RFK and RR: United in Life and Death

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article first appeared in National Review Online.

Last week, specifically, June 5, 2008, was the 40th anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, one of the most beloved politicians of his era. I was surprised by the lack of commemorations by news sources, which typically jump all over anniversaries. No doubt, this “anniversary story” was a victim of media myopia regarding the 2008 presidential race.

One of the few retrospectives was a piece I did for National Review. This article here is largely a reprint of the National Review piece, with an important update in the end, brought to my attention by a reader—a Grove City College parent—who made a fascinating observation that eluded me when I first wrote the National Review piece.

Those news sources who paused to note RFK’s death searched for some nugget from RFK’s life or even the life of his assassin—anything to make their story different. In that spirit, I’d like to offer a fresh perspective that went unacknowledged in the media, especially given that it was long ago got sucked into a historical vacuum, and which at first glance might seem odd but is actually interesting, notable, and perhaps even moving. It is also worth noting at a time when politics is as divisive as ever, both among political parties and even within them.

I’m referring to the response to the assassination by the then-governor of the state in which RFK was shot, and who went on to become the most beloved political figure of the era that succeeded the Kennedys: Ronald Reagan.

The Reagan-RFK relationship has eluded historians, biographers, and even admirers of both men. It was a fascinating one that might be dismissed by liberals who liked RFK but not Reagan and by conservatives who liked Reagan but not RFK—which would be a mistake.

In fact, navigating through the earliest links in the relationship is a wake-up call for both liberals and conservatives: Back when Ronald Reagan was a liberal Democrat, he campaigned for Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was running for the U.S. Senate and who had been dubbed the “Pink Lady” by her opponent, Richard Nixon. This put Reagan not only against Nixon but against the Kennedys, who were staunch anti-communists who crossed party lines and loyalties to support Nixon (including no less than a campaign contribution) against Douglas. The Kennedys were to the right of Reagan.

A decade and a half later, Reagan had moved decidedly and permanently to the right, but once again found himself on the other side of the Kennedys when, on May 15, 1967, a year before the shooting in Los Angeles, he debated RFK in a major, nationally televised debate on the Vietnam War. The debate was broadcast from 10:00-11:00 PM EST by CBS TV Network and CBS Radio Network, and was watched by 15 million Americans, as well as covered by the leading newsweeklies. (Someone, whether at C-SPAN or the Reagan Library or wherever, should have the savvy to re-run the debate today; it is captivating.)

Newsweek speculated whether the debate might be a “dry run” for a future set of “Great Debates” between these two promising presidential aspirants, insightfully sensing that the two were rising to the top of their respective parties. The verdict, from Newsweek to the San Francisco Chronicle, to historians like the late David Halberstam and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, was that Reagan overwhelmingly won the debate.

Yet, the most intriguing (and forgotten) component in the relationship between the pair came a year later, on June 5, 1968. On that day, Bobby Kennedy was again an item for Reagan, though this time in a dreadful way that the governor could not have imagined in their debate a year earlier: Kennedy had just been assassinated.

Reagan was immediately invited to talk about the tragedy on the television show of his friend and fellow entertainer Joey Bishop. A rare transcript of his appearance is today held by Bill Clark, who, as Governor Reagan’s chief of staff, grabbed a copy and filed it away for political posterity, where it still remains (stuffed in a box) four decades later (Clark shared it with me).

Reagan spoke to Joey Bishop at length about Kennedy, the loss, the “savage act,” and even offered spiritual advice on how to cope with the sadness. “I am sure that all of us are praying not only for him but for his family and for those others who were so senselessly struck down also in the fusillade of bullets,” said Reagan. “I believe we should go on praying, to the best of our ability, to ask for God’s mercy in what has happened to us.” The governor said there was a “pall” over his state of California.

Particularly remarkable was how the Cold Warrior found a way to direct the discussion to what he assured the audience was America’s real enemy: the USSR. Reagan noted that Kennedy’s killer, a radical Arab, committed the crime because of the senator’s support of Israel, specifically during the Six Day War that had occurred exactly one year earlier. As Soviet sources now confirm—and as histories and documentaries today readily acknowledge—that conflict was intentionally precipitated by the Kremlin, which had concocted false intelligence reports about alleged Israeli troop movements upon Arab territory. Moscow shared the phony information with Egypt and other Arab states for the explicit purpose of creating a military confrontation with Israel, which the Soviets believed would advance their broader foreign-policy interests in the Middle East and the world, and would undermine an America struggling in Vietnam. The Soviets stirred the pot, and their shameless maneuver led to a war.

Reagan thus linked Bobby Kennedy’s assassination to the USSR. “The enemy sits in Moscow,” he told Joey Bishop. “I call him an enemy because I believe he has proven this, by deed, in the Middle East. The actions of the enemy led to and precipitated the tragedy of last night.”

Reagan was not finished. Later in that same week, he connected the earlier assassination of the other Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, to Soviet communism. In a largely unreported and unknown speech at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, on June 13, 1968—again, a complete transcript of which has been stored in Bill Clark’s personal files for some 40 years—Reagan was eager to remind Americans of the worldview that had motivated JFK’s murderer: “Five years ago, a president was murdered by one who renounced his American citizenship to embrace the godless philosophy of communism.”

Ronald Reagan had formulated a new outrage toward Soviet communism: Moscow’s nefarious ways were leading, directly or indirectly, to the extermination of some of America’s most cherished political figures—the two Kennedy boys.

Here I would like to pause to address those liberals who, as they read this, are flippantly dismissing Reagan’s stark suspicions as paranoid right-wing anti-communism. They should consider this: Reagan’s accusations against Moscow were not dissimilar to those of the Kennedy boys themselves. Bobby had been so staunchly anti-communist that he had once worked for Joe McCarthy, and even asked McCarthy to be the godfather to his first child, Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend.

Our histories are too often black-and-white, and thoroughly incomplete. The relationship between Bobby Kennedy and Ronald Reagan is an excellent example, filled with wrinkles and irony, and essentially lost to history. It also offers an example of the grace that Ronald Reagan showed toward his political opponents, perhaps a lesson that conservatives should be mindful of as they assimilate the news concerning the mortality of the latest Kennedy—Ted Kennedy.

It was 40 years ago that Ronald Reagan would join America in prayer and mourning over the death of RFK, as a torch was silently passed from one beloved politician to another, from an icon of liberalism to an icon of conservatism. History would never be the same.

And yet, history had another irony still in store. As was noted to me by a Grove City College parent last week, it would be another June 5—June 5, 2004—that Ronald Reagan likewise would pass on to meet his Maker. Both Reagan and RFK share the same date of death. That’s another of those fascinating, elusive quirks of history—whether coincidence or Providence—that will forever connect Ronald Reagan and Robert F. Kennedy.