Article - Summer 2018

Working for Bobby

Fifty years ago, I campaigned for RFK for president, and was nearby when the dream died with him

By Steven L. Isenberg | June 4, 2018
(Courtesy of Steve Isenberg)

During this 50th anniversary year, many people will be remembering 1968, its assassination shocks and the Vietnam War setting the national mood. The shooting of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. brought anguish and destruction, flames and troops to the streets. New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay said of the night of the assassination that he saw in the people of Harlem “great grief, emotion, very deep emotion, with people weeping, and frustrated and lonely. And terribly lost and let down.” Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s death only months later, less than five years after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, made heavier the burden of grief and civic despair. The once-unimaginable momentum to challenge a seated president, Lyndon Johnson, in the Democratic primary was halted by his decision not to seek reelection and then was further unsettled by the loss of the likely successor. Meanwhile, opposition to the war was growing. The national debate was bitter. Alistair Cooke reported home on his weekly BBC radio broadcast, “They are spitting across the dinner tables of America.”

Amid large events and forces, we live our own lives. This is what I remember of that time.

Twice in 1967, I had joined protests against the war, first a march to the United Nations in New York, and then a march in Washington to the Pentagon. Norman Mailer’s fierce nonfiction classic, The Armies of the Night, wound him into that moment, in contrasting style to the march’s other leading literary figure, the patrician poet Robert Lowell. For all its juiced-up journalism and self-centered focus, Armies can still put a reader in the day’s zeitgeist. Not long afterward, a senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, reserved and intelligent, with little history promising such an act, decided to enter the Democratic presidential primary. His reason: the war.

Everywhere I turned, I met other people in their 20s who were going to New Hampshire to join McCarthy, even if only for a weekend. But I remained clothed in sentiment that came from having heard President Kennedy speak on campus during my senior year at Berkeley in 1962, summoning my generation to public service. Above all was the appeal of his manner and idiom, the way he carried himself, which was so sharply different from President Eisenhower and, more pointedly, Richard Nixon. The voting age in 1960 was 21, and I was 20, too young to vote for JFK. My admiration had grown after the Cuban Missile Crisis. His assassination marked for me, as it did for the nation, the leaving behind of innocence.

I had been against the Vietnam War since 1965, not out of any deep knowledge but rather because of a gut reaction against the war’s premises: the domino theory and the monolith of the international communist conspiracy. It seemed to me a civil war. Now I wanted Bobby Kennedy to run for president and was impatient with what I saw as his dithering. Having done my six months’ active military duty in 1963, I was lucky enough in that age of the draft to have only a year left in the reserves. I was working for Lindsay’s director of the budget, Frederick O’Reilly Hayes.

I went to Hayes’s office one morning and said I wanted leave to go into the campaign during the Democratic primaries. I was a Democrat, and so was Fred. We worked for a liberal Republican, a breed no longer on this earth. Fred said, “This is too important to discuss in the middle of the workday. I’ll get back to you.”

A week later he took me out to dinner. Treating me as an adult, he asked if I thought McCarthy should be president. I was stopped in my tracks. I hadn’t really thought about him in quite that way. I was thinking of one issue so important to the fate of the country that it was imperative to dislodge LBJ. But then we began to talk about it, or rather he did, in a way that summoned history and perspective. After a while, I said no, I did not think McCarthy would be a good president, despite his bravery in running, his ardent and telling voice against the war. Something wasn’t there in what I felt presidents ought to have and be. Then I said I was really for Robert Kennedy and spouted off about his laying back, not taking the jump. Fred said, “Kennedy has more to lose than McCarthy,” another bit of worldliness for me to reckon with. At the end of dinner, he told me to be patient, to stick to our business of working on the next budget, and then we’d come back to the matter.

Later in the spring of 1968, Kennedy was running, and I went again to Fred and said I wanted to go into the campaign now. He told me he needed to make a call to Mayor Lindsay: “I am a political appointment, and you are my appointment, and he has to bless this.” Later he told me Lindsay had said, “Let the kid go; we can save his job for his return.” After Fred told me that, I said I had another question. “How do I get into the Kennedy campaign?” He laughed. He said he’d have to think about it.

