Should the convicted assassin of Robert F. Kennedy be paroled after 53 years in prison?
Should the man who shot and killed Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, walk free? That is the question the full California Parole Board is actively considering after a two-member panel declared him eligible for release on August 27. The final decision rests with California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has said he has not yet made a decision, but has been quoted noting that RFK was a big inspiration to him, adding: “I think that gives you a sense of where I might be leaning right now.”
Sirhan, who remains in jail, has been denied parole 15 times before. Even the nine surviving Kennedy children are split on the question: two believe it is time for him to be released, six adamantly do not, along with RFK’s widow, Ethel. The eldest, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has remained silent, finding it too emotionally difficult to discuss in public.
The whole debate summons a vivid memory for me, a haunting recollection of how I became the person to tell Sirhan Sirhan Sr. that his namesake son had been seized on the spot as the assassin. It is recounted in my newly-published memoir “Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House.”
On June 5th, 1968, I was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times based in Jerusalem, Israel. I had spent a lot of time with Robert Kennedy, covering his successful 1964 campaign for the United States Senate from New York, the only campaign he ever finished. I had been skeptical of him at first, but had come to admire him when it became clear that his commitment to civil rights and racial equality was the real deal. Needless to say, I was stunned by the news out of Los Angeles.
The next day I was attending a reception at the home of the American Ambassador to Israel when he drew me into his study, closed the door and told me that he had just learned that Sirhan Sirhan, Sr., the assassin’s father, lived in a small West Bank village near Jerusalem, barely an hour away.
Heading straight there, I arrived at the darkened Sirhan house about 10 p.m. A diminutive man in pajamas opened the door, clearly puzzled why a stranger had come at such a late hour. I explained who I was and, typical of Palestinian hospitality, Sirhan insisted that I sit at his kitchen table while he made coffee for both of us.
I asked Sirhan if he had heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination. He said yes, it was terrible, that Kennedy could have been a great president. I asked if he had heard that the assassin was caught on the spot. Showing no emotion, he said yes, he had heard that on the radio. Had he heard the name of the captured assassin, I asked? No, he said, he had gone to bed and had no idea who it was.
Sitting at the kitchen table, I slid my reporter’s notebook across to Sirhan. “I understand you have five sons, is that right?” He said yes, he was proud of them. I asked him to write their names on my notebook. When he wrote the 4th name, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan Jr., I put my finger on that name and looked him in the eye. “That’s the name of the assassin they seized on the spot,” I said.
Stunned, Sirhan Sirhan Sr. stared at me. He could see I was serious. He gave me a hard, disbelieving look and shook his head. Then he erupted, first shouting that the assassin couldn’t be his son, Sirhan. “He was the best of the boys, the smartest, with the best grades,” he insisted, “I had the highest hopes for him.”
Then, his face darkened and his voice became angry. “If he did it,” he shouted, “he should hang.,” repeating that Kennedy could have been a great president.
Back and forth the father went, frantically switching from denial to accusation, back and forth for a half-hour, shaking his head in disbelief and then shouting that if his son was guilty, he should hang. He kept repeating that Sirhan Jr. was the brightest of his boys. “It couldn’t be, not Sirhan, not him,” he said repeatedly. “But if he did this dirty thing, he should pay for it.”
Finally, about midnight, I closed my notebook and returned to Jerusalem to write what little I had learned about the accused assassin’s family and background. I never saw Sirhan Sirhan Sr. again.
Postscript: the next day I interviewed the Palestinian headmaster of the school Sirhan had attended in the Old City. He confirmed that Sirhan Jr. had been a promising student with excellent grades. But, he said, the family was deeply troubled. The father had lost his job, blamed it on the Israelis, and took it out on his family, beating his wife and kids. The couple spit up; the wife took an offer from an evangelical Christian group and moved with the boys to the United States. That, said the headmaster, was why Sirhan Jr. was so bitter about Kennedy, whom he saw as a supporter of the Israelis, and so angry as Kennedy closed in on the presidential nomination.
