Remembering Robert Kennedy
The sixth of June. I awaken groggily and turn on the TV. Suddenly I am stark awake.
Robert Kennedy’s face is on the screen. The announcer’s voice reminds me, sharply, that 45 years ago today Robert Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet.
Memories flood back.
I worked for and with him in the Justice Department when he was attorney general and later when he ran for president in 1968.
I met him soon after I joined Justice in 1962 — a 29-year-old lawyer just off the plane from Denver. As was his custom each month, he met with six or eight of us, new lawyers in the department, in his office for an introductory session late in the afternoon.
We sat around a large conference table. After a few preliminary comments, he told us to go around the table and tell him our names, our divisions in the department and describe one current case each of us had.
We’d gone most of the way around the table when a fellow seated across from me started. He didn’t get far.
Kennedy cut in angrily. “What is that you’re wearing on your coat?” (I couldn’t see from my angle, and to this day I’ve never known.)
“I do not want to have us losing cases because you’re wearing something like that into court! That’s unacceptable!”
Kennedy suddenly seemed furious. My heart went out to the fellow on the other side of the table. Here’s a guy just out of law school, I thought, and he’s being eaten alive by the attorney general of the United States. Then the moment passed. Kennedy resumed the calm from which he had burst so startlingly, and we returned to recitation of the facts he’d asked us about. And the meeting was over.
As we moved to the door, he stood in front of his desk to shake hands with each of us. I noticed a plaque on his desk commemorating the members of the Cuban brigade who had taken part in the disastrous Bay of Pigs attempt. I said something about it, and he began talking to me quietly about them, sympathetically, expressing admiration for their courage but concern about their present condition.
Only much later did I find that our meeting had taken place on the heels of the highly intense Cuban Missile Crisis, in which RFK had been a vigorous — and key — participant. It was an important lesson in judging people. Be cautious, not quick to reach conclusions. There can be much going on in their lives that you know nothing about.
November 1962 moved along. I saw RFK several times at staff receptions in the office of the assistant attorney general for the Tax Division (my division). He was always quiet, by himself, the least noticeable person in the room. He seemed slight and small. Oddly, when I saw him later, I no longer got that impression.
By then the president and RFK had learned that the health of the Cuban prisoners — 1,113 in all — was bad and getting worse. If they were to survive, they had to be freed quickly.
Both President John F. Kennedy and RFK felt a powerful moral and emotional obligation to the prisoners. A flurry of intense activity followed. RFK managed the operation and pressed it ahead vigorously. I saw much of it firsthand and had a small part in some of it.
Fidel Castro had agreed to exchange the prisoners for drugs, medical supplies and other items. The supplies were assembled in Florida for shipment to Havana. On Dec. 18, our negotiator flew to Havana. Two Washington lawyers who were helping us on the project went as well.
Shipments began soon after. One planeload of prisoners was flown out. Then everything stopped.
I was the junior member of the watch in the Justice command center in Washington that evening, with Deputy Attorney General Nick Katzenbach and a CIA officer.
We wanted to know what was going on. Katzenbach called John Nolan, one of the Washington lawyers, in Havana. What Nolan said made clear that he wanted to be flown out so he could tell us more freely.
Air travel was then much slower than now, and it being the middle of the night, Katzenbach, the CIA fellow and I found couches in a conference room to try to get some sleep.
When Nolan got out, he told us that Castro had stopped the flights and nothing would go forward until $2.9 million — a payment which the Cuban Families Committee had agreed on long before we came into the picture — was paid to him in cash. Katzenbach hooked RFK into the call at his Hickory Hill home, and Kennedy said he would be in first thing in the morning.
Katzenbach, the CIA fellow and I speculated how we could raise the money. Whom do you call? Do you ask for the whole sum at once or, say, $250,000 at a time?
The sun rose, and Bob Kennedy appeared. He sat behind the desk in the main office and placed a call. Katzenbach and I lingered by the door, eager to hear whom he called and, more, how he pitched the request early on a Saturday morning.
The call was to Peter Grace, of the Grace steamship line. “Peter,” he said, looking at us, “as soon as we can be alone?” Katzenbach and I left the office. In the summer of 1963, I found myself special assistant to the AG for the Tax Division. Civil rights had become virtually my entire occupation. RFK had dived in head-first, and soon thereafter the president announced the administration’s active opposition to racial segregation.
