Thursday, June 12, 2008

A bridge over troubled waters

Bobby and John F. Kennedy. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
By Peter Evans

New York State Governor David Paterson’s announcement that the city’s Triborough Bridge is to be renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the senator’s death on June 5, 1968, may not mean much to those who did not know and live through that decade of tumult and aggression. But for me, the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge will be a bridge over dark and troubled waters.

For although no era has been so thoroughly recorded and analyzed as the 60s, there remains the mystery of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination.

On the surface, it seemed like an open-and-shut case: Around midnight in the Embassy Room of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy thanked his supporters for the great victory he had just chalked up in the California primary. ‘We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country. I think we can end the divisions within the United States, the violence,’ he told them with a poignancy that was still unimaginable.

Bobby Kennedy the night he was fatally shot.
Then, surrounded by a jostling band of aides, admirers, newsmen and hotel employees, with his wife Ethel a few yards behind, he made his way to the press conference in the Colonial Room on the other side of the hotel. The backstairs route they took led them through a narrow serving kitchen that was to be his place of execution.

As the senator approached, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant with tousled black hair, stepped from behind a tray rack. ‘Kennedy, you son of a bitch,’ he shouted as he raised a .22 revolver to the senator’s head and squeezed the trigger. The fatal first bullet exploded through the right mastoid bone, disintegrating into the right hemisphere of Kennedy’s brain. Two more shots struck his right armpit as he fell to the floor. The assassin continued firing, wounding five other people as Kennedy aides wrestled him to the floor where he was held until police arrived.

There was no doubt that Sirhan held the smoking gun that night, and he was duly convicted of murder. His death sentence was commuted to life and he remains incarcerated in a California state prison, still claiming that he can recall nothing of that night but believing that he had been hypnotised to kill, in the manner of the Manchurian Candidate.

One’s first reaction may be that this is a preposterous claim; it is scorned by those who believe that Sirhan was only one of perhaps three hired assassins in the crowded serving kitchen that night. Rumours surrounding the case have continued and escalated ever since. But I am now convinced – and I believe I prove in my book, Nemesis – that Sirhan’s Manchurian Candidate claim is a valid defence.

To begin with, the important thing to know about assassinations is not who fired the gun, but who paid for the bullets.

And it was my friend Aristotle Onassis, the man who had commissioned me to write his life story, who paid for the bullets. His own daughter, Christina, confessed that he had. Yannis Georgakis, the Athens lawyer, and one of Onassis’s closest aides, confirmed that it was Onassis money that had financed the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

Aristotle Onassis.
But why would Onassis want Kennedy killed?

His hatred of Bobby went back a long way, to the 1950s, and Onassis’s suspicion that Bobby had been responsible for scuppering a major oil deal he had set up with the Saudis.

By the spring of 1968, I believe that Bobby knew how much danger he was in from Onassis – who, as attorney general, he had banned from the States because of his pursuit of the First Lady, Bobby’s sister-in-law, Jackie Kennedy – when two months before his death Bobby said: What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by his assassin’s bullet.”

On the morning Kennedy left to campaign in the final Democratic presidential primaries in Oregon and California in the spring, Jackie – who had been having an affair with Onassis since the autumn of 1963, several weeks before the death of JFK – slipped away to pursue the question of matrimony with her lover aboard his yacht as they cruised around the Caribbean. Although her discretion, as usual, was impeccable, her timing was calamitous for Bobby. “For God’s sake, Jackie, a thing like this could cost me five states,” he had groaned in despair when she told him what she had in mind.

Nevertheless, he could have hardly been surprised. He had watched the progress of events from her unhappy marriage to his serially unfaithful brother to the start of her affair with ‘the Greek’ – he could not bear to utter Onassis’s name – and he understood only too well the risks posed by her sense of bitterness, as well as the need that lay beneath her iconic mystique. Although respect for Jackie did not come easily to the Kennedys, she was still the woman who had invented Camelot, and they knew that her allegiance, or at least the appearance of it, meant everything to Bobby as he embarked upon his mission to reclaim the White House for the family. Having the widow of the martyred thirty-fifth president of the United States standing by his side – a potent symbol to remind the people of a sense of destiny cut short – as he campaigned for the Kennedy restoration, would be one of the strongest cards Bobby had. Having Mrs. Aristotle Onassis at his side, the second wife of a tarnished Greek tycoon, would not be the same thing at all.
Even so, it was unreasonable to expect an attractive, narcissistic woman of thirty-nine – a woman with corporeal needs, super-celebrity status, and a famous eye for the main chance – to devote herself to a political widowhood indefinitely. She had already toyed with the idea of marrying the widowed David Ormsby-Gore, Lord Harlech, the former British ambassador to the United States, and a family friend of the Kennedys. But David was not a rich man and she had seen how impractical that would be, and despite their Jamesian conflict of cultures, settling for Onassis and his money had been a decision, looked at squarely from her point of view, that was imminently more sensible.

Although the match would be anathema to the Kennedys, they believed that whatever the moment’s purpose, everything must serve it, and Bobby told Jackie that, once the campaign pressures were off, he would try to adjust to the idea of ‘the Greek’, provided that Jackie would campaign for him, and wait until after the presidential election in November before making any public announcement about her future.

Jackie was happy to take Bobby’s word at face value, but Onassis did not share her trust in promises clearly born of political pragmatism. ‘Bobby sees me as the rich prick moving in on his brother’s widow,’ he had crudely but precisely defined the situation. Sooner or later it would come to a test of wills between these two immensely rich, selfish and determined men, goaded in their mutual hatred by the knowledge that they had both shared Jackie’s favors.

But, as I discovered and reveal in Nemesis, by the time Jackie had confessed her intentions to Bobby, Onassis had made a deal with the Palestinian terrorist Mahmoud Hamsari, the button had been pressed – and there was nothing that could save Bobby from the fate that awaited him in the serving kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

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