RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On this morning 40 years ago, Americans woke up to the news that Robert F. Kennedy had been shot. He'd been celebrating his victory in the key California Presidential Primary the night before at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. As he often did, the charismatic candidate waded out into a crush of admirers, everyone wanting to get close to touch Bobby Kennedy's hand. We're remembering Kennedy with people who knew him well, and today we hear from Ted Sorensen.
Mr. TED SORENSEN (Former Assistant to John F. Kennedy): I came to know Bobby Kennedy in 1953, not all together favorably to be frank about it, because we were far apart ideologically and in background.
MONTAGNE: Back in 1953, as a young man, Ted Sorensen had gone to work for the liberal Senator John F. Kennedy. And Bobby was counselor to the fiery conservative Senator Joseph McCarthy, infamous for his hearings into the Communist threat. Ted Sorensen remembers it wouldn't be until years later that they became close.
You write in your memoir, "Counselor," that's just come out, that by the early 1960s when his brother John F. Kennedy was president, you and Bobby Kennedy vied for the attention of his brother, somewhat like siblings.
Mr. SORENSEN: I suppose that's an apt comparison, because we both loved John F. Kennedy and were both determined to serve him. He was, as attorney general of the United States in 1961 and I as special counsel to the president, both had an edge of the jurisdiction on legal problems. So in that sense, there was competition, but in a much broader sense, whatever ill will or suspicion there may have been years earlier, we became fast friends.
MONTAGNE: John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 hit you both extremely hard.
Mr. SORENSEN: Very.
MONTAGNE: Will you tell us just one moment that, for you, sticks in your memory about how Robert F. Kennedy reacted?
Mr. SORENSEN: It's still difficult, Renee, for me to talk about those days, although for the first time in my life, I talk about them at some length in the book. But I still remember after it all happened, Bobby came into my office wearing dark glasses because his eyes had been filled with tears, and he was a proud man. He simply stood there for a while. We looked at each other. Each knew that the other had suffered a terrible loss. We commiserated a little bit, and then he went on to other duties. He remained in the cabinet as attorney general, and as a result, there were some deep divisions in the White House who should be loyal to the new president, who should be loyal to the old president by taking sides with Bobby, whose feuding with LBJ was no secret.
MONTAGNE: Robert F. Kennedy, of course, went on to make his own run for the presidency in 1968. He spent much of his campaign saying things that many Americans didn't want to hear, talking about race and equality among the races, about poverty. You, having known him all those years and harking back to a time when he was - as you describe him, back in the '50s, really a conservative -what was the key thing that made that change in him?
Mr. SORENSEN: All three Kennedy brothers, as I've know them, have grown, become more interested in those people at the bottom of the economic ladder with whom they did not have much connection when they were growing up rich in their father's house. But as John F. Kennedy toured West Virginia and saw poverty, as Robert Kennedy toured the country and say inner cities, Robert Kennedy picked up his brother's torch, including the progressive agenda to which John F. Kennedy had been committed.
MONTAGNE: You tell an anecdote in your memoir that mixes up a lot of the elements of Bobby Kennedy. It has to do with you having exchange on television, on ABC, an interview.
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Mr. SORENSEN: I remember.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, in 1967. And what happened?
Mr. SORENSEN: I pointed out that when I first met Bobby, I wouldn't have voted for him for dog catcher or any other office, that he was rugged and ruthless. And I went down the line of a lot of other adjectives, describing him as being much closer to his father's views than to his brother's in those days. And a few days later, I received a hand written note from Bobby on Senate letterhead stationary. It said, Teddy, Old Pal, how about going easy on those adjectives in the old days and paying a few more good ones for today?
MONTAGNE: There was a little edge there, but you were great friends.
Mr. SORENSEN: We were. And like all the Kennedy brothers, Bobby had a terrific sense of humor.
MONTAGNE: Tell us about the moment when Bobby Kennedy was shot and where you were.
Mr. SORENSEN: Oh, I - that was the evening after his wonderful victory in the California primary which virtually guaranteed him the Democratic nomination for president. I was in his hotel suite, which was a madhouse, seeing people celebrating, cheering each report that came over the television. And finally, he was summoned to go down to the ballroom and salute and thank the crowd of his supporters and workers. And I stayed behind in his hotel room, watching on television. I saw him speak, thank his supporters, conclude with stirring the words, now, on to Chicago - which was to be the site of a convention that year - continued watching as the camera followed him off the platform, only to hear the shots ring out, the commentators saying Senator Kennedy has been shot, and there he was lying on the floor. And I could not believe that what I'd gone through five years earlier was happening again.
MONTAGNE: Ted Sorensen, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SORENSEN: Thank you.
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MONTAGNE: Ted Sorensen was at the Ambassador Hotel the night his friend, Robert F. Kennedy, was shot. Tomorrow, we'll hear the details of that evening from the photographer who captured what came to be the iconic image of the fallen candidate.