Local author reflects on Robert Francis Kennedy
June 6, 2008
Editor’s note: Routt County resident and local author Diane White-Crane worked for several years on Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s staff, including during his 1968 campaign for president. She was with him at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night he was assassinated – June 5, 1968. Below, White-Crane shares her memories of “The Senator.”
On this, the 40th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s death, my own favorite memories of this special man have to do with the genuine kindness and compassion he always showed the “little,” everyday people around him.
To the general public, he was “Bobby Kennedy,” but to those of us fortunate enough to serve on his U.S. Senate staff, he was always “The Senator.”
Robert Kennedy provided many valuable lessons in caring and compassion to everyone who spent time around him. Throughout the years, when friends ask me what he was really like as a person, I tell them the story of a young woman in upstate New York who was a volunteer “clipper.”
Whenever the Senator would visit a community in New York, his schedule generally would include a thank you meeting with the clippers – volunteers who cut articles out of community newspapers having to do with local politics, stories about local people receiving awards for special achievements and, sadly, too often reports about local soldiers who were killed in Vietnam. The clippers would send these articles to our upstate office in Syracuse or to the New York City office, where letters then would be prepared and sent out to people from Robert Kennedy, either congratulating them on their award or service to others, or expressing his condolences for the loss of their soldier son or daughter.
At one of these thank you meetings in Syracuse, about a dozen of the volunteer clippers were seated in a circle with Kennedy. As the conversation moved around the circle, the Senator would ask each volunteer to introduce himself or herself, he’d make a bit of small talk with them and then move on to chat a bit with the next person. But when this conversation made its way to one clipper in particular, I quickly noticed something intentionally different about the Senator’s interaction with her. She was 15 or 16 years old, somewhat obese, and her face painfully ravished by acne sores. Seemingly embarrassed and shy, she kept her head down as he spoke to her.
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Instead of quickly moving on to the next person, however, Kennedy remained focused on this insecure teenager for a long time, asking her questions about school and teasing her about her playing hooky to be there – kindness and unconditional acceptance radiating on his face and in his words to her.
After a little while, I noticed the young woman began to look him straight in the eyes and started to laugh at his gentle teasing, her face now joyful and animated. Later, as the clippers were leaving the room, I saw the Senator hug this young person, telling her, “Let me know how you’re doing in school, OK?” Her whole persona seemed transformed, as she appeared now to be floating on cloud nine, smiling and full of self-confidence. I recall being on the verge of tears, thinking to myself, “Wow. He’s amazing!”
Although the Senator could be impatient and brusque with higher-echelon staff members, he was never short or gruff with lower-level staff personnel. Celebrities often stopped by his Capitol Hill office to meet him – be they movie stars, TV personalities, astronauts or musicians – and the Senator greatly enjoyed ushering these famous people around his office, stopping at each of our desks to introduce them to us. Little did he know that we were almost always more thrilled by his concern for us than we were about meeting the celebrity at hand.
If he was making a day trip somewhere and there was room on the chartered airplane, a last-minute invitation would go out to us lower-echelon staff members. On these spontaneous staff “field trips,” the Senator would almost always sit in the back of the plane visiting with us, gently teasing us about things and making us feel important to him.
When I once asked him to pose with me for a photo to send to my father for his birthday, Kennedy not only happily did so, but he also then took off his PT-109 tie clip and gave it to me, saying, “Here, give this to your father and tell him happy birthday for me.” Until his death many years later, my dad, a hard-working, blue-collar auto plant worker in Buffalo, proudly wore that special birthday gift at every tie-wearing opportunity.
Whenever I spent time working at the Kennedy “Hickory Hill” home in Virginia, I remember how tender and loving Robert Kennedy was with each of his children. They absolutely adored their father, and they would gather around him like he was a pied piper. I recall how visibly upset and shaken he was when he returned to the Washington, D.C., office from a heart-wrenching poverty tour in Mississippi, and I remember him sitting at the bedside of a very elderly nursing home patient in upstate New York, gently holding her hand, irritated with me when I was chosen to go in to interrupt him and remind him that he was running way behind schedule.
My last memory of Robert Kennedy’s kindness to me personally occurred in Portland, Ore., a few weeks before his death. Assigned to work for Pierre Salinger in the press area of the 1968 Oregon Democratic Primary campaign, I spent weeks working 16-hour days inside two rooms at Portland’s Benson Hotel, which was used by rival Kennedy and McCarthy campaigns as campaign headquarters. Pierre kept all of us working day and night, preparing copies of news releases, fielding calls, helping advance press accommodations, dealing with complaints from the working press, and so on.
On elevators or in the lobby, I’d often bump into Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy, accompanied by their entourages, but I was kept too busy to join in on the actual fun campaign events taking place outside the hotel, around Portland. Trying to be funny one afternoon, I stuck my head out the hotel window, waved and hollered “Hi Senator!” loudly down to Kennedy on the street level several stories below as he sat atop the backseat of a top-down convertible, waiting to depart in a motorcade. He waved and hollered back, “Come on down and go with us.”
I asked Pierre whether I could go, but then had to holler back down to the Senator, “Pierre says I can’t go. Too much work to do up here.” I waved goodbye to him, closed the window and went back to work. Five minutes later, Robert Kennedy appeared in the doorway of the room and said, “Hey, Pierre, Diane’s coming on the motorcade with us, all right?” “Oh, sure, Bob,” was Pierre’s reply, as he told me to go and have fun, as if it was Pierre’s idea in the first place. And I did have fun, riding in the sunshine, watching throngs of excited Portland citizens greeting the candidate all along the motorcade route and at the staged events, little knowing at the time that only a few weeks later, we’d all be gathered together on Kennedy’s funeral train, watching thousands upon thousands of grieving people wave as it made its melancholy way from New York City to Washington, D.C., taking his body back for burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Books have been written and TV specials have been aired during the past 40 years about RFK, but to me, only a few of them have successfully captured the essence of this man’s goodness – the special inner core of kindness, compassion and concern that he had for others, especially for children, for the poor and oppressed, the downtrodden, and for everyday little people who weren’t rich or famous or important in the traditional way.
For me, the ultimate test of a human being is, while they were on this Earth, did they show compassion and learn to love and care about the welfare of all others? In my eyes, Robert Francis Kennedy’s very generous heart more than passed that test.