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JFK: 50 years later

Robert F. Kennedy saw conspiracy in JFK’s assassination

Robert Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy watched as President Kennedy’s coffin was placed in an ambulance at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Nov. 22, the day he was assassinated.

Associated Press File 1963

Robert Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy watched as President Kennedy’s coffin was placed in an ambulance at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Nov. 22, the day he was assassinated.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was sitting at his backyard patio table, clutching a tuna fish sandwich, when the call came through. Kennedy had spent the morning at a Justice Department conference on his intensifying war against organized crime. He had invited two of his employees from New York, US Attorney Robert Morgenthau and an aide, back to his sprawling home, Hickory Hill in McLean, Va., to continue the conversation over a private lunch.

A key focus of the morning meetings had been the Justice Department’s efforts to put Mafia kingpins behind bars. Now, by the pool on an unseasonably warm day in November 1963, Kennedy talked optimistically about efforts to neutralize one of those mob leaders, Carlos Marcello. At the very moment when Kennedy and his guests were digging into their sandwiches and clam chowder, Marcello was sitting in a packed courtroom in New Orleans, awaiting the verdict in his deportation trial.

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Kennedy had turned 38 just two days earlier, and his mop of brown hair, slim frame, and charging intensity had always combined to project an aura of youth. Still, the bags under his eyes betrayed the weight of responsibilities he had been shouldering for the previous three years, serving as not just the nation’s top law enforcement official but also the president’s most trusted adviser and fixer.

Kennedy glanced at his watch. It was 1:45 p.m. “We’d better hurry and get back to that meeting,” he told his guests.

Just then his wife, Ethel, called over to him, holding the patio phone extension. “It’s J. Edgar Hoover,” she said, a look of worry playing over her face. They both knew the FBI director never called Bobby at home.

Morgenthau, in a recent interview, recalled watching Kennedy drop his sandwich, race over to the phone, and then quickly cup his hand over his mouth as he heard the devastating news. “Jack’s been shot in Dallas,” Bobby said with a gasp. “It may be fatal.”

In the half-century since that awful day, much has been made of Bobby Kennedy’s impossible burden following the assassination of his brother. He needed to reassure a shaken nation, support his widowed sister-in-law and her two young children in addition to his own brood of kids, and maintain the cohesion and political relevance of the entire Kennedy clan — all while contending with his own soul-crushing sadness.

But a closer examination of Bobby’s actions leading up to and immediately following Nov. 22 offers a fresh vantage point on this still-unhealed gash on the American psyche. The view has become clearer thanks to the accumulation of documents released over the last two decades — some as recently as a few months ago — that had long been kept from public view. A review of those documents by the Globe, fortified by the work of historians and new interviews with former Kennedy aides, paints a picture of a brother responding to the assassination with equal parts crippling grief and growing suspicions.

No one had done more than he to create enemies for the Kennedy administration — the right kind of enemies, to the brothers’ way of thinking. In the mob, in corrupted labor, in Castro’s Cuba, in the rogue wing of the American intelligence system.

It had been a brave, sometimes reckless crusade. It all looked different now.

In the five years between his brother’s murder and his own assassination in 1968, Bobby Kennedy voiced public support for the findings of the Warren Commission, namely that a pathetic, attention-seeking gunman had alone been responsible for the murder of President Kennedy. Privately, though, Bobby was dismissive of the commission, seeing it, in the words of his former press secretary, as a public relations tool aimed at placating a rattled populace. When the chairman of the commission, Chief Justice Earl Warren, personally wrote to the attorney general, asking for any information to suggest that a “domestic or foreign conspiracy” was behind his brother’s assassination, Bobby scrawled a note to an aide, asking, “What do I do?” Then, after stalling for two months, he sent along a legalistic reply saying there was nothing in the Justice Department files to suggest a conspiracy. He made no mention of the hunches that appeared to be rattling around in his own mind.

