were prepared for the work that we had to do, and, it was joyous.
Fun happened on the campaign trail as when Freckles, Bobby’s dog, became as much a member of the staff and press corp as anybody else. He was to our envy, always being petted by the stewardesses. He got to sleep with the candidate on the floor of the plane. Quite often when we made a campaign stop, the doors of the plane would open, and the first one off the plane would be Freckles. He would take off and the Kennedy kids would scream, “Where’s my dog?” So somebody got smart and gave the dog a press credential. Then, when he disappeared into the crowd everybody knew who he belonged to, and he always made it back to the plane on time one way or the other.
Bobby kept winning. Week after week his ratings went up in the polls. His primary victories were impressive, but there was a certain uneasiness in the press corps. This was too much of a good thing. We started nervously looking at windows and rooftops during motorcades. There were several rumors that “a man with a gun” had been seen, or had been picked up by local police. None of this could be substantiated.
There was no Secret Service protection for candidates at that time. To get through crowds cameramen had to form a wedge and actually run interference in front of the candidate. Our wedge was composed of a three-man TV crew in the center and a still photographer on either side forming, as it were, a human spear point. We would walk backward into the crowd which would provide the candidate with an open path to the podium and it also gave us picture situations. When people got knocked about, they blamed the press and not the candidate. It worked out well all the way around but we had to expect a few bruises for our efforts.
Of course, Bobby had no official protection. He refused to have uniformed police close around him. Bill Barry, an ex-FBI agent and a Kennedy family friend came along, but he was only one. Eventually, the Senator was convinced that he should let Roosevelt Grier and Rafer Johnson and occasionally other pro-football players come along.
Presidential candidates now all use bomb-proof and bullet-proof cars. The ultimate trust that Bobby had in his fellow human beings showed itself in the fact that he demanded convertibles.
A convertible was the proper place to make great photographs of Bobby because you could stand on the front, the back, anywhere you wanted. I remember the time that Walter Dumbrow, a cameraman for CBS, was standing on the hood of Bobby’s car, filming him as the motorcade started to move. He was held around his legs by his sound man and his electrician, and they were standing pretty rock solid, the three of them. After the car reached a certain speed, Walter figured he had enough footage and should get off the hood. Walter and his two compatriots then instantly swiveled as one in such a way that they did not tangle their wires, jumped off the car in unison, and landed on the ground running forward to the camera car which was directly in front of Bobby. When they reached the camera car, they jumped, again as one entity, swiveled in the air, and landed on their butts on the trunk of the camera car, sliding forward. Those of us in the back seat reached and grabbed them by their belts and pulled them on board. It was a press corps ballet.
Bobby never showed any fear, he always had a smile on his face, like he was really enjoying the hell out of the huge crowds. When he was on a car or platform, people wanting to shake his hand would actually pull him off and into the crowd. Bill Barry was Bobby’s only bodyguard. Part of Bill Barry’s job was to hold on to Bobby and keep him from being pulled into the crowd.
As the campaign moved into late May, there was sometimes open discussion among the fifty-odd members of the press corp about the possibility of an attempt on Kennedy’s life. CBS assigned a second camera crew permanently to the campaign.
Crowds greeting the senator were huge and uncontrolled. In most cities, police escorted campaigning political groups but Los Angeles provided no such escort for Robert Kennedy.
There were portents. The day before the primary in San Francisco, someone in Chinatown threw a packet of firecrackers at the senator’s convertible. There was split second of frozen terror on his face then he dove for the floor of his car. Cameramen in the preceding and trailing cars were unable to move. Nobody made any film of that incident but it did serve to reawaken all our fears.
For the working press on the campaign, it was a series of airports, crowds, and hotels. Often, Bobby would come down to the bar in the late evening and seek out the photographers to find out how we were, and how the pictures were looking. He was quite aware of what our jobs were, and he liked talking to us. The subject of Vietnam usually came up, and he wanted to know about it from those of us who had been there. He wanted to know what we had seen and felt. Almost always at the end of these informal sessions he would get around to saying that when he was president, not if, the country would be out of Vietnam on that day. We believed him.
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Bill McWilliams - 6/17/2008
Time has blurred our memory, words have stilled our feelings, but we remember the man and the night, and feel a muted sorrow.