A day or so later he called William vanden Heuvel, whom he had known from their Washington days when Fred worked for Sargent Shriver, then the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Vanden Heuvel, who was running the Oregon statewide campaign for Kennedy, told Fred I should get on a plane right away. They would pay me $20 a day to keep me afloat and cover my expenses. I called home and told my wife, Barbara, I was going to Oregon.

On the flight to Portland, a man was walking up and down the aisle, restless but purposeful. He was wearing a PT-109 tie clasp. When we got off the plane, I asked if he was part of the campaign. He was suspicious. Yes, he said. I told him I was coming to join up. He asked me about several names that I either recognized from the newspaper or didn’t know at all. I knew no one personally, not even vanden Heuvel, to whom I was to report.

What did I do for work?

I told him, and he grumbled, “Lindsay’s a Republican. What are you, a whore at the garden party?” (He had a thick Massachusetts accent, or maybe it was Irish, or both.)

“Hey,” I said, “I’m a Democrat, my parents are Democrats, and my boss at work is a Democrat.”

What hotel are you staying in? I said I had a few names. He looked at my list. You can’t stay here or there; McCarthy people there. Okay, get in the cab with me, and I’ll take you to a hotel.

“By the way, did you go to college?”

“Yes,” I said. “Berkeley and Oxford.”

“Did you really go to Oxford?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Well, after I drop you off at your hotel, check in and come meet me in the lobby of the Benson Hotel.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“Are you sure you went to Oxford?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

The man from the plane never told me his name, or if he did, he mumbled it so badly, I didn’t get it. When I arrived at the Benson, he introduced me to John Douglas, a distinguished presence, who had been Kennedy’s assistant attorney general for the Civil Division. Douglas, who I later learned was the son of Illinois senator Paul Douglas, had been to Oxford and, lucky for me, was at Yale Law School with John Lindsay, whom he liked and admired. Douglas said to me, “Come see me at headquarters tomorrow, first thing. They will try to make you an advance man. I’ve got something else in mind. See me before you talk to anyone else.”

At that moment, into the lobby came Senator Kennedy with a tall man, who turned out to be vanden Heuvel, at his side. Douglas told me to wait, and he went over to speak to them. After a few moments, he waved me over.

“Bob, this is Steve Isenberg. He’s come from New York to help us. Bill knows about him.”

Kennedy shook my hand and stared with tired but alert blue eyes.

“Thanks, Steve. Glad to have you here.”

Vanden Heuvel and Douglas said that they’d see me tomorrow. They all walked off. The man from the plane had been watching all this from a distance, and then he walked off without a word. It was days before I was told he was the “family’s bag man”—he carried the cash.

The next morning at headquarters, I found Douglas sitting with Herb Schmertz, who was in charge of operations. He looked up and said to Douglas, “We can put this guy to work as an advance man.”

Douglas told him he had something else in mind. “Do you have any counties uncovered?”

Herb looked at his battle map of Oregon and said they had no one in Columbia County. It’s small and not far from Portland. They looked at each other, and 10 seconds later I was the county coordinator. No one had asked if I had ever worked in a campaign. They asked what I needed. I asked if there was a college there or did we have someone who knows the county I could get to help. “Do you have the rolls of Democratic voters? Oh, I need a car.”

They had no voter information, no contacts, but they found a college kid who would spend a couple of days with me. They told me to go see the guy from the plane about everything else. That was it.

I found him in a small room with only a desk, a telephone, and a chair. He told me where to rent a car and asked how much money I needed. I said a few hundred dollars. He laughed. He gave me $500 and wrote down his phone number. “Call me when you get set up.”