There is no indication that Bobby ever found evidence to prove a wider conspiracy. But judging from his actions after hearing the news out of Dallas, it’s clear that he quickly focused his attention on three areas of suspicion: Cuba, the Mafia, and the CIA. Crucially, Bobby had become his brother’s point man in managing all three of those highly fraught portfolios. And by the time the president was gunned down, Bobby understood better than anyone how all three had become hopelessly interwoven, and how much all three bore his own imprint.

Morgenthau, the attorney general’s lunch companion that day who went on to became New York’s longest-serving district attorney, believes Bobby must have wrestled with haunting questions for the rest of his life. “Was there something I could have done to prevent it? Was there something I did to encourage it? Was I to blame?”

Harris Wofford, who was JFK’s civil rights adviser in the White House and knew RFK intimately, was the first of the Kennedy inner circle to raise the prospect publicly that RFK felt some responsibility for his brother’s assassination.

“I think he carried a lot of potential guilt,” Wofford, a former senator from Pennsylvania, said in an interview.

For while John Kennedy was the one gunned down, Bobby had reason to believe he may have been the ultimate target.

Walking the grounds of Hickory Hill just an hour after receiving confirmation of his brother’s death, Bobby confided in an aide something truly unsettling. That aide, Edwin Guthman, would later recount it in his book “We Band of Brothers.” “I thought they would get one of us,” Bobby said, adding, “I thought it would be me.”

***

In his second-floor library, Bobby tried to displace his grief with action, changing his clothes and then working the phones, according to previously published interviews with some of the people he interacted with in those initial hours. Reaching a Secret Service agent at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Bobby told him to make sure there was a priest at his brother’s side.

The actions the attorney general took in these first crucial hours underscored the various, critical roles he played as the nation’s top law enforcement official, as his brother’s chief protector, and as the Kennedy clan’s chief executive after his father suffered a debilitating stroke less than a year into JFK’s presidency.

Bobby called Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to arrange transport for him to Dallas, figuring he would head there. He took a call from John McCone, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and asked him, “Jack, can you come over?” He called family members, handing out assignments based on their individual strengths. His sister Jean, who was closest to the first lady, would fly to Washington to be with Jackie when she returned, while sister Eunice, who was closest to their mother, would fly to the family compound in Hyannis Port to be with Rose, according to William Manchester’s book “Death of a President.”

Meanwhile, he decided his younger brother Teddy would also fly to Hyannis Port, giving him the toughest task: breaking the news to their father. That, Joseph Kennedy’s personal nurse, Rita Dallas, said in an interview, would require some elaborate choreography. While awaiting Teddy’s arrival, the household staff had to pretend that the patriarch’s TV set was broken, a ruse to prevent him from learning the devastating news about his son from newsman Walter Cronkite.

Bobby called National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and, according to Manchester, instructed him to have the locks changed on his brother’s files, knowing that a new president, a man he did not trust, would soon be in charge. As for that new president in waiting, Bobby took a call from Lyndon Johnson as he sat aboard Air Force One, phoning to get from the attorney general the precise wording for the oath of office he would soon take. The conversation between RFK and LBJ, like their relationship itself, was strained, with their mutual disrespect barely concealed.

Even in his grief, Bobby had to recognize this: He may have been the second most powerful man in government, but the assassin’s bullet that killed the president had also gravely weakened his brother. It would usher into the Oval Office the man he had aggressively tried to keep off the ticket in 1960, and then had belittled and ostracized for the three years that followed. There would be payback.

When McCone arrived from CIA headquarters, Bobby paced the lawn of his estate with him. As Bobby later told historian and aide Arthur Schlesinger, he asked McCone point blank if the CIA “had killed my brother, and I asked him in a way that he couldn’t lie to me, and they hadn’t.” McCone was a devout Catholic, leading many to believe that their shared faith was behind Bobby’s confidence in the CIA director’s candor. McCone, according to Schlesinger’s biography, “Robert Kennedy and His Times,” would come to believe that there had been two shooters in Dallas, though he didn’t think the American intelligence agency was in any way involved.

