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Robert Kennedy and Brothers

“The question arose whether the coffin should be open or closed. The casket arrived at the White House early in the morning of the twenty-third. After a brief service in the East Room, ‘I (Robert) asked everybody to leave and I asked them to open it… When I saw it, I’d made my mind up. I didn’t want it open.’…

He spent the night in the Lincoln bedroom. Charles Spalding went with him and said, ‘There’s a sleeping pill around somewhere.’ Spalding found a pill. Robert Kennedy said, ‘God, it’s so awful. Everything was really beginning to run so well.’ He was still controlled. Spalding closed the door. ‘Then I just heard him break down…. I heard him sob and say, “Why, God?”’

He lay fitfully for an hour or two. Soon it was daylight. He walked down the hall and came in on Jacqueline, sitting on her bed in a dressing gown, talking to the children. Young John Kennedy said that a bad man had shot his father. His older sister, Caroline, said that Daddy was too big for his coffin…

Robert Kennedy sent a letter to each of his children and told his sisters to do likewise. He wrote his son Joe:

On the day of the burial
of your Godfather
John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Nov. 24, 1963
Dear Joe,

You are the oldest of all the male grandchildren. You have a special and particular responsibility now which I know you will fulfill.
Remember all the things that Jack started—be kind to others that are less fortunate than we—and love our country.

Love to you

Robert F. and John F. Kennedy

He appeared, I noted the day after Dallas, ‘composed, withdrawn and resolute.’ Ben Bradlee the same day saw him ‘clearly emerging as the strongest of the stricken.’ Discipline and duty summoned him to the occasion. Within he was demolished. ‘It was much harder for him than anybody,’ said LeMoyne Billings, his friend of so many years. He had put ‘his brother’s career absolutely first; and not anything about his own career whatsoever. And I think that the shock of losing what he’d built everything around … aside from losing the loved figure … was just absolutely [devastating]—he didn’t know where he was…. Everything was just pulled out from under him.’ They had been years of fulfillment, but of derivative fulfillment: fulfillment not of himself but of a brother and a family. Now in a crazed flash all was wiped out. ‘Why, God?’

Robert Kennedy was a desperately wounded man. ‘I just had the feeling,’ said John Seigenthaler, ‘that it was physically painful, almost as if he were on the rack or that he had a toothache or that he had a heart attack. I mean it was pain and it showed itself as being pain…. It was very obvious to me, almost when he got up to walk that it hurt to get up to walk.’ Everything he did was done through a ‘haze of pain.’ ‘He was the most shattered man I had ever seen in my life,’ said Pierre Salinger. ‘He was virtually non-functioning. He would walk for hours by himself.’ Douglas Dillon offered him his house in Hobe Sound, Florida, where Robert and Ethel went with a few friends at the end of the month. They played touch football —‘really vicious games,’ Salinger recalled. ‘… It seemed to me the way he was getting his feelings out was in, you know, knocking people down.’

Sardonic withdrawal seemed to distance the anguish. Seigenthaler went out to Hickory Hill after the funeral. ‘Obviously in pain, [Robert] opened the door and said something like this, “Come on in, somebody shot my brother, and we’re watching his funeral on television.” When Helen Keyes arrived from Boston to help with his mail, ‘I didn’t want to see him; I just figured I’d dissolve; and I walked in and he said, “Come in.” I said, “All right.” And he said to me, “Been to any good funerals lately?” Oh, I almost died, and yet once he said that it was out in the open, and, you know, we just picked up and went on from there.’ Senator Herbert Lehman of New York died early in December. Robert Kennedy, in New York for the services, said to his Milton friend Mary Bailey Gimbel, ‘I don’t like to let too many days go by without a funeral.’

Robert and John F. Kennedy2

Friends did their best. John Bartlow Martin, retiring as ambassador to the Dominican Republic, went to say goodbye. ‘How his face had aged in the years I’d known him.’ Martin attempted a few words of comfort. ‘With that odd tentative half-smile, so well known to his friends, so little to others, he murmured…‘Well, three years is better than nothing.’ Peter Maas arrived from New York on the first day the Attorney General went out publicly—to a Christmas party arranged by Mary McGrory of the Washington Star for an orphanage.

The moment he walked in the room, all these little children—screaming and playing—there was just suddenly silence…. Bob stepped into the middle of the room and just then a little black boy—I don’t suppose he was more than six or seven years old—suddenly darted forward, and stopped in front of him, and said, ‘Your brother’s deadl Your brother’s dead!’ … The adults, all of us, we just kind of turned away…. The little boy knew he had done something wrong, but he didn’t know what; so he started to cry. Bobby stepped forward and picked him up, in kind of one motion, and held him very close for a moment, and he said, ‘That’s all right. I have another brother.’”


From Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur Schlesinger.

It’s the “remember all the things that Jack started” in Robert’s letter to young Joe that gets me. Started: like the title Robert Dallek’s great book, an unfinished life.

The KennedysRobert and John F. Kennedy 8Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy
Robert Kennedy and John F. KennedyRobert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Robert and John F. Kennedy3 John F. Kennedy Material released by the National Archives in Washington