So, should Sirhan Sirhan Jr. be released now, after more than half a century in prison? I would say no, but I am not impartial on the subject. That decision is up to the full Parole Board and, ultimately, Governor Newsom.
Just a quick comment today on the extraordinary coverage over the past week of the “lethal mayhem,” as Roger Cohen labelled it in today’s New York Times, surrounding the Kabul airport as the United States and allies struggle to bring some order out of chaos in Afghanistan. Much of the coverage has been riveting, produced under the most difficult and dangerous circumstances.
But what stands out to me day after day is the first-person reporting of western women correspondents in the face of the open hostility they encounter from the heavily-armed Taliban fighters around the airport.
Jane Ferguson’s lead pieces for The PBS Newshour each night have been outstanding examples of the kind of calm, coherent coverage that is needed to make sense out of a senseless, chaotic scene. Ferguson remains inside the perimeter of the airport, interviewing desperate Americans and allies as they push through the gauntlet.
In Monday’s New York Times, Roger Cohen interviewed Ferguson, noting that she is one of the few Western reporters still in Kabul. The scene around the airport, she said, is “apocalyptic. People are fainting and dying. Children are going missing.” The scene, she said, “is like a very strange dream.”
Correspondent Clarissa Ward of CNN has also been remarkable, even confronting Taliban fighters who lecture her on camera about covering her face and hands in public. She continued reporting first-hand until she was able to escape aboard a flight to Doha, Qatar. Both women have set a standard for coverage that is at once brave, empathetic and important
The similarity of the page-one images is haunting: the fat, Chinook helicopter lifting diplomats and escapees above the vast United States compound in Kabul this morning, August 16, 2021; and the famous, April 28, 1975, photo of Vietnamese evacuees clambering up a spindly ladder to an Air America helicopter atop an apartment building a short distance from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
The two experiences are different, of course, but both images symbolize the climatic end to a costly, misguided American adventure abroad. Both raise the same troubling question: “Will we ever learn?”
Lord knows we have been warned, first by Rudyard Kipling about Afghanistan, “the graveyard of empires,” and in 1968, by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, then the leader of Cambodia, talking about the folly of the U.S. effort to prop up the crumbling government of South Vietnam.
In an interview I conducted with Sihanouk in Phnom Penh and published in The New York Times on November 17, 1968, the Prince forecast: “You will be forced to take your troops and leave Vietnam. You cannot block the majority will. You cannot stop the reunification and yes, the communization of Vietnam. The majority of the people want to be with Ho Chi Minh and there is nothing you can do about it. You would be wise to withdraw and let the Vietnamese settle their own problems themselves.” It took seven more years, billions of U.S. dollars and countless American and Vietnamese lives before the American effort collapsed, but every word Sihanouk said that day in 1968 proved true.
This account is included in my forthcoming memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents, A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House,” to be published by Rowman and Littlefield on Oct. 15, 2021. The link to pre-order the book follows:
Recommended summer reading: “A Good Life, Newspapering and Other Adventures,” by Benjamin C. Bradlee, the late executive editor who made The Washington Post what it is today. It’s an autobiographical journalistic memoir, first published by Simon and Shuster in 1995.
“A Good Life” is a delight: entertaining, brightly written and deeply perceptive about the ethical and professional conflicts that confront journalists today. For some reason, the 500-page hardback has perched unread on my bookshelf for more than two decades until I picked it up the other day and was immediately drawn into Ben’s candid account of his early years, his time in Paris, his three marriages and many dalliances, his friendship with John F. Kennedy, his stint as Washington bureau chief of Newsweek and his selection by Kay Graham in 1965 as the eventual executive editor of The Post, a position he told her frankly he would “give my left one for.” (At Ben’s 1991 retirement party at The Post, which I attended, Mrs. Graham recalled that offer and joked: “What no one knows is, I accepted.”)
