Thanks to a significantly stupid gaffe by Hillary Clinton, the June 5, 1968, assassination of Robert F. Kennedy made the newscycle a little earlier than expected. I say “earlier than expected” because today the press will pause to remember the event’s 40th anniversary, as RFK was one of the most beloved politicians of his era. Naturally, news sources will try to find unique angles in their commemorations, mining some nugget from RFK’s life or even the life of his shooter — or perhaps another dumb Hillary remark.
But I doubt the media will acknowledge one perspective, especially given that it was long ago got sucked into a historical vacuum. At first glance might seem odd, but it is actually interesting, notable, and perhaps even moving. 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 next era: 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, the truth about the relationship is a wake-up call for both liberals and conservatives: Back when Reagan was a liberal Democrat, he campaigned for Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was running for the Senate and 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 to support Nixon (including 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, Reagan squared off against RFK in a major, nationally televised debate on the Vietnam War. The debate — I wrote a retrospective for NRO last year — was broadcast at 10 P.M. Eastern by CBS’s TV and radio networks. Fifteen million Americans tuned in, and the leading newsweeklies covered the event. (Someone should rerun the debate; it is captivating.)
Newsweek speculated that the debate might be a “dry run” for a future set of “Great Debates” between these two promising presidential aspirants, sensing that they 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 won the debate.
Really, though, this was not a debate between Ronald Reagan and Bobby Kennedy. Rather, it descended into a venomous America-bashing session by a panel of extremely rude, bratty international students who pilloried the two men. In truth, Reagan and RFK emerged as allies rather than opponents, even though Kennedy had not done well, and freely admitted so.
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 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.
That take on the RFK shooting may even manage to escape the commemorations carried by cable networks this weekend. But it never eluded Ronald Reagan.
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 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 had led, directly or indirectly, to the murders of two of America’s most cherished political figures — the Kennedy boys.
Some liberals might dismiss Reagan’s stark suspicions as paranoid, right-wing anti-Communism. They should consider this: Reagan’s accusations against Moscow were similar 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 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 yet another example of the grace that Ronald Reagan showed toward his political opponents — perhaps a lesson that conservatives should be mindful of as we assimilate the news concerning the mortality of the latest Kennedy.
It was 40 years ago that Ronald Reagan joined America in prayer and mourning over the death of RFK, as a torch silently passed from one beloved politician to another, from an icon of liberalism to an icon of conservatism. History would never be the same.
– Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand.