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“He was a work in progress,” says Ronald Goldfarb inside his offices in Old Town Alexandria.
Goldfarb is speaking of Robert F. Kennedy, who will have been dead 50 years as of next week. And while significant questions about his assassination are still unresolved, so is the question of who Kennedy was and what his country might have been had he lived.
It’s the latter question that occupies Goldfarb’s mind. He is 84—an attorney, writer, and literary agent who divides his time between Miami and his home base in Virginia.
But in 1961 Goldfarb was a newbie in Robert Kennedy’s Department of Justice. He took the job reluctantly. New York would have been much more exciting for the young Yale Law grad, but a former classmate pressed him to explore opportunities in President John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier.”
“I didn’t like what RFK had done working for the McCarthy Committee, and even for the McClellan Committee,” says Goldfarb. “I just thought, like other people, that he was brash, and a bully, and that it was strictly nepotism that he was made attorney general.”
Goldfarb’s sentiment changed after he took the job. “The more I got to know him up front, close, and personal, the more I began to admire him, and have strong feelings about what he was doing.”
These latter feelings anchored Goldfarb in his DOJ job and everything that followed. He later served as a speech writer on Kennedy’s 1964 New York Senate campaign, wooing the same “Village Voice, West Side Super Liberals” he left to take the D.C. job, as well as Democrats supporting moderate Republican incumbent Kenneth Keating. They “didn’t quite understand that this was a man of many dimensions,” says Goldfarb, looking back.
Goldfarb has authored several books plus a novel, and is currently working on adapting his 1995 book Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes: Robert F. Kennedy’s War Against Organized Crime for a TV drama series. It covers his years at the DOJ. In describing what it was like to be part of the New Frontier, he says, “You weren’t there to get some credentials that you could then sell to get a better job. You were there because you really felt you were making a difference.”
Goldfarb’s DOJ section successfully investigated and prosecuted interstate gambling as well as the big profits funneled to corrupt local officials from liquor trafficking, narcotics, and prostitution. Their work to break up racketeering in labor unions was a carryover from Kennedy’s time in the late 1950s serving as chief counsel to the McClellan Committee of the U.S. Senate, which investigated criminal practices in labor organizations. His brother John was on the committee as the Senator from Massachusetts. The DOJ’s organized crime section investigated Jimmy Hoffa, who headed the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and mafia figures Sam Giancana, Santos Trafficante Jr., and Carlos Marcello.
Investigative reporter Dan Moldea, author of The Hoffa Wars and The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy, says “Bob Kennedy, a person whom I admired and respected, I believe was the greatest crime fighter this country’s ever had.” Kennedy’s chief investigator on the McClellan Committee, Walter Sheridan, mentored Moldea in D.C.
Serving as attorney general during the John F. Kennedy administration, Robert Kennedy faced an issue that demanded a different kind of response: civil rights. Violence against civil rights workers in the South was intensifying. It became a matter of political expediency for the young administration.
Robert Kennedy approved FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s request for a wiretap on Martin Luther King Jr.’s phone when it was discovered that Stanley Levison, an attorney and businessman who financed the Communist Party in the U.S. in the late 1940s and early 50s, was counseling the civil rights leader. Kennedy asked writer James Baldwin to invite influential black leaders to meet with him off-the-record in a Kennedy family apartment in New York. Playwright Lorraine Hansberry; actors Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and Rip Torn (who is white); and freedom rider Jerome Smith, who was being treated for head injuries by specialists in New York, all attended.
“They really jumped on him,” says Goldfarb. “I think he took that to heart. Black leadership was impatient with the Kennedys, especially JFK,” says Goldfarb. “Everybody was worried about Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.”
For his part, Goldfarb joined the marchers. “It was such a warm and good feeling. Old people, young people, black people, white people. There wasn’t an incident,” he recalls. The President and attorney general redoubled their civil rights efforts, and at the DOJ, people working in the organized crime section moved over to the Civil Rights Division.
But the “game changed totally,” according to Goldfarb, on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. The attorney general spent time at his home in McLean grieving for his brother, and when he finally came back to DOJ, Goldfarb says, he was “a ghost of himself”—the outcome that his enemies wanted. He became a “lame duck” attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson, with whom he had a relationship of “mutual contempt.”
He resigned as attorney general in the summer of 1964, and after leasing a house on Long Island announced his run for Senator of New York. He won, and Goldfarb was among those who subsequently encouraged him to run for president.
President Johnson wouldn’t seek re-election. Kennedy announced, on March 16, 1968, “I run to seek new policies—policies to end the bloodshed in Vietnam and in our cities, policies to close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country and around the rest of the world.”
He died after being shot in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, just after winning the California primary.
Palestinian immigrant Sirhan B. Sirhan, then 24, was arrested at the scene and later sentenced to death for the murder of Robert F. Kennedy. California rescinded the death penalty in 1972, and he’s now serving a life sentence.
A theory that a second shooter fired the bullet that killed Kennedy has endured for the past half century, and even gained traction recently. Moldea dismisses the theory, even though he was among those convinced that a second shooter killed Kennedy when he started his investigations in 1985. But after an extensive review of the evidence and numerous interviews with law-enforcement officials investigating the crime scene, Sirhan, and Thane Eugene Cesar, the hotel security guard standing next to Kennedy in the pantry, Moldea concluded in his 1995 book that the Los Angeles police had their man; it was Sirhan alone.
Kennedy’s labor affairs advisor Paul Schrade, who was shot in the pantry but survived his wounds, revisits the second shooter theory in the recent Netflix docuseries Bobby Kennedy for President. But series director Dawn Porter offers no resolution.
“I think the real takeaway,” says Porter, “which not many people have focused on except his lawyers, was how Sirhan’s trial did not allow for a real challenge to the evidence against him. That’s not the same as saying he’s innocent.”
Embedded in the crime scene debate are the “What if’s” that accompany any young death. In Kennedy’s case, those unresolved questions include the future of a nation.
“There are a lot of things that have happened in the 20th century which I still think need to be resolved,” says Moldea. “The JFK murder, the RFK murder, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. Until that happens I think, for many, there will continue to be a lack of confidence and trust in our government, in our law enforcement institutions, and I think it’s important we have that credibility.”
This article has been updated.