“A Good Life” is quintessentially Bradlee: irreverent, earthy and a revealing account of American journalism in the 20thcentury from Watergate through the Janet Cooke affair to ethical and national security issues that he confronted in his later years at The Post. It was, as the title suggests, a very good life and remains a very good read. If it is sitting unread on your bookshelf, or available elsewhere, pick it up and see what I mean.
Today’s Recommended Reading includes two excellent examples of international reporting from the Grey Lady, and an essay from Time magazine by Rick Hutzell, the former editor of The Annapolis Capital Gazette about the aftermath of the June 28, 2018 shooting that took the lives of five employees and still ranks as the most deadly assault on American journalism.
“Riots Shattered Illusion of Coexistence in Israel. In Arab-Jewish Towns, Resentment festers Over Inequality” is the headline on Roger Cohen’s remarkable page-one account, datelined Acre, Israel, in today’s New York Times. It is a penetrating, perceptive look at the fallout from the inter-communal rioting that shattered Israel during the latest round of fighting in Gaza.
“After Clenching Power, Tunisia’s President Holds Forth on Freedoms. Lecturing Reporters on Preserving Rights and The Rule of Law,” is the headline on a riveting first-person account, datelined Tunis, by Vivian Yee, in the international section of today’s New York Times. She describes being summoned to an audience with Tunisia’s autocratic president Kais Saied in the presidential palace, being cautioned about crossing her legs in front of him, directed to replace her sandals with a pair of closed-toe heels and then lectured about the new freedoms he is bringing to Tunisia.
Here is the link to Rick Hutzell’s powerful essay in Time.
MONDAY MORNING MEDIA X
Three years ago today, on June 28, 2018, a deranged gunman murdered five staffers at the office of The Annapolis Capital Gazette, the beleaguered Maryland daily that serves this state capital on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. The attack was then and remains today the costliest assault on the press in the history of the country.
Today, several hundred people are commemorating the deaths of news editor and columnist Rob Hiaasen, 59; editorial editor Gerald Fischman, 61; community news reporter Wendi Winters, 65; sportswriter and editor Bob McNamara, 56; and sales associate Rebecca Smith, 34; by dedicating a striking new memorial to the First Amendment on the waterfront. In an ironic twist, a trial to determine whether their confessed and defiant killer was mentally stable at the time of the shooting opens tomorrow in a local courtroom. The defendant pled guilty to all five murders in an earlier trial. His only explanation was that he was settling an old score with a pair of editors who no longer worked at the paper. His lawyers assert that he was crazy.
There will be recollections of the deceased at the dedication, speeches about the importance of the first amendment, declarations by local politicians and others of the importance of local newspapers and praise for the Annapolis Capital, which was honored by the Pulitzer Prize committee for soldiering on three years ago in the wake of the shooting.
Meanwhile, another murder is taking place at the Annapolis Capital. The vulture capital firm Alden Capital, which has bought and systematically fleeced and destroyed scores of newspapers across the country in the name of short-term profit, is killing the Capital. Not with a gun, of course, but with budget cuts, buyouts, staff reductions and consolidation. The Capital newsroom was already shuttered last year even before Alden completed its $630 million takeover of Tribune Publishing, the parent company of a dozen dailies including The Baltimore Sun Media Group, of which the Capital is a component.
Just yesterday, Danielle Ohl, a young and promising reporter on The Capital, signed off with an eloquent op-ed column headlined: “See You Later, Annapolis; I love you,” after apparently taking one of the buyouts urged by Alden Capital to trim the staff and cut costs. She will be missed by the readers, as will Rick Hutzell, the longtime and dedicated editor, who took a buyout a week earlier. Both wrote that the paper will be fine going forward without them, but readers wonder at what point the staff and budget cuts will become lethal.
There is a slim ray of hope: a few public spirited citizens in Baltimore have floated plans to purchase the Baltimore Sun Media Group from Alden and restructure it as a non-profit. So, the Capital, which has been published regularly since the 18th century, may live on in a new incarnation.
