Thurston Clarke Interview

Thurston Clarke has written what can only be termed as the definitive account of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Presidential campaign.
His book is titled The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy And 82 Days That Inspired America (Henry Holt).
Mr. Clarke talked to us about his book.

Q – Mr. Clarke, the title of you book is “The Last Campaign”.
A – Yeah.

Q – Vanity Fair (Magazine) titles the excerpts from your book, “The Last Good Campaign”.
A – Right.

Q – Why do you think they put good in there?
A – Well, I think it probably was The Last Good Campaign. I had considered that as a title, but I thought it would really create the kind of controversy I didn’t want which was comparing the campaign to the ones that followed. It’s really a history of these 82 days. It was his last campaign obviously and to say it was the last good campaign, it would make people say well, what, compare it to one of Clinton’s campaigns or somebody else, or not just a presidential campaign. I’m sure there have been other campaigns for Senate or House that I don’t know about that have been inspiring and important. So, maybe the last good presidential campaign, but that’s kind of a mouthful for a title.

Q – Did you ever meet Robert Kennedy or hear him speak?
A – I didn’t meet him. I did see him marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City just hours after he had announced his candidacy for President. Originally I had been a supporter of Senator Eugene McCarthy and I had changed my mind after hearing McCarthy speak. I thought he was very un-inspiring. At that time I changed to Kennedy. But no, I didn’t hear him speak.

Q – As I understand it, you interviewed over 100 people for this book.
A – Yeah. A lot of them I interviewed on (the) telephone, but, also quite a few in person. I did what other writers haven’t done, biographers of Kennedy, of course they haven’t just been concentrating on the campaign; and that is, I went back to the places that he had campaigned, to the States, and to the towns and talked to people who had been volunteers, who had ridden with him in a car for a few hours, who’d organized the rallies, been in the rallies. That gave me a kind of different take. Also, these people hadn’t been interviewed before, so it was very fresh for them. 

Q – Did any members of the Kennedy clan talk to you for the book?
A – Well, you know, I didn’t even try. I tried to interview some of them for a previous book I did about John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, ‘Ask Not’ and I didn’t have any luck. It would’ve been nice. I can tell you I’ve met and talked with Ethel Kennedy at length at a conference I attended in Washington about 6 weeks ago, and I know that she loves the book. I heard Courtney Kennedy (RFK’s daughter) came up and said her mother was very moved by it. So, it certainly has hit a chord there. But, no I didn’t do that. It’s very painful for them to get involved and going back with this.

Q – People who you talked to about Robert Kennedy would tear up when they were reminiscing about him.
A – Yeah.

Q – There were other people like columnist Westbrook Pegler and Clyde Tolson (J. Edgar Hoover’s Assistant) who hated him. What did they hate about Robert Kennedy?
A – The hatred about him was largely…..he made a number of enemies. He made enemies when he was the Senate Counsel to the McLellan Rackets Committee in the late 50’s that was investigating corruption in labor unions. He made a lot of enemies in organized crime, but, also people in the labor unions hated him. Jimmy Hoffa in particular, President of the Teamsters. He made more enemies when he was Attorney General. He made a lot of enemies in the South because he vigorously pursued the integration of Southern schools and universities. He also made enemies during his brother’s administration, during the Steel Crisis, when he had F.B.I. agents raid the houses of Steel executives. So Business, and the Right, and the South, and also the Mafia and some labor leaders really hated him. He used to say when he went into crowds and allow people to touch him and get close to him, ‘I have to let the people who love me get close to me, because so many people hate me’.

Q – Jimmy Breslin asked a task of reporters, “Do you think this guy has the stuff to go all the way”?
A – Yeah.

Q – John J. Lindsay said, “Yes, he has the stuff to go all the way, but, he’s not going to go all the way”.
A – Yeah.

Q – “Somebody is going to shoot him. I know it and you know it, just as sure as were sitting here somebody is going to shoot him. He’s out there waiting for him”.
There was a stunned silence. Then, one by one the reporters agreed. But none asked the most heart breaking question: Did Kennedy himself know it? Did Robert Kennedy know he was a target?

A – Yeah, well, he did. He was very courageous and usually when people asked him about it he said, ‘Well, you just can’t worry about those things. I don’t think about that’. But actually-----he did. There were a few moments which I describe in the book when it becomes obvious this was something that was very much on his mind. At one point he remarked to Rev. Walter Faunteroy in Washington who had been one of Martin Luther King’s close friends and colleagues that he was afraid there were guns between him and The White House. He was courageous but, he also feared what was gonna happen.

Q – Did Ethel Kennedy have any fears about her husband’s safety?
A – Oh, I’m sure she did. There’s a famous incident that happened the day before he was assassinated, the last day he was campaigning in California when they went through China town. Although they had been warned that Chinese people usually set off firecrackers to celebrate a motorcade, the motorcade started and sure enough the firecrackers went off, Ethel, you can see the tape of it, immediately fell to the floor of the car-----terrified.

Q – Robert Kennedy needed security.
A – Well, yes he did, but you didn’t get security then. The Secret Service didn’t protect candidates in primaries, only after they got the nomination, I think actually only after they got the Presidency. After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, President Johnson ordered Secret Service protection for candidates. What he could have done is not go out in public, and just campaign from the television studio, but, he was unwilling to do that. He felt that that would be cowardly.

Q – How much money did Robert Kennedy raise for his Presidential Campaign up until June 4th 1968?
A – I’m not sure. I don’t have the figure.

Q – The candidates this year, at least the Democratic Top Two, raised over $100 million dollars each.
A – Even in those terms, nothing like that. You have to realize that also the primaries were not as important then. The nominee at the Democratic convention, the political bosses had a huge input as to who was going to be nominated. There were less primaries. They started later. They were less binding on the delegates. They were more to indicate a candidate’s support to the Democratic political establishment that would choose a candidate at the convention. That changed before 1972, before McGovern was nominated. But, at the time you didn’t need as much money ‘cause the primary season was shorter and there weren’t as many primaries.

Q – Where were you on June 4th 1968?
A – Oh, I had graduated from college. I was at a house party with friends of mine. The mother of one of the girls I remember was watching t.v. late. She was a big supporter of Kennedy’s and she came running over to a barn we were all sleeping in and began shrieking that he had been shot. We stayed up all night watching the t.v. and people forget, it wasn’t certain, at first it wasn’t like J.F.K. Bobby Kennedy lingered for awhile. In the initial hours there was some hope that he would survive. He talked after he had been shot. He was conscious and he said a few things.

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