ON THIS DAY: Robert Kennedy Assassinated

Joe Kennedy was an ambitious man with lots of money and nine children. For his four sons, he hoped for political greatness after his stint in politics ended poorly. Joe was the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom when he expressed doubts about the British ability to stand up to the surging Nazi war machine.

Writing for an American newspaper, he stated:

Democracy is finished in England. It may be here.”

Democracy didn’t die in England, but Joe Kennedy’s ambitions for high office did. 

That, however, was just the beginning of the tragedy for Joe. The war that followed his 1940 editorial claimed the life of his oldest son, Joe Jr. and it almost claimed the life of his second son, John. John F. Kennedy survived having his small boat rammed by a Japanese cruiser and swam with the surviving men to a nearby island. He made it home and under the tutelage of Joe, became a congressman, and then a senator from Massachusetts. 

John, of course, went on to become the President, but only for a brief shining period for Joe, and then John was violently killed by an oddball outcast in November of 1963. 

That left two sons for Joe to focus on: bright and ambitious Robert Kennedy and the youngest, Teddy Kennedy. 

Robert Kennedy was born in 1925 and he joined the Navy Reserve just before his 18th birthday in 1943. Bobby, as he was known, never saw any action in the war, but he served and therefore, had military service on his resume like his two older, heroic brothers. He went to Harvard afterward, played football, and then studied law at the University of Virginia (founded by Thomas Jefferson). He married, dabbled in journalism, and finally, landed work with the Department of Justice on the committee that performed investigations. 

It was here that Kennedy’s public profile began to rise. He conducted several investigations into accusations of corruption in various unions, which led him to a confrontation with Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. The nature of the conflict is evident here: 

After his brother, John was elected president, Bobby became the attorney general, which is the only instance in American history where a brother team consolidated such power. Bobby Kennedy had little experience as a lawyer up to that point, but political pressure was brought to bear (mostly by Joe Kennedy) and the Senate confirmed Bobby as the nation’s AG. As the closest advisor to the president, he was an attorney general of unprecedented power and influence, and his position is unthinkable today. Recent tenures of various attorney generals have been marked by the intense conflict between the attorney general and the president they served. 

As attorney general, Kennedy continued to pressure various organized crime organizations around the country. His office pursued Jimmy Hoffa and finally convicted the Teamsters boss of bribery and wire fraud. 

During his period as attorney general, it was Bobby’s job to use the Department of Justice to enforce the increasing flow of court desegregation orders, and he was faithful in doing so. In one of his many actions during the period, he sent US Marshalls to Oxford, Mississippi to see that James Meredith, a black man, could enroll at the University of Mississippi. Meredith’s enrollment was opposed by the Democrat governor of the state, Ross Barnett, but after much protest and days of deadly rioting, Meredith was enrolled. 

His tenure as attorney general came to an end with his brother’s death. John Kennedy was killed in Dallas in 1963, and Robert was notified by phone. He presided over his brother’s funeral and then left the Department of Justice in September of the following year. Then-President Johnson appointed a committee to look into the assassination of John Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy said to many he had reservations about the Warren Report conclusions regarding the death of John Kennedy. Robert believed there were more people involved than a sole deranged assassin. 

By 1968, the leading edge of that demographic bump called the Baby Boomers was reaching adulthood. The Cold War was in full swing, and President Lyndon Johnson had dedicated a record number of US troops to South Vietnam. Many of those troops were Baby Boomers who had been drafted and sent to the war against their will. It was also an election year. Overall, 1968 was a watershed year from start to finish. Robert Kennedy lived his final months here. 

By March of 1968, the first primary votes in the presidential election were cast, and they revealed how weak President Johnson was with voters, mainly because of the war. Seeing the weakened state of the sitting president, Bobby Kennedy entered the race. In the meantime, students were protesting in American cities and universities and taking over school buildings, and issuing lists of demands. In early American history, universities had been places for the children of the elite to learn how to govern and lead, and thus not been the location of revolutionary rioting. That had changed; universities had become places where middle-class kids were often turned into activists.

Less than a month later, on April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. In the years since the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, King had been involved in the Civil Rights movements and had largely triumphed by virtue of his inspiring messages delivered in his distinct style. Eventually, his assassin was caught in London trying to flee to South Africa and it was revealed to be James Earl Ray, another three-name misfit who affected the course of American history. King’s death was followed by days of rioting across the United States, and Bobby Kennedy spoke eloquently about King and did what he could to bring calm to a frayed nation. 

And then on June 5, Bobby Kennedy was killed by an assassin’s bullet in the kitchen of The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, just after winning the Democrat primary in California. He was gaining traction against his primary opponent Eugene McCarthy, a senator from Minnesota. After making a short speech, he headed to the press room and passed through the kitchen where an Arab supporter of Palestine shot him in the head. He lingered for a while, said a few words, and then died twenty-six hours later. His death is considered to be one of the first shots in the war between the Americans and portions of the political spectrum in the Middle East. 

