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Only the Good Die Young—Attending Bobby Kennedy’s Funeral

Nineteen sixty-eight was one of the most chaotic years in American history. As the unpopular Vietnam War raged on, protests demanding peace and an immediate withdrawal of American forces erupted from coast to coast. At the forefront of these protests stood college students, many of whom distinguished themselves from the older generations by embracing a new “counterculture” based on peace, love, and harmony.

Flag of U.S.A. Standing Near Tomb (July 2, 2018) Sharefaith | pexels
Flag of U.S.A. Standing Near Tomb (July 2, 2018) Sharefaith | pexels

Civil rights demonstrations intensified after the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of that same year under the leadership of groups such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). These events all played out in the midst of a presidential election which left the country more divided than ever.

After the assasination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Robert (Bobby) Kennedy hoped to carry on his brother’s legacy. After initially resisting widespread calls for him to run as a candidate in the 1968 election, Bobby finally announced his candidacy from the Caucus Room of the Old Senate Office building, the same place his late brother made the announcement eight years prior. Bobby Kennedy made alleviating poverty a central focus of his campaign, but his platform also included opposition to the Vietnam War, emphasis on law and order, and devotion to the civil rights cause.

However, it wasn’t meant to be. Senator Kennedy was fatally shot on June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles following his victory in the California presidential primary. This great success would have positioned him well to win the Democratic nomination and go on to battle President Richard Nixon in the general election. The Democratic nominee ended up being President Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who ultimately lost to Nixon. In the aftermath of Kennedy’s assasination, the Democratic Party and the nation became even more divided.

Ambassador Brandon H. Grove Jr. first met Robert Kennedy in the spring of 1961. Grove accompanied Kennedy and his family on his first official overseas trip as Attorney General to Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire, where Grove served as Vice Consul. Grove and his wife became friends with the Kennedy family, who often invited the couple to their home in McLean, Virginia. Later in his career, Grove served as the Ambassador to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and as director of the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Grove was serving at the U.S. Mission in West Berlin when Kennedy was assassinated. In this “moment” on U.S. diplomatic history, Grove describes the atmosphere surrounding Bobby Kennedy’s funeral.

Brandon H. Grove Jr.’s interview was conducted by Thomas Stern on November 14, 1994.

Read Grove’s full oral history HERE.

Read about JFK’s assasination HERE.

Read about Grove and the founding of the Foreign Service Institute HERE.

Drafted by Sophie May

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Excerpts:

“Why do you Americans always kill the best in you?”

           
Train on Railroad Tracks Against Sky (August 5, 2016) Pixaby | pexels
Train on Railroad Tracks Against Sky (August 5, 2016) Pixaby | pexels

Mean Streak: I was in Berlin when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968 at the age of 42. It was almost impossible to explain why this had happened. Berliners blamed a deep streak of violence in American society. People felt there was something wild and ungovernable in the American psyche, a bad strain in our national character. West Berliners, when Robert Kennedy was killed, placed lighted candles in their windows, which they did only on deeply felt occasions such as November 22, 1963 when his brother, our president, was gunned down.

“Now, there was nothing to say.”

Funeral Formalities: I returned to the U.S. for the funeral at the invitation of the Kennedy family, and was asked to be an honorary pallbearer at the ceremonies in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. When the pallbearers were lined up alphabetically so we could enter the church as a group, I found myself standing next to Rosie Grier, the football star with whom I had dinner at Hickory Hill the last time I saw Bob and Ethel and we talked about Bob’s tough political choices. Now, there was nothing to say. Afterwards, I joined the family and cortege on the train back to Washington, and at the burial in Arlington Cemetery where Mrs. Kennedy insisted there be no rifle salute.

“I felt myself to be somewhere beyond reason and reality.”

           
Robert F. Kennedy, Cabinet Room, White House, Washington, DC (January 28, 1964) Yoichi R. Okamoto | Wikimedia Commons
Robert F. Kennedy, Cabinet Room, White House, Washington, DC (January 28, 1964) Yoichi R. Okamoto | Wikimedia Commons

Paying Respect: The weather was hot on June 8. Standing by the casket in the cathedral when my turn came, I felt myself to be somewhere beyond reason and reality. The train ride to Washington remains my most vivid memory of that day. When we came out of the tunnel into New Jersey and moved slowly down the tracks toward Washington, a routine trip made so often in other circumstances, we were astonished to see people standing all along the roadbed: men from veteran’s posts wearing their overseas caps and saluting; families with children lifted up; people holding flags or waving slowly as we went by. I saw the body of a man near the Elizabeth platform who had just been sliced in half by an oncoming train. The platform was so jammed that in a surge he had fallen off. All traffic in the opposite direction was stopped and our train proceeded on a clear track to Washington.

The further south we went the more Afro-Americans were in the crowds, and the crowds grew larger. In Baltimore, as we crawled through the station, people sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was hard to keep emotions in check. The train became a capsule in which we were the spectators, looking out at these enormous numbers of people, hour after hour, who had come to watch us pass and pay their respects. I sat first with Kennedy’s secretary, Angella Novello, and then with Claiborne Pell. We were hot and worn out and didn’t speak much, surrendering ourselves to the incredible scene along the tracks. My mind often flashes back to that day when I ride the train, especially heading south from New York to Washington.

           
The family of Robert Kennedy stands outside of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, the day of his funeral. (June 8, 1968) Steve Northup  |  stripes
The family of Robert Kennedy stands outside of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, the day of his funeral. (June 8, 1968) Steve Northup | stripes

Deep Down Inside: There was a place, somewhere in Robert Kennedy’s inmost self, to which he withdrew when he thought or listened intently. From this quiet and very personal place came his deepest feelings and convictions; it was the source of strength required for daring, even noble, commitment and action. He was a man who quoted Aeschylus from memory. At his core was his Catholic belief and room for pain, self-doubt, resolve and ultimately, a tragic sense of life. When he was there, people noticed that his hooded eyes lost focus and stared ahead, while his voice became soft. During such moments, one could almost see him coming to a decision and, sensing his vulnerability in this intensely private process, kept silent. His acquiescence in responsibilities thrust upon him that he passionately believed he must meet drove him to the edges of endurance, as few others are driven by an awareness of public purpose in their lives.

“Part of our world ended and never reassembled itself the same way.”

The End of an Era: To people of my generation, in particular, who believed with the Kennedys that government could do good, the shock was devastating. Part of our world ended and never reassembled itself the same way. I had thought when Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek the presidency because of the course of the war in Vietnam, Bob Kennedy had a good chance to succeed him. I now wonder whether he would have found enough support in our southern states.

On my way from Berlin to New York for the funeral, I stopped in London, where I stayed with my father in Knightsbridge and walked through Hyde Park to our embassy in the warm evening air. I stood in line in Grosvenor Square to sign the condolences book. When it came my turn, I read what the young woman in front of me had written. She asked: “Why do you Americans always kill the best in you?”

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA Bard College 1947–1950
MA in Public Affairs, Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School 1950–1952
Joined the Foreign Service 1959
New Delhi, India—Special Assistant to Bowles 1963–1965
Washington D.C.—Director of the Office of Panamanian Affairs 1969–1971
Jerusalem, Israel—Consul General 1980–1983
Zaire—Ambassador 1984–1987
Arlington, Virginia—Director of the Foreign Service Institute 1988–1992