The Mourning Paper: Delivering News of RFK's Death

Fifty years ago today, the body of Robert Francis Kennedy was borne by train from New York, following his funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to its final resting place on a gentle green hill in Arlington National Cemetery.

At the mass inside St. Patrick’s, Edward M. Kennedy, the last survivor of four brothers, gave his famous and heart-wrenching eulogy to RFK. Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in the Adagietto from Mahler‘s Symphony No. 5 and Andy Williams  the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Strong men and women wept.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans lined the tracks along the train route. Mike Barnicle, a journalist now but a young Kennedy campaign volunteer then, recalled this week what he saw as he looked out the train window at the grief-stricken Americans who formed that 225-mile gauntlet.

“They were white and black and brown,” . “They saluted, prayed, stood still and silent, wept, saluted, held a hand over their heart or just followed the slowly moving cars of the train with eyes that seemed just a bit apprehensive or even a bit frightened by what had happened and what might be happening to the land around them.”

I have my own recollection of those unhappy events in 1968, which begin with the California presidential primary, held on June 4 that year. Shortly after being declared the winner, Bobby Kennedy was cut down. It was less than an hour after midnight, which made it officially June 5. He died the following day, June 6, 1968, just before 2 a.m. My job at the time was to tell people about it.

I was a “paperboy,” in the parlance of the day, 14 years old — the same age as Homer Macauley. He was the sensitive, if fictitious, World War II-era Western Union messenger of William Saroyan’s classic novel, “The Human Comedy.” Saroyan, one of California’s greatest writers, was taught in school at the time, and I knew that book well. Even before Kennedy’s death I had wondered how Homer Macauley and his real-life counterparts had managed to climb on their bicycles and deliver death notices to Gold Star mothers without crying.

I was about to find out.

A student at Sacramento’s Joaquin Miller Junior High School, I delivered the San Francisco Chronicle, which was the preferred morning newspaper of many politically aware Northern Californians. My route was big: 90 papers delivered seven days a week on a bicycle stripped down for speed and lightness. My daily trip was about five miles.

There was a lot of news that year, much of it deeply unsettling. Running in the primaries against an incumbent president in his own party, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy had given Lyndon B. Johnson a scare in the March 12 New Hampshire primary, and LBJ subsequently announced he would not seek re-election. In between those two developments, Robert F. Kennedy entered the race. Six weeks after that, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, a blow that seemed to break Gene McCarthy’s stride, if not his spirit. I know it sapped mine.

By the time of California’s primary, the Democratic presidential contest had come down to a tense race between Bobby Kennedy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. I had first been a Humphrey kid, out of loyalty to LBJ; after meeting McCarthy at Sacramento Municipal Airport, however, I was all-in for Gene. Fourteen-year-olds can be fickle, however, and after RFK ushered in June with a stirring campaign swing through Sacramento and the Central Valley, I switched affections again, to “Bobby,” as everyone called him.

It was destined to be a short-lived love affair.

Like most Californians who had to get up early for school or work, I watched the election returns the night of June 4, and then went to bed, as a paperboy will do when his alarm is set every day to 5:45 a.m. The next morning, I didn’t sleep that late.

At 4:30, before the sun was up, my mother came into my room and told me gently, but firmly, to get out of bed and deliver the papers. I said they didn’t have to be delivered this early, and she replied that on this day, they did.

Bobby Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles, she told me. As I absorbed that shock, she delivered another: Because it had happened so late, the Chronicle’s out-of-town editions didn’t contain the news that people needed to know: namely, that four-and-a-half years after his brother had been assassinated in Dallas, RFK had been shot too, and was probably going to die. I might have to relay these facts to the people on my route.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked. The answer was that my father, a newspaperman, was still at work.

“He stayed there all night,” my mother told me. “But he called with the latest bulletin. He told me to write this down for you.”

Fighting back tears, my mother handed her oldest son a three-by-five card with the grim news from L.A. I was to read the latest news about RFK to my customers as I delivered their paper.

“No one will be awake at this hour.” I protested.

“Yes, they will,” she replied. “And they’ll want to know what happened.”

She was right. At every other house, it seemed, in those pre-cellphone, pre-email, pre-cable television, and pre-Internet days, a light was on. Through the windows I could see people at their kitchen tables, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, some listening to the radio, others with their face in their hands. At many houses, a resident — usually the woman of the house — came outside to meet their newsboy, who dutifully recited the information on his little card. Sometimes the women would start crying. Several of them hugged me in their grief.

My paper route usually took an hour. That morning, it took three. It’s too melodramatic to say that the kid who delivered those papers began his rounds as a boy and finished them as a man, but I will say that when I was done delivering those papers, I had acquired a searing appreciation for the power of the news.

And the news that week was unbearably sad. It was that Bobby would now be “” with Abraham, Martin, and John. At the , RFK’s younger brother, fighting back tears, spoke for his family and so many millions of other Americans as well.

“My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life,” Teddy said. “To be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

“Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world,” he continued. “As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

‘Some men see things as they are and say why. 
I dream things that never were and say why not.’” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter .