IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

An on-scene newsman recalls RFK's shooting

In June 1968, NBC News’ Sander Vanocur was covering the  California primary — and interviewed Robert Kennedy just hours before he was shot. In this Q&A, he discusses the  what it was like to cover the historic event and the impact of the assassination on the 1968 election and beyond.
/ Source:

Sen.  Robert Kennedy was assassinated just after midnight on June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

NBC News’ Sander Vanocur, one of the country’s most prominent political reporters during the 1960s, was covering the California primary and interviewed Kennedy on the evening of June 4, when the results of the primary were still unclear and just hours before the senator was shot and mortally wounded.

NBC News’ coverage of the primary had just ended when the shots rang out. Vanocur immediately returned to the scene to report for NBC and interviewed many of eyewitnesses of the attack.

Vanocur discussed what it was like to cover the historic event with

How did you learn that Kennedy had been shot? What did you do?
I was watching the victory speech on a TV upstairs, because I thought I’d get a better view of it than trying to fight the crowd (in the ballroom). I was standing in the Kennedy campaign suite up therewith Milton Berle. Suddenly we saw something was wrong and I dashed downstairs.

I got into the ballroom and saw it was chaos. You couldn’t get near the senator then because they were taking him out and it was sheer chaos. We really knew nothing but the fact that he had been shot. But his condition? No, we didn’t know.

I then got on NBC and just stayed at the microphone in front of the camera until early in the morning — we went right into the TODAY show.

But I didn’t know his condition until I think Frank Mankiewicz, his press secretary, came out in front of the hospital the next day.

Like an old reporter covering police beats — the hardest thing to get a handle on is a scene like that. There are people who say they are “eyewitnesses,” but nobody really has the straight answer because it is such chaos.

All the reporting was live back and forth to New York. They asked questions, and if I knew the answer, I’d give them an answer, and if I didn’t, I’d say, "I don’t know." And I think we had other people on from the ballroom talking about it, but I can remember who it was.

After Kennedy died, you rode back to New York on the plane with the Kennedy entourage. What was that like? 
It was a lot of talking back and forth. In situations like that where you are trying to avoid grief, there was some banter back and forth. The coffin was up in the front of the plane.  So there was that banter of everyone trying to avoid talking about what had happened.

Ethel was on the plane and she was trying to bolster the spirits of people on the plane. That was her nature, to try to look after others. She’s very good at that.

highlighted your calm demeanor in the midst of the crisis, writing, “NBC anchorman Frank McGee shared with Sander Vanocur the credit for the coolest and ablest reporting on any channel.” What aspect of your reporting do you think lead to that assessment?
Well it is very flattering to be associated with the late Frank McGee, for whom I had the highest regard. And I think the tone was set by Frank and the tone was right.

But you see, at the conventions in the sixties — ’60, ’64, and later at ’68 — Frank, me, John Chancellor and Ed Newman were called the “four horsemen” because we covered the floor of the conventions — so I had a lot of experience talking with Frank. Especially after the conventions were over, we’d sit down each night and Huntley and Brinkley (Chet Huntley and David Brinkley the anchor team for NBC’s evening news program “The Huntley-Brinkley Report”) would ask us questions. So Frank and I had a good rapport with one another.

What was gracious about David and Chet — they really let us finish sentences and were quite generous with their time. We could reflect on what had happened that evening, in a way we couldn’t do it during the proceedings themselves.  We tried to put it in context, that’s what we tried to do. That’s why doing it with Frank worked — he facilitated everything, as did the people behind the scenes.

You had interviewed Robert Kennedy earlier in the evening on June 4, shortly before he was shot and killed. In retrospect was there another question you wish you had asked?  
Roger Mudd’s interview for CBS was better — and there was humor in it. And I just wish I had done some of things Roger did, he was just very good.

But you know, you just don’t know what’s going to happen and of course that was never in our mind. What I was trying to do, I think, was to put this in the context of Chicago, which was coming up.

Even though Kennedy said “On to Chicago!”, I am not certain in my own mind that the nomination was a sure thing for him. Because Hubert Humphrey was there and, of course, Lyndon Johnson, who did not like Robert Kennedy, and as we found out later, he still had a strong hold on that convention in Chicago later that summer. 

