This is about something that happened in the 1960s, and about what a couple of famous men did or didn’t do then. And about whether it matters.
The men aren’t John Kerry and George Bush, and the turf isn’t Vietnam or Texas; it’s what has got to be the saddest little piece of real estate in California, and two admirable men’s conflicting memories of what took place there.
The spot in question is the Ambassador Hotel, where, on June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy lay in the kitchen pantry, spread-eagle as if he were making a snow angel, his life and a suddenly unrealized American future bleeding out across the concrete floor.
The Los Angeles Unified School District bought the old hotel at a bankruptcy sale three years ago. Any day now, the LAUSD will be pulling most of it down to build a school. A library will be built in the ballroom where, on that June midnight, Kennedy acknowledged victory in the California presidential primary. The thunderclap of cheers that night must have followed Kennedy offstage, down the kitchen corridor, to be drowned out only by the sound of the shots from a .22-caliber gun.
What will become of that dolorous spot? Whether it assumes the historic mantle of the Texas School Book Depository or the Lorraine Motel will be decided by a blue-ribbon commission. What no commission can decide is the disagreement over what happened there on that night in June 1968. It involves two men of stainless and laudable reputation, friends of the Kennedys -- Rosey Grier, the football star turned minister, and Rafer Johnson, the gold-standard Olympic athlete and co-founder of the California Special Olympics. A Times article in July mentioned almost in passing that decathlon champion Johnson had disarmed Sirhan Sirhan after Sirhan shot Kennedy. Grier called the paper to say that in fact it was he who got the gun away from Sirhan. The Times’ correction read that “Johnson and former NFL star Rosey Grier disarmed Sirhan.”
Grier told me he was stupefied by Johnson’s claim, and called him up; “I asked him, ‘Why would you say that?’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s the way I recall it.’ How can you recall something that didn’t happen?”
In the assassination chaos, a melee of people -- including writer George Plimpton -- grappled to control Sirhan, who was finally pinned down on a steam table but still struggled for control of the gun. What flashed through Grier’s mind at that moment, he said, was this: “A long time ago, my dad came home, he’d been drinking and he had a gun, and we were taking the gun out of his hand and the next thing you know my sister had the gun pointed at her face, so I took the gun away from my dad. And now, there’s a gun pointed at George Plimpton’s face, so I put my hand over the gun, then I pulled the trigger back so my thumb went under it so it couldn’t fire.”
Grier said he pocketed the gun and was sitting on the floor after the ambulance left when Johnson asked “Do you have the gun?” and took it to give to the police.
“Someone told me that when he turned the gun in, he said, ‘We took it from him.’ ” In the state archives, the synopsis of Grier’s statement given within hours of the shooting “describes [Grier] being onstage, disarming gunman, and giving gun to Rafer Johnson.” Johnson’s testimony, also from that time, details “how he and Roosevelt Grier got the gun from Sirhan.” And so matters have rested, until now.
When I called Johnson about this, he said he really had nothing to say, beyond what he already had. Then he called back and suggested I listen to a recording of the assassination. I believe he means the audio from radio reporter Andrew West, who, as The Times wrote the day after the assassination, can be heard yelling, “Get away from the barrel! Look out for the gun. OK, all right. That’s it, Rafer, get it. Get the gun, Rafer. OK, now hold on to the gun.... " But the same story says Grier was holding a snub-nosed revolver, evidently taken from Sirhan.
Why should it matter, I asked Grier, all these years later? “You don’t rewrite history,” he said. “You have to take a stand about things that you know about.... If the past is messed up, then no one will have anything to stand on for the future.”
John Adams once said that facts are stubborn things; Ronald Reagan flubbed the line as “facts are stupid things.” Nowadays you’ll find believers for both statements. The late New York Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. That’s almost quaint now, when elections turn on mine-versus-yours “facts” about a fragment of typography or a line in a military commendation.
Even without the deliberate distortions to political ends, memory is not always a reliable servant. I was a kid reporter when I went with my old colleague, Bill Farr, to interview Sirhan in Soledad prison. Bill had covered the case and was the expert; my chief memory is of shaking the hand that pulled the trigger that killed Bobby Kennedy. At the time, Sirhan told us there was no conspiracy, that he was in a drink-fueled “rage.” But years later, his lawyer called the case “unsolved.” America has always concerned itself more with its future than its past. Is this changing? If it is, perhaps it’s a worrying sign that the nation no longer believes there is a future to fight for -- only a past to fight over.