A lesson from RFK for a young journalist

Iowa Writers' Collaborative.  Linking Iowa readers and writers.Sunday, November 20, 2022 would have been US Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s 97th birthday. He was born on this date in 1925.

It is amazing to imagine that Kennedy is 97 years old. Two of his distinguishing features were his youth and his strength. How is it possible that he is now 97?

Even more amazing is that he’s now longer dead than alive: 54 years away, 42 years with us. His loss to our nation was tragic and immense. I can still feel it today.

As a young reporter, I covered RFK twice when he visited Iowa, once in March 1968 and again in May 1968. He was considering running for President in March. He was an officially declared candidate in May.

I started my career in journalism when I was a child. At age 14, I was covering politics for my hometown weekly, the Dallas County News in Adel, Iowa. How I got this job at that age is a story in itself, but I’ll save that for another day.

Kennedy’s visit to Des Moines on March 9 is most vivid in my memory.

This resulted in the first big “exclusive interview” I ever got hold of. That was before the Iowa Caucuses hit the big time. Visits by national politicians to Iowa were comparatively rare at the time.

His visit also produced what I considered to be my first major “scoop” in a huge story.

Kennedy was in Des Moines as the keynote speaker at a Democrat fundraiser in the Veterans Auditorium. Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes was considering running for the US Senate this year to claim the seat vacated by retired Senator Bourke Hickenlooper. Kennedy wanted to encourage Hughes to run.

Kennedy was a strong magnet anyway, but especially so in March 1968. Opposition to the Vietnam War – and to incumbent President Lyndon Johnson – was strong and growing rapidly. Many wanted Kennedy to run as the presidential candidate against Johnson in 1968 to end the war.

In March 1968, speculation was raging that Kennedy might do it.

Senator Eugene McCarthy had launched his own anti-war campaign for the Democratic nomination and was running a very strong race by any measure. In fact, on March 12, just three days after Kennedy’s visit to Des Moines, McCarthy nearly defeated Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, by 42% of the vote to Johnson’s 50%.

On March 9, before New Hampshire, Kennedy was already thinking about entering the race.

Three Democratic governors from the Midwest – Robert Docking of Kansas, William Guy of North Dakota and Warren Hearnes of Missouri – also attended the dinner. Publicly, they were there to encourage Hughes to run for the Senate. But they were also in Des Moines for another reason: to help Kennedy decide whether to run for president.

I found out about the meeting with the governors and that it was at the Hotel Savery, after the fundraising dinner at Vets’. I marked out a spot in the hall in front of the meeting room. I wanted to catch Kennedy as he entered the meeting and ask him about the speculation that he plans to officially attend the Oregon elementary school.

As Kennedy and Hughes walked down the hall to the briefing room where the governors were waiting, I stepped forward and held out the microphone that came with my small $60 tape recorder that I bought at Younkers. With all the courage a 14-year-old could muster, I asked, “Senator, is there any truth to the rumors that you are planning to attend elementary school in Oregon?”

Kennedy looked at me but kept walking. So I went with him and asked again. “Senator. The Oregon area code. Are you planning on attending Oregon elementary school?”

This time he paused and spoke directly into my microphone. “There is no truth to these reports. I have no intention of entering Oregon elementary school or any other elementary school,” he said. Then, with just a few more steps, he entered the room. The door closed behind him.

I could hardly believe my luck!

I had just had an “exclusive interview” – a bit pompous in hindsight to describe a question down the hall – with Sen. Kennedy!

I had also received what I took to be the direct answer to the question on the mind of every political reporter in the country!

At this point, a little chronology becomes important for this story.

March 9, 1968 was a Saturday. The next issue of the Dallas County News was published on Wednesday, March 13th. I put my message in the message bureau’s mail slot on Sunday, March 10th. The gist of that story was, of course, “Exclusive: RFK doesn’t run in 1968!”

As I waited impatiently to see it in print, I was certain that, at the age of 14, it was only a matter of time before the Pulitzer Awards folks would call me.

It didn’t quite work out.

First of all, McCarthy’s strong performance in New Hampshire on March 12 changed and accelerated everything.

Even a kid just learning the basics could see that things were changing quickly.

On March 16, just seven days after my hallway exclusive that produced the RFK Is Not Running story and just three days after my scoop hit the press, Robert Francis Kennedy stood in front of a huge line from microphones in the Russell Senate Caucus Room in a nationally televised news conference and said, “Today I announce my candidacy for the presidency of the United States.”

The ink was barely dry on my shovel.

Do I think Kennedy misled me in that hallway interview? No not at all.

Subsequent stories have documented that on March 9 he had not made a decision about running in the 1968 presidential campaign. He was still trying to make up his mind. Meeting with the Democratic Midwest governors should really help him decide.

There’s a phrase that describes what happened to my first big shovel: “Overtaken by events.” things have changed.

Even for a budding journalist, there was a valuable lesson to be learned from all of this:

Ask the exact question you want answered. Be specific.

Listen carefully to the answer you get. Hear what they say, not what you want to hear.

That’s good advice for voters, too.