But McCone almost certainly didn’t know the whole truth. In the wake of the Bay of Pigs, the botched attempted invasion of Cuba orchestrated by the CIA, JFK had forced out the agency’s founding director, Allen Dulles, and replaced him with McCone, an outsider. At the same time, the president put his brother in charge of trying to ride herd on the powerful and unwieldy intelligence agency while also overseeing the administration’s interdepartmental Cuba team. The attorney general often began his days with meetings at CIA headquarters in Langley.

Bobby, said David Talbot, an investigative journalist and author of the book “Brothers,” thus became “JFK’s principal emissary to the dark side of American power.” That meant he knew, by this point, more about the underbelly of the CIA, especially in relation to Cuba, than did its own director. As a result, Talbot said in an interview, “Bobby Kennedy was America’s first assassination conspiracy theorist.”

Other calls the attorney general made that same afternoon reveal where those theories seemed to be taking him.

***

Bobby picked up the phone and dialed a Chicago lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board by the name of Julius Draznin. Bobby knew Draznin had impeccable mob sources, so he asked him to do some digging to determine if there had been any Mafia involvement in the assassination. “I called him back in a couple of days,” Draznin later told Evan Thomas, author of “Robert Kennedy: His Life.” “There was nothing.”

It was no coincidence that Bobby would turn to a labor lawyer for intel on organized crime. As the crusading chief counsel of the Senate Rackets Committee in the 1950s, Bobby had made a national name for himself by grilling leading gangsters as he exposed the nefarious connections between the mob and American labor unions.

His chief nemesis during these hearings was Jimmy Hoffa, the squat, bull-faced leader of the Teamsters union. Bobby accused Hoffa of funneling millions in worker pension funds into a money-laundering scheme with mob leaders. That alliance bought the Teamster leader muscle to silence his enemies and scare corporate leaders into submission.

Bobby had been unrelenting in his war against these mob and labor leaders, ignoring the admonition of his father to choose less violence-prone targets and dismissing the underworld threats against his own life. Instead, Bobby had doubled down, even persuading his brother Jack, then a senator, to join the cause. About the only security measure Bobby had accepted, following an anonymous threat that acid might be thrown at the faces of his young children, was to have the kids wait in the principal’s office at the end of each school day, rather than outside, for Ethel to pick them up.

After Jack became president and he attorney general, Bobby wasted little time in leveraging the full force of the Justice Department to try to crush these corrupt characters. Now, as he strode around Hickory Hill, reeling from the news of the assassination, Bobby couldn’t help but wonder if one of them had been behind it.

An immediate focus, according to several of his aides with direct knowledge, was Hoffa. Bobby knew that a year earlier, according to a Teamster middle-manager turned FBI informant, Hoffa had complained, “I’ve got to do something about that son of a bitch Bobby Kennedy. He’s got to go.” Hoffa had also allegedly asked that informant if he knew anything about “plastic explosives” and suggested opportunities for getting Kennedy, when he was swimming alone in his pool at home or driving alone in his convertible, according to historian David Kaiser’s book, “The Road to Dallas.”

Bobby knew he had given Hoffa and his heavyweight mob pals plenty of new reasons to want to cut him down. At the same time the shots were being fired in Dallas, Bobby’s Justice Department was preparing for the jury-tampering trial of Hoffa in Nashville, which had sprung from its unremitting probe of the Teamster leader. From the federal courthouse there, Walter Sheridan, who had been Bobby’s aide-de-camp in the mob war ever since the Rackets Committee, told his boss in another phone call RFK made that afternoon that he hadn’t been able to find any evidence linking Hoffa to the assassination.

But, according to an oral history that Sheridan would eventually give to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Sheridan later informed Bobby that Hoffa had been at a restaurant when he learned JFK had been shot. The reaction of the pugnacious labor leader was unlike that of most other Americans. “He got up on the table,” Sheridan said, “and cheered.”

