Pete Hamill was in Ireland putting the finishing touches on his first novel when he received a telegram from Robert F. Kennedy. The New York senator was running for president and wanted Hamill to work on his campaign.
Hamill didn’t hesitate. He was on a plane back to New York the next day: March 15, 1968.
The sense of urgency was self-inflicted. After the Tet Offensive earlier that year, Hamill had written a letter to Kennedy lamenting a previous statement that he would not run: “I say that if you don’t run, you might destroy the Democratic Party… It will be a party that says to millions and millions of people that they don’t count.”
“You can’t tell somebody, ‘You ought to do this’ and then when he does it, say, ‘Geez, I’m too busy. I’ve got to mow the lawn,’” Hamill explained in an interview not far from where he grew up in what he calls “The Democratic Republic of Brooklyn.” “I don’t know how the hell I got a ticket that fast.”
Hamill had met Kennedy two years earlier as a columnist for the New York Post. In March of ’68, he signed on with the Kennedy campaign as a speechwriter, thinking that he would be there until the culminating California primary in June. He rented a house in Laguna Beach for himself, his then-wife, and their two young daughters. But he didn’t last long, estimating that he left after no more than three weeks.
“I wrote a couple of speeches that he could make on a street corner or something,” he says. “But the rest of it, you know, I had never worked on the inside of a campaign. I liked some of them, the crew that was trying to get this thing off the ground, but it was just not my thing. I could help better by covering it.”
So that’s what he did. Hamill quit fewer than two months before the California primary, but stayed in the state to cover the campaign for the Village Voice. He remained on the story until the very end, when, shortly after delivering his victory speech the night of June 4, Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel on Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard. Hamill was walking near Kennedy when he was shot and later went to the hospital where he died.
“After he got killed, I came back to New York for the funeral, and then went off to Mexico for a couple of weeks to heal,” Hamill says. “That didn’t work.”
Eventually, Hamill returned to New York and his career as a journalist and writer (he has written 23 books; in March, Akashic Books released a 50th anniversary edition of A Killing for Christ, the novel he wrote in Ireland).
To mark the anniversary of Kennedy’s death, Hamill, a distinguished writer in residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute who turns 83 in June, sat down for an interview in the Brooklyn brownstone apartment he shares with his wife Fukiko Aoki, also a journalist.
How did you and Robert F. Kennedy meet?
I started writing a column for the New York Post—Dorothy Schiff’s New York Post, not Rupert Murdoch’s—near the end of 1965. Right around Christmas, they sent me to Vietnam. There was no Internet yet. I had to write a piece, take it out to the Saigon airport, and ask some poor pilot to mail it if he was going to San Francisco. Kennedy began reading the pieces—he was already the senator from New York—and he sent me a note when I got back that he loved the pieces and so on.
I didn’t actually meet him until St. Patrick’s Day at Charley O’s near Rockefeller Center. I went in, moved through the crowd, and there he was. We met, we hit it off and had some laughs. Then I became one of at least three Brooklyn guys trying to explain to this guy from Boston what the working-class neighborhoods were like in New York. So, I would take him to the parts near here in Brooklyn, Jack Newfield from the Village Voice would take him to see Bed-Stuy, and Jimmy Breslin would take him to Queens, which none of us knew anything even remotely about, but it later gave us Donald Trump, alas.
So, you were educating him on New York?
Oh, yeah, that was what he wanted. I loved his sense of what he didn’t know, that he was trying to find out what people were like.
How did you get from him writing you a note about your columns to you showing him around the city?
What I sensed when I first met him and started making these little journeys was that he was still carrying a wound from his brother’s death. He never said it. He never mentioned it until Martin Luther King got killed and he made the great speech in Indianapolis—a six-minute speech, one of the best, and he even quoted Aeschylus. But there was this wound and a sense, too, that you’re maybe not going to have enough time. His brother had apparently talked to him about waiting until after the election, until the next year, to get rid of Vietnam. There was no next year for Jack Kennedy. So, it was that, I think. He wanted to know where was he when he walked down this street? Where was he? Who were these people going by? He wanted to find out more than he knew when he showed up. I admired him for that.
And those sessions were off the record?
He didn’t want anybody to think these trips were to get some ink, you know, instead of some knowledge.
You must have thought well enough of him to do that. As a newspaperman, you were giving something up for him.
Yeah, it was my day off! Remember, I was a son of immigrants from Northern Ireland, Catholics who came here to escape bigotry and stupidity. Their attitude was that they were never going to do to anybody in this country what was done to them in the old country.
As a senator, RFK did a lot to revitalize Brooklyn. Were you involved in those efforts?
I remember—not with any exactitude because I wasn’t making notes—but I remember urging him to get into these working-class neighborhoods before things got bad. The rise of the civil rights movement—that was in our interest.