I got a map at the car rental place and drove toward St. Helens, the county seat. On the way, I stopped at the high school in Scappoose, a tiny town, and spoke to a vice principal. I asked him questions about who lived in the county, what they worked at, what was in the air politically. He was amused and very informative. When I got to St. Helens, my first order of business was to open a headquarters. Through a few inquiries, I found a small, empty building on the edge of town. The owner wasn’t sure he wanted to rent it, but I said it would only be through the primary, so it wouldn’t affect his plans. When I learned he was a retired fireman, I told him I worked with the NYC Fire Department in my job in the Budget Bureau. That must have counted for something. The rent was $60 a week, payable in advance. He gave me a few old tables and chairs.

For the next few days, it was all basics: get phones installed (the telephone company rep had grown up in West Virginia and was a big JFK fan), go meet the town’s police and fire chiefs, the editor at the newspaper, and the owner of the local radio station. Then to the school principals (there wasn’t even a junior college in the county), encouraging them to have their students drop by to volunteer. Somehow a few boys about 12 years old came on their bikes and got a kick out of being asked to cut up the roll sheets of registered Democrats, tape one name to an index card, and look up the home phone number. I told them that we would use these cards to call people and invite them to headquarters to visit.

The idea was to find out who was a supporter or undecided. From this, we could get volunteers and know where to turn out our vote. I told the boys that every day we’d have coffee and doughnuts and soft drinks, but to work here they needed to bring their parents or grandparents or neighbors by at least once so that I could meet them and get some adult help for telephone calls. I got the local paper and radio station to do stories on the headquarters’ opening. In a week or so, we had a motley crew of enthusiastic telephone callers. I gave them a notion of what to say, but everyone just did what came to mind. One night a teenager happened to reach someone he knew. “What is a kid doing there?” the person asked. Our young guy responded, “I belong here.”

I started to drive around the county, meeting people, getting a picture of how RFK stood against McCarthy and the crowd supporting a nascent candidacy of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. I listened to old resentments from union members about Kennedy having testified for the prosecution at the trial of the former mayor of Portland, felt the tension between the antiwar sentiments and the high patriotic participation of Oregonians in the armed forces and in Vietnam. I detected a certain pride that for a moment the nation’s political attention would turn to Oregon, so far from the nation’s capital. Even being 30 miles from Portland shaped their outlook of where they stood.

Every night I went back to my hotel in Portland and talked to people in the campaign about what was going on in the big town and in the race elsewhere. I had the feeling that we were losing here, that McCarthy had a better grip and that Humphrey supporters would vote for him to stop a Kennedy victory. I also thought Kennedy needed to get out of Portland more to give people in the rest of the state a real sense of him.

I bumped into John Douglas, and he asked me how it was going. He heard about my big phone operation (the money man couldn’t believe it was all volunteers) and the newspaper and radio stories. I told him my sense of where we stood, and because I believed getting out of Portland was important, I hoped “the candidate” (that’s what they often said, in addition to calling him Bobby) might come to St. Helens. I promised a big crowd. I also mentioned someone had told me that President Kennedy had been driving through Scappoose when he was asked what he would have done about the U-2.

About a week later Douglas asked me if anyone had contacted me about Bobby coming to St. Helens. I said no. He said come to the Benson Hotel today at four. Go to this room number. Be ready.

The halls around the hotel room were busy with people carrying memos and going to and fro. I was taken into the room where Bobby was half-lying on his bed, no coat, tie, or shoes. Others were seated, John Glenn and his wife, Annie, and Arthur Schlesinger. Aides came and went. Bobby looked at me and said, “You’re the guy who wants to take away my nap time tomorrow.” I knew that was the signal to say why. I began disastrously by saying I was apprehensive we were losing (I didn’t know that you were never to say that) and that he needed to get out of Portland, mentioning the not-so-silent Humphrey forces. I said I was sorry he’d have to go by bus (nowhere to fly), but I felt that even to go that far was symbolic in getting out of the city and would send a message to the rest of the state. I told him he’d pass through Scappoose, alluding to President Kennedy’s having spoken about the U-2 from there. Above all, I promised him a great crowd. He looked up and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.” I was out of the room in a second.

Immediately, I was asked what I needed. Nothing, I said. I was driving to St. Helens right away and would pick a site. I would call the head of the radio station and announce the senator’s arrival time, and get to the local paper. Someone said there would be an advance man sent to you tomorrow morning. I said I don’t need one. I was told that an advance man came for every appearance.