Meanwhile, another Mafia leader and Hoffa associate, Carlos Marcello, sat in that New Orleans courtroom, awaiting his verdict. The second deportation trial for Marcello, who ran the mob in New Orleans and Dallas, was the culmination of a relentless three-year campaign by Bobby’s team to get him out of the country.

While not on trial at the time, another mob leader close to Hoffa was also chafing under the intense scrutiny of the Justice Department. Santo Trafficante Jr. was the Florida mob boss and former big-time Havana casino owner who lost millions when Castro took over Cuba. (Trafficante had been imprisoned in Cuba in 1959. His visitors during that stretch, according to Kaiser, included Dallas nightclub owner and mob foot soldier Jack Ruby, who gunned down Oswald in the basement of Dallas police headquarters two days after JFK’s murder.)

In addition to lots of underworld associations, Trafficante and Hoffa even shared a lawyer, Frank Ragano. In his book “Mob Lawyer,” Ragano detailed how Hoffa had instructed him in the summer of 1963 to tell Trafficante and Marcello that the time had come to kill the president. He thought Hoffa was just venting, and delivered the message jokingly, but said the two mobsters seemed to take it much more seriously.

Marcello ended up being acquitted in New Orleans the same day that the president was killed. While serving time later in life, he was caught on a federal wiretap confessing to an FBI informant that he’d had JFK killed, according to FBI files released under the JFK Records Act of 1992.Trafficante is also alleged to have made a deathbed confession of his involvement to his lawyer, expressing regret that maybe the gun should have been pointed at Bobby.

Another member of this rogue’s gallery of suspects was Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. This is the same Giancana who, it would later be revealed, had shared a mistress with JFK. The Chicago boss had been put under such smothering government surveillance during 1963 that Kaiser, the “Road to Dallas” author, argues it had crossed over into harassment. In a recent interview, Kaiser said he believes Marcello, Trafficante, and probably Giancana — likely at the behest of Hoffa — were all involved in putting in motion the hit on JFK.

As for Giancana, he was expected to testify in 1975 before a Senate subcommittee co-chaired by Gary Hart of Colorado. Established to investigate the JFK assassination, the subcommittee was the first official body to openly question the lone-gunman narrative of the Warren Commission. But before Giancana could appear, his bullet-riddled body was found in his basement in suburban Chicago. The dismembered body of another mob witness, Boston-born Johnny Rosselli, was found in a drum floating off Florida, after he had testified in front of Hart’s panel.

Hart said in a recent interview that he remains flabbergasted by US law enforcement’s lack of interest in solving those two grisly murders. “You had a new set of suspects — those who had motives to be angry at John and Robert Kennedy. When you think about that for 10 seconds, the implications are pretty huge,” Hart said, adding, “If you can find out who killed Rosselli and Giancana, you may have an answer to the mystery of the century.”

Even in the absence of that answer, it is clear Bobby knew just how desperate these underworld characters were to stop his war against them. And beyond that, they had a more-than-passing interest in Bobby’s oversight of the administration’s Cuba portfolio.

***

‘One of your guys did it,” Bobby said matter-of-factly, calling from Hickory Hill later on Nov. 22.

He was speaking to Enrique “Harry” Williams, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs operation and the Cuban exile whom Bobby trusted most. Journalist Haynes Johnson happened to be with Williams in Washington’s Ebbitt Hotel at the time, and he later wrote about how stunned he was when Williams hung up the phone and relayed the attorney general’s comments.

In the time that Bobby had been overseeing his brother’s so-called Special Group team on Cuba, he had come to appreciate just how ungovernable the Cuban exile community could be. It hadn’t taken long on Nov. 22 for speculation to focus on the possible involvement of Fidel Castro, given the Kennedy administration’s repeated attempts to oust or assassinate the Communist leader. That speculation only intensified after the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, whose record of pro-Castro agitation quickly came to light. Yet it’s intriguing that Bobby’s suspicion of possible Cuban involvement seemed to focus squarely on the anti-Castro crowd.

