DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of a physical feat that inspired the nation. It was not accomplished by an athlete, but by a politician. Robert Kennedy, U.S. attorney general and brother to President John F. Kennedy, walked 50 miles in the freezing cold. And we're about to learn why. Now, the Kennedys were athletic. They were famous for some fiercely competitive, touch-football games. John Kennedy also enjoyed golf, tennis and sailing. And when he became president, he made physical fitness a national priority.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: I hope all of you will join in a great national effort to build a strong and better America through physical effort, and through the contributions we can make by the drive and force we bring to our daily lives.
GREENE: The president appealed to Americans to exercise and improve their vigor - or as he pronounced it in his Boston accent, vigah. So Kennedy's in the White House, and he hears about an executive order from another president who was a fitness fanatic, Teddy Roosevelt. In 1908, Roosevelt declared that Marines should be fit enough to hike 50 miles.
So Kennedy decided to challenge the Marines of his time to do the same. He also joked that his own staff should be able to walk that far. Well, the attorney general took it seriously. Bobby Kennedy decided that he would walk 50 miles. He wasn't going to do this alone. He went to his staff.
JAMES SYMINGTON: Bobby told me, just as I was leaving the office, I'm going to see you tomorrow at 5 in the morning. And I said, why would you want to do that? Because we're going to walk to Camp David.
GREENE: Camp David is the presidential retreat out in rural Maryland. It's not exactly close. We're hearing here from James Symington, Bobby Kennedy's administrative assistant at the Justice Department. And when his boss said 5 a.m., it's not like he could say no.
SYMINGTON: So the next morning, the alarm went off. I hadn't even told my wife; I didn't dare. And she said, what are you doing? I said, I'm going to take a walk with Bobby Kennedy. We're going to walk up to Camp David.
GREENE: (LAUGHTER) Did her eyes get all wide?
SYMINGTON: She thought it was a little nutty to do, but she was used to me doing nutty things. So off I went.
GREENE: It's February 9th, 1963, and Symington meets Kennedy just outside Washington, D.C. The plan: Follow a path that runs alongside the old C&O Canal, all the way up to Camp David. It is dark and cold outside, the temperature around 20 degrees.
SYMINGTON: I put some raisins in my pocket, and a couple of walnuts or something. That's all I had.
GREENE: That's it. What kind of shoes did you have on? Did you prepare for this?
SYMINGTON: I had a fairly good - my boondockers from the Marines. I kept the same pair.
GREENE: Marine boots.
SYMINGTON: Yeah, Marine boots.
GREENE: And what about Bobby Kennedy?
SYMINGTON: Bobby was in loafers.
GREENE: And what was that choice about?
SYMINGTON: Bobby had no - ever had any sense that there wasn't anything he couldn't do.
GREENE: Also along for this journey, other staff: press aide Edwin Guthman; David Hackett, an adviser and longtime friend; Louis Oberdorfer, an assistant attorney general - oh, and Brumus, Bobby Kennedy's dog, a Newfoundland weighing more than a hundred pounds. The dog sets off with Symington, at a faster pace than everyone else.
SYMINGTON: Brumus was such a buddy of mine...
GREENE: The dog.
SYMINGTON: He kept jumping on me - in a friendly way - as we made our way along this ice-strewn path, and knocking me into the drink.
GREENE: The dog was knocking you into the canal.
SYMINGTON: Into the canal. That's right. Yeah.
GREENE: So you're cold and wet.
SYMINGTON: In a nice way. In a friendly way.
GREENE: But cold and wet is not a good combination.
SYMINGTON: He wasn't trying to kill me, but he damn near did.
GREENE: Brumus not the best conversationalist, though. And so Symington is entertaining himself.
SYMINGTON: I sang and I whistled, and that kind of stuff - to myself, you know.
GREENE: What were you singing?
SYMINGTON: Well, oh, gosh, I would sing (Singing) to the tables down at Maury's, to the place where Louie dwells, to the dear old table bar we love so well...
GREENE: A lonely walk but after about 25 miles, Bobby Kennedy and the others catch up with Symington. Everyone is cold. Their feet are swollen and aching. They sit down on some rocks, and slip off their shoes.
SYMINGTON: And believe it or a not, a helicopter appeared over us - bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah -and settles down, disgorging photographers. And we had just about made a decision - hey, guys, we've made our point. It's been 25 miles; come on, now. Let's go home and get back into our real lives. But he realized that too much was riding on this, to do that.
GREENE: It was 50 or bust.
SYMINGTON: So he put those loafers back on - rather disconsolately - and set off, this time accompanied only by Guthman and Hackett. I felt I had done my duty sufficiently. So I said, OK, guys. Good luck. So the three of them set off. OK, I think Guthman lasted about another five miles; Hackett, maybe another 10 miles. So he did the whole dern thing himself.
GREENE: Were you worried about him? Were you worried that he...
SYMINGTON: Not a bit. Heavens, no. If you knew that guy, you never worried about him.
GREENE: Late that night, Kennedy completes his journey - 17 hours and 50 minutes after it began. He finished on the canal path somewhere in West Virginia, a little off-target. Camp David was 25 miles to the east. The attorney general was picked up and driven to the presidential compound, where his hiking companions were waiting for him.
Now soon, word of Kennedy's hike got out. There were countless stories in papers and magazines. Even the Boy Scouts paid tribute to his accomplishment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: For the president's brother Robert Kennedy, there's a leather patch attesting to the fact that he successfully completed a 50-mile jaunt.
GREENE: Hiking became a national obsession. It even inspired songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Singing) Fifty miles, keep on a-walking. And it's 25 miles, and you're almost there. Fifty miles, and no use a-talking. You'd better get in step with the new frontier.
GREENE: Walking 50 miles became all the rage.
RAY SMITH: It also spread into Europe and today, there are still marches that have continued - from '63 to 2013; especially in Sittard, Holland, where I've done a couple of the Kennedy walks.
GREENE: That's Ray Smith of Great Falls, Va. He's organized a walk for tomorrow. He and a few dozen other people will try to complete the same walk Bobby Kennedy took exactly 50 years ago.
SMITH: I think it's our little way of trying to respect that legacy that the Kennedys left us.
GREENE: As for James Symington?
Do you ever wish you had finished the 50 miles?
SYMINGTON: Oh, every day of my life. Now, I deeply regret that I didn't keep going. All I can say is no one else did, either. That's not an excuse, mind you. Too late now.
GREENE: Still, Symington says he's proud to have walked a little bit into history, alongside Robert Kennedy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.