That night and throughout the next day, I was on the radio, calling on our volunteers to be at headquarters immediately after school. I said the nation’s press corps would be coming, so people who were at the event would see themselves on television or in magazine photos. I went overboard when, needing something new to say in my hourly phone-ins, I made the announcement that Le Monde, the French newspaper, would be there. I was on the air so often that day, I never needed to buy a radio ad. The owner was a Republican who admired Lindsay, and there wasn’t much other news going on. He said to keep calling in or stopping by the station.

A Washington lawyer, Lee Fentress, arrived as the advance man. He was cool and calm. We set up a route to town hall and a stage for RFK to speak from. He said you have to get the town’s mayor to ride in the car with you. I said he’s part time, really old, and sort of feeble. Lee said, “That doesn’t matter.” He said to tell the police no sirens at all. Bobby never wants them. Lee was easy to work with and just let me be the jumping bean. I called the nun who headed the Catholic schools in the area and said Senator Kennedy was very hopeful her students and their families could gather after school on the route. I went into three factories and said I would pay the wages of a representative group of the men who had to miss a shift so they could be on the route. They were goodhearted and said no need to do that, some would find a way to go and bring their wives. Two or three took me up on the deal.

After school ended, our headquarters filled with kids. I told them to ride their bikes to one corner along the route and once Kennedy’s car passed to jump on their bikes and ride two blocks and appear again. And to do their best to get a parent or a neighbor there.

Lee took me out to the rendezvous point on the highway outside St. Helens. He said the mayor would sit next to the driver in the front seat and I would ride next to him. Jim Whittaker would be with the senator. Whittaker was the first American to climb Mount Everest. That became another of my radio pitches.

A little after four P.M., a convertible followed by two buses pulled to the side of the road. Lee whispered to Bill Barry, Bobby’s bodyguard, and introduced me. We put the mayor in the car, and he turned to Bobby and said, “Welcome to St. Helens, Mr. President.” We all winced.

And then we drove slowly toward the center of town. Outside a supermarket, the workers appeared carrying a sheet cake. Homemade signs turned up everywhere, some from my kids, but most just appeared. As we drove down the main street, I spotted some men from the factory. They walked toward the car. I told Bobby who they were. Handshakes took place, testing ones. One guy said, “Bobby, my wife just got her hair done, and she won’t come out of our pickup.” Bobby got out of the car and walked over and shook her hand. The buses spilled open with reporters and cameras.

We got down to the town hall. The crowds were thick, and we had to work our way through them to the podium. Bill Barry said to me, “I walk in front of him, you stay close in back.” It was jostling, friendly but jammed. I joined hands with Barry to form a circle like a fender. Bobby came to the podium, did that signature tugging of a lock of hair, and began by saying, “I’ve always wanted to come to St. Helens.” I don’t remember just what he said next, but it was familiar in all the best ways, straightforward and pointedly asking for their support. His voice was earnest, conversational; his manner made him approachable. His sentences were chopped, the accent unmistakably from the other end of the country. The mayor, one knew, wasn’t the only one that day who had President Kennedy in mind. The crowd was warm, welcoming, and Bobby was buoyed—you could see that.

The author with RFK as he campaigned in Oregon 50 years ago. Kennedy lost the primary but went on to win California on the night he was shot.The author with RFK as he campaigned in Oregon 50 years ago. Kennedy lost the primary but went on to win California on the night he was shot.

Barry and I got him back to the car, and I stood outside it. Barry then said, “Jump in. He wants to talk to you.” We drove to the outskirts of town, and then we pulled over. Bobby had half a sandwich and something to drink. He said to me, “Are you going back to Portland now?” I said yes.

“Can you do me a favor and go to my hotel room in the Benson and tell Mrs. Kennedy what a terrific stop this was? It’ll make her very happy. And by the way, are you going to California?”