While he trusted Williams and wasn’t accusing him personally, Bobby knew how furious many members of the exile community had become with the Kennedys, based on the administration’s failure to go all out in the effort to topple Castro. The Kennedy brothers had refused to launch a full-scale military invasion of the island nation, and by 1963 had even begun authorizing some back-channel efforts toward compromise with both Castro and his Soviet benefactors. This, Bobby knew, would be viewed as intolerable by the most hard-line Cuban exiles.

Just one day before his brother’s murder, Bobby had received a classified CIA report assessing the exile community’s reaction to a recent speech on Cuba policy that JFK had delivered in Miami. “The conservative and moderate elements were disappointed, having hoped for a more militant stand against the Castro revolution and regime,” stated the Nov. 21 report. Written by Richard Helms, the wily CIA deputy director who many believed was really running the agency, the report was contained in the confidential RFK Justice Department files released earlier this year.

As Bobby’s post-assassination suspicions appeared to bounce from Cuba to the Mafia to the CIA, he surely had to confront the reality that the lines separating all three had become increasingly blurry. In those same newly released RFK files was a personal note that Helms had written to Bobby, flagging an article that had appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1962. Headlined “CIA Sought Giancana Help for Cuba Spying,” the article described a “fantastic tale of attempted Cuba espionage” involving the Chicago mob boss and covert operatives for the government.

This, of course, was the same Giancana whom Bobby had been doggedly trying to put away for years. The idea that the CIA would have turned to the mobster for a little help with Cuba would have seemed too outlandish for many Americans to believe. By now, however, Bobby knew the article had barely scratched the surface. The truth was a lot worse.

In the spring of 1962, two CIA officials had showed up at the attorney general’s office to inform him that the Justice Department needed to drop its prosecution of a Giancana associate. When Bobby asked why the CIA was so intent on keeping Giancana happy, according to the 2007 Talbot book “Brothers,” one of the intelligence officers told him that “the CIA had enlisted the gangster in a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro.”

There was actually a long secret alliance between the country’s covert intelligence agency and the underworld. In fact, it was older than the CIA itself. During World War II, as Talbot points out, the OSS — forerunner to the CIA — forged a deal enlisting several mob bosses “to help guard against enemy sabotage in the New York Harbor and to supply intelligence from their contacts in Italy.” Federal officials returned the favor by looking the other way as the mobsters consolidated their power in post-war America, pretending that organized crime did not exist on these shores.

So even if Bobby Kennedy had been appalled in 1962 to learn that the CIA had tapped a reviled mobster to call in a hit on Castro, the idea of an alliance between these supposed white hats and black hats could hardly have been a surprise to him.

The recently released RFK files contain numerous examples of just how determined the attorney general was, for much of his brother’s presidency, to overthrow Castro. Still, Bobby was confident that he had put a stop to what he considered an insane initiative by the CIA to subcontract out the job to American gangsters. It wasn’t until much later that evidence came to light showing that those efforts had continued, but with different mobsters, and out of view of the attorney general.

Other recently released files also confirm that Marcello, Trafficante, Giancana, and Rosselli were all involved, at varying levels, in the CIA-Mafia plots to get Castro.

The Kennedy administration was still actively seeking solutions to its Castro problem in 1963. But its triumph at the end of the perilous Cuban Missile Crisis the previous fall, and the mounting evidence of just how difficult it would be to oust Castro, combined to increase the Kennedy brothers’ interest in finding more peaceful solutions.

It’s noteworthy that the hard-line Cuban exiles, the hard-liners in the CIA and the military, and the mobsters looking for a return to the go-go days of pre-Castro Havana all stood to lose from a path toward de-escalation with Cuba — as well as with Castro’s patrons in Moscow.

Bobby Kennedy had once been such a rabid anti-Communist that he’d worked for Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. Yet just one week after his brother’s assassination, he sent Kennedy loyalist William Walton on a secret mission to Moscow to deliver a stunning message to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Bobby, the loyalist reported, believed that Oswald had not acted alone, according to long-concealed Soviet documents detailed in the book “One Hell of a Gamble” by historians Timothy Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko. And, he reported, the attorney general believed that domestic hard-liners, rather than foreign agents, were responsible.

