Summer of '68
Remembering a different presidential campaign season
“My job was to see, not to hear,” writes former Life photographer Bill Eppridge in his recently released coffee-table book A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties (Abrams), a crisp, informative collection of magnificent color and black-and-white photographs of perhaps one of the most exciting presidential campaigns in American history, up to this most recent season. “Reporters listen, photographers look.” Eppridge concentrated on “that image in the viewfinder” and the “making of pictures,” not just the “taking” of them.
This superb book is a testament to his craft. Those over 50 will recall much of Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign from memory, while those under 50 will learn—maybe for the first time--what all the excitement was about. In 1968, only 14 states had primaries, and New York’s junior Democratic Sen. Kennedy--age 42 at the time--selectively entered Indiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and California, all of which he won. He was expected to win the Empire State’s primary, too, had he not been assassinated in Los Angeles, June 6, 1968, after his primary win against Minnesota Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who had beaten him earlier in Oregon.
Eppridge--who was on staff at Life from 1962-’72, and after Kennedy’s death wrote 1993’s Robert Kennedy: The Last Campaign--had first covered Kennedy’s 1966 congressional efforts to elect other Democratic candidates, during which time he tested the waters for his own possible presidential run against then-incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. By the 1968 campaign season Kennedy skipped the earlier New Hampshire primary and entered the race late--by standards then and now--only on March 16. And when Johnson dropped out of the race March 31, the man to beat became his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey was the presumed front-runner--and eventually became the 1968 Democratic nominee--but according to Eppridge, Life’s editors believed that, “If Bobby wins California, he will be the next President.” And over the last four decades, that view has become the accepted political wisdom, correct or not.
A Time It Was’ marvelous collection fuels that now-accepted version of history. In a coffee-table-style format the book shows Kennedy in campaign scenarios in moving convertibles, on the stump, and in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen pantry where he was shot by Palestinian terrorist Sirhan Sirhan. Eppridge also provides several previously unpublished private photographs that reveal another side of Kennedy. In one, sunlight striking Kennedy’s hair gives it a grayish tint, surreally suggesting what he might have looked like in 1988 had he survived Sirhan’s bullets.
In addition, Eppridge presents many interesting details of that brief, frenetic campaign: that many people in the press corps by late May believed Kennedy would be killed; that the motorcades then consisted of the candidate’s car, the photographers’ vehicle, and the press bus only; and that there was no security other than a volunteer former FBI agent and two famous athletes. Only after Kennedy’s death would Secret Service details be assigned to major presidential candidates, which is now standard.
Perhaps the most interesting details of Eppridge’s firsthand accounts involve the last day of Kennedy’s life and the assassination that ended it. Since Kennedy had few handlers compared to today’s traveling entourages, Eppridge notes that the press photographers formed a human wedge in front of the senator as he advanced into crowds: Kennedy walking forward, they backward. On the night of the assassination, Kennedy himself violated a cardinal rule: never to retrace his own path. In other words, don’t leave a place by the way you entered.
Kennedy did just that, re-entering the kitchen pantry that he’d passed through on his way to the speaker’s podium, which was against the advice of his bodyguard Bill Barry. The photographers were cut off from their star, and Kennedy walked toward Sirhan’s pointed gun, with the crowd behind the senator pushing him ever forward.
When he caught up to his wounded candidate, Eppridge took the famous black-and-white shot of Kennedy lying on the pantry floor with Ambassador Hotel busboy Juan Romero beside him. Fellow photographer Julian Wasser correctly called it “one hell of a picture.”
Finally, noted journalist and author Pete Hamill provides a moving and educational essay that recalls those whirlwind days of Camelot’s near restoration, a time that resulted instead in President Richard Nixon.