MONDAY MORNING MEDIA IX
On the dry, hot morning of June 7, 1967, as a newly-minted foreign correspondent for The New York Times in Jerusalem, I was among the first American reporters to follow Israeli troops into East Jerusalem. I rode in a borrowed jeep into the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood and watched as Israeli troops rounded up all the Arab men of military age and took them prisoner. An hour later, I ditched the jeep and walked through the Lion’s Gate into the Old City and onto the broad, open plaza around the Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa mosque. The area is known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Arabs.
Sheik Jarrah and Al Aksa were the two incendiary matches that lit the fuse that launched the most recent, 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza: Sheikh Jarrah because of an ongoing legal dispute between Palestinian residents and Israelis over the ownership of several of the houses; the area around the Al Aksa because Israeli police launched a violent crackdown on Palestinian protesters that brought Hamas rockets raining into Israel.
A ceasefire between the two sides has largely held for several days now after heavy casualties and destruction on both sides. There is speculation that Israel’s politically embattled and indicted Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, might have brought on the fighting as a diversion from his own problems; and that Hamas may have responded as forcefully as it did to establish itself as the defender of Jerusalem over Fatah and the Palestinian Authority and the true leader of the Palestinian people. So far, neither accusation has been proved by documentary evidence, but the speculation abounds.
In many ways, this latest, costly battle seems reminiscent of past encounters between Israel and Hamas. Innocent civilians get caught in the deadly crossfire on both sides. Foreign powers, including the United States and Egypt, apply pressure and a ceasefire is reached. Each side buries its dead and rebuilds. The tension subsides but the anger remains. Rinse and repeat.
But this latest round is significantly different in several ways. Social media played an explosive role this time in arousing anger and action on both sides. Right-wing Israelis fought openly against Israeli-Palestinian demonstrators in the streets of Lod and Acre and Haifa and other mixed cities, shattering an uneasy accommodation that has existed within Israel for decades. And world opinion was more vocal in criticism of Israel and support for Palestinians. None of these realities is likely to disappear any time soon. So, the stage is set for more social media incitement on both sides and more internal, communal strife within Israel.
To anyone who remembers the hopes for peace that were felt on both sides in the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967, it is a discouraging, heartbreaking prospect. To understand what Palestinians go through on a daily basis on the West Bank these days, read the excellent piece in the Sunday, May 23, New York Times by David M. Halbfinger and Adam Rascon headlined: “The Misery of Life Under Occupation: Daily Indignities Mount for Palestinians, Steadily fueling a conflict.” That says it all.
Have you noticed the (relative) quiet? The almost-calm reporting on President Biden and his initiatives? The lack of stress when you read the paper or listen to the news in the morning? How the network evening news broadcasts sound more like The PBS NewsHour?
It is the soothing sound of media in the post-Trump world. Relish it.
True, there are still headlines like the page 1 Washington Post piece on Saturday: “Vengeful Trump Back on the Attack.”
But Lisa Lerer struck the new tone with the lead of her Political Memo in The Sunday New York Times yesterday: “Locked out of Facebook, marooned at Mar-a-Lago and mocked for an amateurish new website, Donald J. Trump remained largely out of sight last week.” That’s more typical of the mainstream media reporting in the post-Trump era.
Of course, there are exceptions: Fox, OAN and others continue to beat the Trump Drum. They faithfully report on The Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from the 45th President. They trumpet the expected downfall of Rep. Liz Cheney for the crime of telling the truth. They cover the voter suppression efforts in various red states.
But in the mainstream, the tenor is more relaxed. One neighbor told me over the weekend that she is spending less time on the news, but enjoying it more.
Trump was right about one thing when he was president: back in 2017 he predicted: “Newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there. Without me, their ratings are going down the tubes.”
In fact, the Trump Bump has become the Trump Slump. All three cable news networks’ ratings have shrunk since January 20. Compared to March, 2020, Fox News total-day viewership is down 40%, CNN’s has dropped 32% and MSNBC has lost 19%. Further proof, if needed, that bad news sells.