Even if the president and attorney general had wanted to change course on Cuba, by 1963 it may have been too late to rein in all the plots and subplots already swirling in the shadows. On the same day that JFK was assassinated, an American official, saying he was acting on the attorney general’s behalf, was delivering a poison pen to a Castro aide and CIA collaborator, as part of an apparent Castro assassination plot. A subsequent report by the CIA inspector general concluded that Helms, the agency’s deputy director, believed he was not required to seek approval for the mission because he had overarching approval from Bobby to do what it took to remove Castro.

The newly released RFK papers contain an interesting postscript to all the cloak-and-dagger activity around Cuba. A secret CIA report entitled “Staying power of the Castro regime” concluded that the chances of a successful overthrow were “slim.” However, that report was written in the summer of 1964. In the months leading up to Dallas, acceptance of this idea had been far less widespread, especially among the people who most loathed Robert Kennedy, and, with him, his brother Jack.

***

Still, if the killing of the president was, as some suspect, a conspiracy to neutralize his brother, why wouldn’t the conspirators have simply gone after Bobby? Wouldn’t that have been a lot easier, especially since the president had the Secret Service protecting him and the attorney general traveled unprotected, even famously leaving the front door of Hickory Hill unlocked?

It is all a matter of speculation, but there could have been a very practical explanation for a more circuitous path. If Bobby had been assassinated, historians point out, his brother could have been expected to marshal every ounce of his prodigious federal power to exact revenge on the murderers and their benefactors. And because the victim would not just be the country’s crusading attorney general but also the president’s brother, the public would have surely given Jack Kennedy a blank check of support for a crackdown on whatever dark forces he determined were responsible.

David Kaiser revealed in “The Road To Dallas” that prior to the assassination Marcello had been overheard fingering RFK as the main obstacle to his mob business that needed to be removed. After moaning about Bobby’s persecution of him, Marcello uttered the Sicilian curse “Take this stone from my shoe,” and then concluded that they’d need to kill Jack to get to Bobby. If they went after Bobby directly, he allegedly said, they could expect the president to unleash the Marines on them.

Government documents released in the 1990s also indicate that decades later Marcello confessed to being part of JFK’s murder to a prison cellmate, who was also an FBI informant working on an undercover operation.

Few people have as intimate knowledge of the contours of the assassination files as Rex Bradford. From his perch in Ipswich, Mass., Bradford is curator of a vast digitized archive of nearly 1 million documents, maintained by the nonprofit Mary Ferrell Foundation. Although he takes no public position on who killed Kennedy, Bradford says many of the newly released documents strengthen the hypothesis that “hard-line intelligence people, hard-liners on Cuba” were somehow involved in the assassination, with “mob people tied into that same milieu.”

But for him and many other serious people who have carefully studied the possibility of an assassination plot, connecting theories of tough characters with the motive to kill Kennedy to the reality of Lee Harvey Oswald in the window of the Texas School Book Depository has been elusive. Oswald, a failure at just about everything he tried and hardly an expert marksman, is no one’s idea of the kind of man one would pick for the vanguard of such a plot.

If certain Cuban exiles and Cold War hard-liners had dreamed of a domino effect in which Castro was blamed for JFK’s murder, precipitating an American invasion of Cuba, that never happened, of course. Nonetheless, all the back-channel efforts at peace quickly withered. New President Lyndon Johnson, insecure in his command of foreign affairs and lacking the credibility Kennedy had won by successfully staring down Khrushchev, was not about to risk being seen as weak against Communists in Havana or Moscow — especially with an election less than a year away.

As for the mobsters, they could finally exhale. One week after Dallas, according to Kaiser, gangster Sam Giancana was caught on tape in a Chicago lounge saying, “This is going to take the heat off us.” The FBI’s focus, he said, would be on Castro-sympathizing leftists for some time.

