I did not think there was anything new to learn about Robert Kennedy, who died 50 years ago, but a couple of years ago I read a book on him by Thurston Clarke.
Kennedy was always campaigning on tribal reservations, over the objections of his staff because they tended to be away from urban areas and major media. They would take these appearances off his schedule and he would put them back on. In 1968, before he decided to run for president, Kennedy had scheduled a hearing on the Pine Ridge reservation. The South Dakota primary was the same day as the California primary, and he could only allow two days for campaigning in South Dakota.
He decided to go ahead with the hearing, and in fact spent the whole day on the reservation, poking into homes and offices, walking about meeting people.
In one home he met a recently orphaned ten-year-old tribal boy with the wonderful name of Christopher Pretty Boy. The boy was living with friends and he and Kennedy spent a couple of hours together talking. When Kennedy came outdoors, he had hold of Christopher’s hand. They spent the rest of the day together, including the hearing. At one point they found another boy, who was feverish and had been turned away at the hospital, asleep in an old wrecked car. Kennedy sent the second boy back to the hospital in the care of an RFK aide.
During the hearing, Kennedy asked a witness how high the reservation unemployment figure was. She answered, “There is no employment.”
George McGovern, who was at the hearing, persuaded Kennedy to go see a monument nearby that had, he said, great meaning to the tribe. This was before Wounded Knee had come back into prominence in the white community, and most people knew nothing about it. Christopher went with them to the Wounded Knee monument.
When Kennedy departed, he called back to the reservation and told the tribal priest he had invited Christopher and his sister to spend the summer at Hyannis Port. He designated an aide to make the arrangements.
Author Clarke did not know what happened to Christopher, but heard rumors that he killed himself or died in a car wreck. I did a little research and found a newspaper story that said Christopher was killed in a traffic accident, after RFK was murdered.
There is a photograph of them sitting together and talking.
One of the things I have noticed about politicians is that they often have two faces, and I do not mean this pejoratively. But their faces in things like handshake photos are frequently a bit strained. In the photo of him talking with Christopher, Kennedy’s face is at ease.
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.