What is forgotten today, or not known, is that, though Chicago’s Mayor Daley was against the war in Vietnam, he hated those kids shouting obscenities and taunting his police force in this city which he was responsible for making one of the best cities in the world – but that was yet to come. 

Lyndon Johnson, after Kennedy’s death, he just didn’t want that convention to go for McCarthy, which it wasn’t going to go for. And he certainly didn’t want Kennedy, before he was killed. He was very instrumental during the convention in seeing how the platform referenced the Vietnam War.

In fact, Johnson was so anxious about it that he called the congressman from Illinois who was chairman of the platform committee — I think on the Tuesday night before the convention — to Washington to make sure the platform on Vietnam would be read the way he wanted it to read. And we thought at a moment that he was going to come to the convention. (Johnson did not attend the convention because he had announced several months earlier that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination to run for president again).

So there was an aftermath, you see, from Johnson pulling out of the race after McCarthy won New Hampshire and Johnson keeping his finger on the convention, or his paw, right throughout this whole business.

I think the background to this story is that Robert Kennedy was reluctant to become a candidate, and did not become a candidate, until after McCarthy’s victory in New Hampshire. And that was a little late. And the surprise to everyone was that McCarthy won. It was a shock that he won — and it sent Lyndon Johnson on edge. And he had a merciless grip on his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. And he had so since Humphrey came to the Congress in 1949.

If the Kennedy assassination happened today, how do you think the media coverage would be different?
The big difference between then and now — and this came out of the pattern set by newspapers — was that you had a morning news cycle, an evening news cycle, and you had three news networks. Now you have a 24-hour-a-day news cycle. You have all the cable channels, plus you have the bloggers — so there would be an avalanche of information.

The one thing that television has in its 24-hour-a-day news cycle — I call it the electronic tape worm — is that it has to be fed all the time. You don’t say, “I don’t know.” That’s considered unforgiveable. But we didn’t carry that burden 40 years ago.  So we were on all day during the coverage — but there wasn’t this intensity and pressure to say something if you didn’t know anything.

We were on the air an awful lot after the shooting. And then there were consequences afterwards.

I got NBC to send me to Israel to find out something more about this Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan who shot Robert Kennedy. I went there and did some digging around and found out that his mother had converted from being a Muslim to being a Christian and had taken Sirhan to the United States. The father stayed behind and he was an engineer in the Palestinian power authority. I tried to do a background on Sirhan Sirhan, but didn’t come up with much.

You went on to cover the rest of the 1968 election cycle, how did Kennedy’s assassination affect the election?
I think it ensured the nomination of Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic nominee. But Humphrey would not reject, or question, Johnson’s Vietnam policy until late in September when he made a speech in Salt Lake City. And the convention was dominated by Lyndon Johnson — his mark was on it.

And that was a burden for Humphrey. As I said before, Humphrey never really said no to Johnson.

And I am not sure if Robert Kennedy had lived, if he would have won the nomination. I’m not sure about it — it’s all too uncertain.

Just don’t know what would have happened. What Lyndon Johnson would have done? What Mayor Daley would have done? If those riots in Chicago had not ensued, would the American people have elected Richard Nixon? That was very ugly stuff. And it was centered on the Democratic Party. And the scars remain.

What do you think Robert Kennedy’s legacy is?

There are a number of Robert Kennedys. The first one was the manager of his brother’s campaign; the second one was attorney general and his involvement in the civil rights struggle; and then there was the death of his brother, and that changed him; then he was elected to the senate.

So more and more, he became, to many of us covering him, less bellicose and more and more idealistic and hopeful. And he created an aura about the Kennedy legacy. So the years changed him.

What’s interesting right now is that you are beginning to see, I think, elements of Kennedy in Obama’s campaign. Not a “New Deal” in the Roosevelt sense, but a new approach to politics may be emerging that I saw, and others saw, with Robert Kennedy while he was still alive. But it has been sort of dormant within the Democratic Party ever since. 

Kennedy was, in my judgment, as he emerged in the Justice Department, much more willing to take risks than his brother was. It was very risky pushing civil rights as he did.

Bobby was trying to do something about civil rights. It’s hard to realize today what the civil rights movement was trying do — starting with the school integration crisis at Little Rock in 1957, then bus rides in the South.  It was a tough time the civil rights.

I do think Robert Kennedy was a hero. And maybe that’s going to come back to the Democratic Party, I’m not sure.