I had lunch with a high school friend in the Civil Rights Division who was working on a legislative proposal to end discriminatory practices in such public accommodations as hotels, restaurants and theaters — legislation, he said, “nearly tailored for the discriminating businessman.”
By fall, the resulting bill (ultimately the basis for the 1964 Public Accommodations Act) went to Sen. Sam Ervin’s Judiciary Committee. RFK testified repeatedly for it, but Ervin was actively hostile, and the bill remained in committee.
Then came Nov. 22 and Dallas. And a period of measureless grief for Robert Kennedy.
I did not see him again until January 1965, after he had been elected to the Senate in New York. He came back to Justice to speak at a goodbye party for Lou Oberdorfer, who had been assistant attorney general for the Tax Division.
As soon as he began, I saw that he had changed. He was much more confident, self-possessed, a markedly better public speaker than the man I’d last seen in 1963. He had grown, matured considerably.
That remarkable growth continued for the rest of his life. I’d read of such things, but to see it before my eyes, in someone I’d known a few months before — and to see it proceed almost monthly until the end of his life — was startling. An absolutely unique experience in my life.
I left Justice and spent three more years working for the assistant treasury secretary for tax policy, Stanley Surrey. I did not see RFK at all during that time, though I met once or twice with members of his staff on proposals he had in the tax field.
I left Treasury in the fall of 1967 to become a partner in the Washington law firm established by Mortimer Caplin, who had been John Kennedy’s commissioner of internal revenue. Mort had been a professor of tax law at the University of Virginia Law School and had taught tax to both Bob and Ted Kennedy. As IRS commissioner, he had often worked with Bob while he was attorney general, and he remained in close touch with him.
In March 1968, RFK announced his candidacy for president. Shortly after, he asked Mort to devise a tax reform proposal for him, and Mort gathered a group of tax people to work with him on it. Mort asked me to join, as he did two of our partners, Bob Klayman and Bob Elliott, and several others. A highly able person just leaving Kennedy’s Senate staff, Mike Curzan, joined us. We met on a Saturday morning and had a lively discussion. The two Bobs and I had worked for Surrey at Treasury and were quite familiar with tax policy and tax reform. Bob Klayman took the laboring oar, and we proceeded to draft a reform proposal, consulting with Mort as we went.
Meanwhile, back at the campaign, Gene McCarthy had just won the New Hampshire primary and was not disposed to get out of RFK’s way. McCarthy began to be called Clean Gene, a phrase particularly inapt to those of us who at Treasury had watched McCarthy slip loopholes into the tax law for well-heeled corporations.
RFK had by then developed a strong attachment to, and following among African-Americans, the disadvantaged, the poor. As a senator he had traveled in the Deep South to see conditions there for himself, and he had been powerfully moved by what he found.
Marian Edelman, whom I came to know somewhat later when I joined the board of the Children’s Defense Fund, had first met him there, and told me about his reactions.
He found group after group of African-Americans living in extreme poverty, many with families of small children. Unconscious of others around him, he picked up children, some quite sick, cuddled them, tried to soothe those who were crying. He became deeply involved. That involvement stayed with him and strengthened as he moved through the presidential campaign. Many in his audiences sensed it and were drawn to him by it. His support gathered force.
He won primary after primary. After McCarthy’s single victory, in Oregon, California became crucial. Mort Caplin — and many other friends of his — spent the final week of the campaign traveling around the state speaking for him.
On the Friday before the California primary, Bob Klayman delivered our tax reform proposal to Kennedy’s Washington headquarters.
On the Sunday before the election, my wife, Sally, and I joined the Klaymans, the Elliotts and a few others to watch the only debate of the campaign on television. We waited nervously for the debate to begin. McCarthy was an excellent speaker and fast on his feet.
It turned out that Bob was faster.
On Tuesday, Bob won the election convincingly.
After a short but powerful victory speech at the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel, he started out through the kitchen in the basement.
And the campaign ended.
A final image comes to me. My wife and I sit by the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in the soft gathering dusk of a June evening. Lights of approaching cars flicker, get brighter.
Black cars pass and enter.
Robert Kennedy’s mortal remains disappear into the dark.
Thomas A. Troyer worked for the U.S. Departments of Justice and the Treasury and later as a lawyer in private practice.