What were you urging RFK to do?
First of all, not to make politics too rhetorical. I still believe one of the things that the Democratic parties going back to Boss Tweed do well is service-oriented politics. Your son needs a bail bondsman? You need a new apartment? You need a job? Go see the guy at the Democratic club. It wasn’t about the meaning of life—it was about trying to get a better grip on the world you live in. So, I would urge him to do that and, in particular, to work on, in addition to the civil rights movement, to work on the working-class white people, to understand that this was in their interest too.
Why did you feel compelled to write the letter urging RFK to run for president?
I just felt that we were heading into a calamity. In May of ’67, my brother, John, joined the Army. He was 17 years old, and he was against the war, but he felt he had no right to complain about it if he didn’t serve. He ended up in the 173rd Airborne. He was then trained to be a medic, and, if you’re a medic, you only go where people are bleeding, you know. It changed him. He survived, he came home, finally, but that was the personal throb for me that made it not simply an abstraction. I knew that [RFK] was against the war from these little trips I was taking with him. He thought—and I still think that if he hadn’t been murdered—he’d have ended the war the next year, some way or another. That would have saved thousands and thousands of lives—on both sides.
How would you compare the political climate then, with the divisions over the Vietnam War, to today and the divisiveness over President Trump?
Yeah, the Disunited States. I think this is worse because of the Internet and the so-called social media, which is really the antisocial media. In the ’60s, and 1968 of all the times, in spite of all the horrors, the killings, Martin Luther King, and Bobby, you know, there was much despair but a lot of hope—that we’re going to get through this goddamned thing. And now? When I began to see those kids with the anti-gun movement I said, “We’re not done yet; we’re not done yet.” If they get disappointed, if they’re turned cynical and bitter by reality, it’s going to be a worse country. The trouble with ignorance is there’s no sense of the perils you’re going to lead us to.
In your letter, you mention the pictures of JFK you saw on the walls in African Americans’ homes in Watts, Los Angeles, when you were covering racial issues after the riots there in 1965. What did those pictures make you think?
It was complicated. Some of it was about loss. Some of it was the typical what-might-have-been reaction. And some of it was amazingly positive—that his death was not in vain. His intelligence and humor and decent heart survived.
And you thought that was important for RFK to know.
Yeah, you have to do—I didn’t say this to him—but you have to finish what Jack started that was interrupted by another nut with a gun.
And what did you mean in your letter by the “chickens in every pot” and “five-cent cigar” references—what were you trying to convey to him?
It’s more than marginal gains for yourself. It’s about making the whole goddamn country better, you know. And I still believe that we’re capable of that, no matter what the present mess is about. This is a phase, and we’ve got to learn something from it.
Do you remember any specific speeches you worked on? In March, Jeff Greenfield, another speechwriter for RFK, wrote in Politico that he and Adam Walinsky objected to a line in the announcement of RFK’s presidential campaign that what was at stake was “our right to the moral leadership of this planet” because it “echoed the expansive Cold War mind-set that had lured us into Vietnam.”
I would never write that sentence. I don’t remember other words I did write, really, and it might be that I didn’t want to remember.
Did you have a discussion with RFK when you left the campaign?
I did, and I was apologetic. I wanted to make sure he understood that it was the form, not the intention. I talked to him that way—that I’m not going away; I’m not retreating to Pago Pago in the middle of the Pacific. I’m going to be covering the campaign; I’ll see you during the campaign, and I’ll see you in Washington. And he hugged me.
You felt like you were still supporting him from the outside, as a journalist?
Yeah, and the paper too was supporting him.
Given how short your time with the campaign was, do you think your biggest contribution to it was your letter?
It might have been that. And the fact that I could walk away and still be friends with Bobby and the intentions of the campaign.
And you ended up covering it until the very end.
Literally. Remember, the night of the assassination I was not working for the campaign; I was working as a journalist. I remember walking backwards, and Bobby’s walking this way, toward me and other newsies, and turns and—gets shot. I thought he got shot in the neck or something, but he got shot right behind the ear. And he was still alive when they got to the hospital. I went down to the hospital too and stayed there until he was dead, and then my brother, Brian, drove me home to Laguna. My daughters were so upset. They’d never seen me cry. One was 5 and the other was 3, and they knew—they didn’t understand it—but knew, whatever it was, it was huge, you know.
How do you think the whole experience shaped your political views?
I think it deepened them because, again, just like Greek mythology, just like Aeschylus, it was about individuals. You have to look at the person and what he or she is saying with a certain amount of skepticism, but no cynicism. You’ve got to keep yourself free of that because that’s the death of the soul in a way. You want to believe in tomorrow.