I said yes. I grew up in Los Angeles. “Good,” he said. “I hope you’re with us the whole way.” I said I would have to ask my boss for more leave. He said, “That’s fine. I appreciate loyalty.” Then I got out of the car, and they took off.

I went back to Portland and did go see Ethel Kennedy. She was with Joan Kennedy, then Teddy’s wife. They were charming and kind, and wanted to hear all the details.

I don’t know if I slept at all that night, but early in the morning, Barbara called and said that the dateline for that day’s campaign story in The New York Times was St. Helens.

A few days later, I was told to set things up so that the St. Helens headquarters could run without me, except for one visit by me to get them ready for Election Day. I was to be working in Portland, where the turnout would be heaviest. I also wound up going out to a couple of campaign appearances with Bill Barry, helping him with the crowds. One night he and Bobby and I had to exit from the back of a school auditorium into a hallway, on the spur of the moment and without a plan. The crowd was too exuberant, and once we took off, some were intently and boisterously in pursuit.

On another night in Portland, I was walking past the room in my hotel where staffers would hang around, and I overheard them discussing a problem in Los Angeles involving Temple Isaiah. I said what’s up, that’s where I went as a kid and my dad had been president of the temple. They said Kennedy and the campaign wanted to speak there, but the membership was so divided over McCarthy and RFK that they didn’t want to host an event. I said I’d call my dad, if they wished. I did, and he said he’d talk to the rabbi. They agreed there was no good reason both Kennedy and McCarthy, separately, of course, shouldn’t make appearances. It worked out, and Temple Isaiah was full the night RFK spoke; the crowd waited a very long time as he came after a large, spirited campaign caravan in East Los Angeles.

On the night of the Oregon primary, we learned that Bobby lost. I was told it was the first election a Kennedy had lost. We went to bed because our flight to Los Angeles was early in the morning. Not too long after I fell asleep, the phone rang. “Steve, this is Bobby Kennedy. Tonight was hard. Four counties won and one was yours. Thank you. I have a memory like an elephant.”

In Los Angeles, I stayed at the Ambassador Hotel and worked with the legendary civil rights leader John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, whom I had met in Oregon. We campaigned together on the West Side of Los Angeles, he taking Bobby’s part on civil rights, I on opposition to the Vietnam War. On Memorial Day, John came to my home for brunch with my parents. It is as clear to me in memory as if it were yesterday. My father asked him to say grace. Later he gently whispered to John that if he were to take the corned beef off the lox, they’d taste better eaten separately. John talked about the South and a new impatience in young blacks whom he had seen in a church service that morning, a sign that the movement for civil rights might embrace new tactics and temperaments different from his. Later, my father said to me that the men who had jailed and beaten John Lewis had not seen the look in his eyes that spoke of unshakable faith and strength.


 

A week later, we stood in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel on the night of the California primary, a close victory in sight. I stood to the left of the podium about 20 feet away from where Bobby spoke. The crowd was thick. I have seen television replays of his speech so many times that I can’t remember afresh what he said. It was a victory speech. Oregon’s loss was behind us. He finished with the rallying cry, “Now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.”

I heard someone say Bobby might be going downstairs to a rally for Mexican Americans. I thought about trying to find my way down there. Did I hear the shots? I don’t remember now. They have sounded so many times in my mind from watching TV and looking at photographs. I remember standing near U.S. Representative Tom Rees of California. There was a commotion coming from somewhere, and suddenly the word was spread that Bobby had been shot. Although we did not know yet whether he was dead, Rees pounded the table in grief. I went up to my room and called my wife and then my parents. They were watching television and knew what had happened. I can’t recall my words or theirs. They felt my sorrow and shock, as I did theirs—for Kennedy, for his family, for me, for a country once again torn apart by a bullet. My flight home to New York was scheduled for early in the morning, but I watched television late into the night, like millions of Americans. Except that I was watching it in the Ambassador Hotel.