One characteristic I found underplayed in the many fine obituaries of former Vice President Mondale, notably Steve Weisman’s excellent account of a life well lived in The New York Times, is Mondale’s wonderful, self-deprecatory humor. He was, simply, one of the most delightful, engaging and modest politicians I have ever covered. And I have covered a lot of them.
One small story to illustrate: while he was Vice President, Mondale set off on an ambitious, 28,000-mile tour of southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand to outline the Carter’s Administration’s policy towards that vital portion of the world. As White House Correspondent for The New York Times, I was one of a handful of reporters who accompanied him on Air Force II the whole, exhausting way.
The trip didn’t generate much real news, but the reporters and staff and Mondale bonded as the miles went by, kidding each other about everything. The Vice President had private quarters up front in the aircraft, but often came back to kibbitz with the reporters and we, in turn, would rib him about the sparse crowds on the tarmac as the big plane, with United States of America emblazoned across it, landed at Bangkok, Manilla, Jakarta and Canberra. “They’ve never heard of you,” we’d say, “they have no idea who you are.”
Mondale took the ribbing until we landed at our last stop, Wellington, New Zealand, and spotted a large crowd with placards waiting near the hangar. We couldn’t read the signs at a distance, but had to admit it was a big turnout.
“See? Mondale exulted. “ Look at that crowd! I’m big here in New Zealand, they love me here.”
Mondale was in Wellington to meet with the conservative, well-fed Prime Minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, universally known by his constituents as “Piggy” Muldoon.
As the big plane turned at the end of the runway and taxied towards the crowd, we could finally begin to read the placards. “Mondale-Muldoon, An Encounter of the Turd Kind,” several of them read, with the demonstrators shaking their fists at the plane.
The press ruffians in the back laughed at Mondale. But here’s the thing, Mondale laughed the longest and loudest of all.
Two must-read media columns posted and in print today in The New York Times and Washington Post: Ben Smith’s Media Equation column about the current, idiosyncratic iteration of the historic Harper’s magazine; Margaret Sullivan’s Washington Post column about Elizabeth Becker’s new book on three groundbreaking women reporters in Vietnam entitled “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War.”
Both columns are good; each has its own oddity.
Ben Smith (no relation) has carved out new territory with his weekly column on media matters in the NYT’s Business section, reporting on the fast-changing world of media. Today, he gives a vivid account of the venerable, 170-year-old Harper’s under the eccentric stewardship of its publisher/owner John R. MacArthur, the heir to the real estate and insurance fortune that funds the MacArthur “genius” grants.
MacArthur has compelled his small, young, underpaid staff to continue to come to the Harper’s office in Manhattan during the Covid crackdown and has recently drawn attention with the magazine’s open assault on what he sees as the “intolerant climate” of political correctness and cancel culture. This, in a magazine that has historically been among the most liberal voices, is startling, but not radical. As one columnist described it, Harpers today is “not anti-woke, but simply not woke.”
Today’s Media Equation column is an excellent read. The oddity that caught my eye was in the print edition, delivered daily to the doorstep of ancients like me. The headline on the business page front reads: “Inside the Venerable Harper’s, Media’s oddest workplace.” The headline on the jump on page two reads: “Inside the Venerable Harper’s, Media’s Weirdest Workplace.” Evidently, whoever wrote the headlines (not a copy reader, The Times is doing without those these days,) felt “oddest” was understating it.
In the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan offers a bright and positive review of Elizabeth Becker’s account of the Vietnam reportage of three women: Frances FitzGerald, Kate Webb and Catherine Leroy. It is a fine book by Becker, herself an outstanding war correspondent in Cambodia, but it all but ignores the extraordinary Gloria Emerson, who joined the Saigon bureau of The New York Times in 1969-1970 when I was the Bureau Chief. Gloria, who passed away in 2004, provided The Times’ readers with marvelous, graceful accounts of the human cost of that fruitless war.
Gloria Emerson should be featured in any account of women on the war. But that’s okay. She wrote her own book, “Winners & Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from the Vietnam War,” that won the National Book Award in the 1970’s. It was reissued on the 50th anniversary of the war.