In a sense, Robert Kennedy was far more like King and the new Democratic party than the older more conservative party of his brother John. He was the first of many Democrats to come. Nevertheless, the Democrats survived more rioting at their convention in Chicago and Hubert Humphrey, President Johnson’s Vice President and a supporter of the Vietnam War secured the nomination. He went down in defeat to Richard Nixon, the arch-Republican beaten by John Kennedy in 1960.

Robert Kennedy died at age 42 and left behind 11 children with his wife of 18 years. 

The Curse

Tragedy has stalked the Kennedy family since World War 2, and some say it is the incredible hubris of the Kennedys that habitually brings them low. But it wasn’t hubris that brought John and Bobby to their grave; it was assassin’s bullets. The Kennedy family is bound up in American history, family obligations, Irish-Americans, intense Catholicism, and other driving forces. A list of Kennedy tragedies does little to reveal why this family has been visited by so much disaster: 

November 1941 – At age 23, Rosemary Kennedy, Joe Kennedy’s oldest daughter, struggled to read and write, and she suffered from mood swings, seizures, and violent outbursts. She had been deprived of oxygen in childbirth as her mother and nurse waited for the doctor to arrive. As she grew older, she became more rebellious. Joseph Kennedy secretly arranged for her to undergo a prefrontal lobotomy. The now-discredited procedure left her mentally and physically incapacitated. 

Rosemary Kennedy

August 12, 1944 – Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. died when the aircraft he was piloting accidentally exploded over East Suffolk, England. He was on a mission to fly the explosive-laden aircraft into German U-Boat facilities. 

Joe Kennedy Jr.

September 9, 1944 – William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, newlywed husband of Joe’s second daughter, Kathleen Kennedy, was fatally shot by a German sniper while leading his company in Belgium.

May 13, 1948 – Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy (formally known as Kathleen Cavendish, Marchioness of Hartington) died in a plane crash in France, shortly after the war. 

October 3, 1955 – Ethel Kennedy’s parents, Robert Kennedy’s in-laws, Ann and George Skakel, died in a plane crash in Oklahoma. 

August 9, 1963 – Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, John Kennedy’s son, died of infant respiratory distress syndrome two days after his premature birth on August 7 

November 22, 1963 – U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, by Lee Harvey Oswald. 

President Kennedy, already shot, in the instance before his death.

June 19, 1964 – U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, Joe Kennedy’s youngest son, survived a plane crash that killed one of his aides as well as the pilot. 

June 5, 1968 – United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.


July 18, 1969 – Ted Kennedy accidentally drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, resulting in the drowning death of 28-year-old passenger Mary Jo Kopechne.

Aug. 1, 1973 – David A. Kennedy, son of Robert F. Kennedy, and five other young people were injured when a jeep driven by David’s brother, Joseph, 21, overturned. The crash left his passenger, Pam Kelley, paralyzed. 

November 17, 1973 – Edward M. Kennedy Jr., age 12, had his right leg surgically amputated because of bone cancer. This was Teddy Kennedy’s son. 

April 25, 1984 – David A. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s son, died of a drug overdose in a Palm Beach, Florida hotel room. David was twelve years old when he saw his father assassinated on TV in the family’s hotel room.

April 1, 1991 – William Kennedy Smith was arrested and charged with the rape of a young woman at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Florida. The subsequent trial attracted extensive media coverage. Smith was acquitted

December 31, 1997 – Michael LeMoyne Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s son, died in a skiing accident after crashing into a tree in Aspen, Colorado. 

July 16, 1999 – John F. Kennedy Jr. died when the plane he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. His wife and sister-in-law were also on board and died. 

John Kennedy Jr with Ted Kennedy, his sister, and his mother

January 19, 2000 – Michael Skakel, nephew to Ethel Skakel, widow of Robert Kennedy, was arrested, and initially charged with murder as a minor, because he was 15 years old at the time of Martha Moxley’s death. In February 2001, a judge ordered Skakel to be tried as an adult, stating that the juvenile system wasn’t equipped to punish a defendant who was nearly 40 years old. He was convicted but exonerated in 2020 after spending 11 years in prison. 

May 4, 2006 – Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, one of Teddy’s sons, crashed his automobile while intoxicated into a barricade on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., at 2:45 a.m.

September 16, 2011 – Kara Kennedy, Teddy Kennedy’s daughter, died of a heart attack while exercising in a Washington, D.C. health club. 

May 16, 2012 – Mary Richardson Kennedy, wife of Robert Kennedy, Jr., died by suicide on the grounds of her home in Bedford, Westchester County, New York. 

August 1, 2019 – Saoirse Roisin Kennedy Hill, granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy, died of an accidental drug overdose at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts on Cape Cod.  April 2, 2020 – Maeve Kennedy McKean, granddaughter of Robert Kennedy, disappeared with her eight-year-old son, Gideon, during a short canoe trip in the Chesapeake Bay. Maeve’s body was found by divers four days later. Gideon’s body was found two days after hers, on April 8.

Kennedy family before the war
After the war, without Joe Jr.
John and Joe
Joe with President Kennedy
JFK funeral in 1963
Joe, wracked and less three of his four sons, at the end of his life in 1969.