Jimmy Hoffa is said to have crowed to reporters in Nashville, “Bobby Kennedy is just another lawyer now.”

Meanwhile, Bobby was complaining to aides about his clipped wings. “Nobody wants to talk to me anymore,” he told Walter Sheridan, who pointed out in his oral history that Bobby “had gone from the second most powerful person in the country to a lame-duck attorney general.”

Bobby stayed on as attorney general for a little while longer, but it was clear to everyone that neither his head nor his heart was in the job. Tellingly, when Hoffa was finally convicted in March 1964, aides were astonished to see Bobby react with something close to indifference.

Morgenthau, the former US attorney, says most of Bobby’s zeal for going after the mob, which had been unmistakable during their Nov. 22 lunch of tuna fish sandwiches, seemed to have dissipated after Dallas.

For so long a man of action, Bobby morphed into a man of reflection. The first lady’s gift to him of a book of Greek poetry set him on a path of seeking solace in the stanzas of the ancient Greeks. Several times, he and Jackie made furtive, late-night visits to Arlington National Cemetery, to sit quietly at the president’s grave. Ethel would later say in a family documentary that for Bobby during this period, it was as though he “had lost both his arms.”

We may never know who or what forces were responsible for the murder of John F. Kennedy. But if the goal had been to neutralize Robert F. Kennedy, those shots in Dallas could scarcely have been more effective.

***

On March 25, 1968, with a searing southern California sun beating down on him, Bobby had just finished his prepared speech to a crowd of 12,000 when something remarkable happened. Just one week into his hastily arranged bid for the presidency in 1968, Kennedy, a first-term senator from New York, had delivered a fairly plodding talk that featured none of the soaring rhetoric so identified with his late brother’s presidency.

But now he said he would take questions from the sea of San Fernando Valley State College students who covered every inch of the campus quad in Northridge, Calif. Instantly, the questions began to fly, shouted out from various corners of the crowd.

“Will you open the archives?” a man yelled, prompting several others to chime in with, “Open the archives!”

“Who killed John Kennedy,” a woman screamed. “We want to know!”

Bobby, whose arrival that morning had been warmly cheered and had attracted the biggest crowd for any speaker in the history of the sleepy college, was clearly annoyed. To the female questioner, he cracked, “Your manners overwhelm me.” But a recording of the speech shows that after he sighed in exasperation, he appeared to grow reflective. “I haven’t answered this question before,” he said. “But there would be nobody that would be more interested in all of these matters as to who was responsible for the, ah, the death of President Kennedy than I would.”

To the specific question about whether he would open the Warren Commission archives, Bobby said that, if it were in his power, yes, he would, “at the appropriate time.”

Frank Mankiewicz, who as Bobby’s press secretary was forever at his side, was stunned.

He said in a recent interview that the exchange has forever stuck with him because it seemed to be a moment of public candor about a topic Bobby seldom wanted to discuss.

Mankiewicz took it to mean that his boss would open up the investigation files if he was elected president. But the exchange also stuck with Mankiewicz because Bobby’s comments reflected his internal struggle over his brother’s murder. On that hot day in California, Bobby also told the crowd this: “I have seen all of the matters in the archives. If I became president of the United States, I would not reopen the Warren Commission Report. I stand by the Warren Commission Report.”

Mankiewicz knew that wasn’t true, based on the dismissive comments about the report that Bobby had privately made to him. The press secretary figured that Bobby had determined he could get to the bottom of his brother’s murder only after he had regained the full reins of federal power.

Less than three months later, Mankiewicz stood outside a Los Angeles hospital, breaking the news to the media that Bobby was dead, another Kennedy victim of another senseless, history-shifting assassination.

As he tried to get the words out, Mankiewicz wiped tears from his eyes. He was mourning the loss of his friend and mentor — and of the opportunity to finally get at the truth.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Neil Swidey can be reached at swidey@globe.com.
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