Only days after that New York Times story about our stop in St. Helens, a friend called at about five A.M. from WOR, a New York radio station, to speak to me on air about the shooting. I was living in a bad dream. Flying is always dislocating, but never more than on that flight home. A man into whose eyes I had looked, whose hand I had shaken, whose voice I had heard speak to me was near death. I had the same thoughts over and over again for hours—not of disbelief, because there was no escaping what had happened. The wrenching truth was that I lived in a country where the president of the United States and his brother, a senator seeking the White House, had both been shot within five years of each other. I remembered everything from Oregon and went over it again and again. That late-night phone call from him was the last time I had spoken to him. When I learned the next day that Bobby had died, I recalled Mayor Lindsay’s words from the night Dr. King had been killed. Once again, we were “frustrated, lonely, lost, let down.”

The funeral drew us to Washington. I remember walking with John Lewis through the muddy encampment of the Poor People’s March, which had begun in the city a few weeks before. Everything seemed to ask, Where would we find our footing?

A few days later, Mayor Lindsay invited me to coffee at his home in Gracie Mansion. He was very sympathetic and wanted to know how others of my generation, so many of whom he had hired, were feeling. Where were we all going? Indeed, where would we find our footing?

Not long afterward, the Republican National Convention got underway in Miami. Some people in the Budget Bureau had sent thoughts about various policy positions that Mayor Lindsay could use at the convention, yet we all knew full well that he did not have much drag there. We sensed that he increasingly had little stomach for where his party was going. Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s pick for vice president, asked Lindsay to second his nomination, and he had no choice but to do it. After the convention, Fred Hayes wrote him a lighthearted note about the speech, and Lindsay sent it back, having scrawled at the bottom, “Nixon and Agnew. God save the American people.”

The Democratic National Convention followed in Chicago in August. Before that, Barbara and I went to a cocktail party in New York, where Senator George McGovern spoke. Uneasiness with the prospect of Humphrey as the nominee had intensified. Vanden Heuvel was there, and he said, “Why don’t you come to the convention? We may get a fishing license for Teddy.”

I had made a decision earlier that year, because of my interest in government, that I wanted to go to law school. Barbara and I decided to visit her family in Chicago before law school started, so I could then go to the convention.

Once again, Mailer has an enduring claim. His reported pieces on the two conventions, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, have not lost their hold. Even though so many names are long gone, Mailer preserved the tone and pulse, the manner and mood of the two parties. Suburban, prosperous, smug Republicans set against the brittle, contentious Democrats, bitterly divided over the war. Television clips carry the emotional atmosphere of the protests—the police fury and the National Guard in the streets of Chicago and Mayor Daley’s defensive anger. Mailer showed a national chasm whose fault lines remain.

In a chance meeting after the close of the convention, I wound up walking with Mailer toward Lincoln Park, the site of the largest protest gathering. He said he wanted a drink, and we stopped in the hotel across the street from the park. The bar was jammed with reporters, television cameramen, and delegates. As soon as we sat down, the bartender announced that the police had shut down the serving of liquor. Mailer frowned. I asked what he drank. He either said bourbon or scotch; whichever, I got it wrong. He asked how I was going to get a drink. I went up to the bartender and showed him my honorary deputy fire chief badge. The bartender said that I must be one of the youngest chiefs in New York. I asked for two whatevers after telling him who Mailer was and promising I’d make it look as if we had the drinks before the ban.

Mailer drank both. We sat there for about half an hour, talking about that year, what each of us had done, and about New York. He got up and said it was time for him to go speak. Walk with me to the park, he said. I did and, after parting, went far back in the crowd to hear his speech. In Siege, you can find me as Mailer’s “new found friend from California.”


 

In 1992, I was working at the Los Angeles Times and went home to New York during the Democratic convention. I attended a reception that Mayor David Dinkins had at Gracie Mansion honoring the Kennedy family. I went with Barbara and our son, Christopher. When I saw Ethel Kennedy standing alone, I went up and introduced the three of us. I said to her that I had campaigned for Senator Kennedy in Oregon. She smiled and laughed, “I am so glad there’s somebody who will still admit to being there.” I said I understood, but my county had won. She laughed again and called over one of her daughters. “Come meet the Isenberg family,” she said. “Mr. Isenberg worked with Daddy in Oregon.”

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