A lesson from RFK for a young journalist

November 23, 2022 8:00 am

Robert F. Kennedy would have turned 97 on Nov. 20, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, would have been the 97th birthday of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He was born on this date in 1925.

It is astonishing to think of Kennedy being 97. Two of his defining characteristics were his youth and vigor. How is it possible he’d now be 97?

It’s even more astonishing to realize he has now been dead longer than he was alive: 54 years gone, 42 years with us. His loss, to our nation, was tragic and immense. I 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 thinking about running for president in March. He was an officially declared candidate in May.

I began my career in journalism when I was still a kid. At age 14, I was covering politics for my hometown weekly newspaper, the Dallas County News in Adel, Iowa. How I got that job, at that age, is a story in itself, but I will leave that for another day.

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

It produced the first big “exclusive interview” I ever snagged. This was before the Iowa Caucuses hit the big time.  Visits to Iowa by national political figures were, by comparison, rare back then.

His visit also produced what I considered my first big “scoop” on a huge story.

Kennedy was in Des Moines as the featured speaker at a Democratic fundraising dinner at Veterans Auditorium. Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes was thinking about running for the US Senate that year to claim the seat being vacated by retiring Senator Bourke Hickenlooper. Kennedy wanted to encourage Hughes to run.

Kennedy was a strong draw anyway, but especially so in March 1968. Opposition to the Vietnam War – and incumbent President Lyndon Johnson – was strong and growing rapidly. Many wanted Kennedy to run for president in 1968 – opposing Johnson – as a way to end the war.

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

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

On March 9, even before New Hampshire, Kennedy was already thinking about jumping in the race.

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

I found out about the meeting with the governors, and that it was taking place at the Hotel Savery, after the fundraising dinner at “Vets.” I staked out a spot in the hall outside the meeting room. I wanted to catch Kennedy as he entered the meeting and ask him about the speculation that he was planning to officially enter the Oregon primary.

When Kennedy and Hughes walked down the hall to the meeting room where the Governors were waiting, I stepped forward and thrust the microphone that came with my little $60 tape recorder I had purchased at Younkers department store toward them. With all the courage a 14-year-old could muster, I asked: “Senator, is there any truth to the rumors that you plan to enter the Oregon primary?”

Kennedy looked at me but kept walking. So I walked with him and asked again. “Senator. The Oregon primary. Do you plan to enter the Oregon primary?”

This time he stopped and spoke directly into my microphone. “There is no truth to those reports. I have no plans to enter the Oregon primary or any other primary,” he said. Then with just a few more steps, he entered the room. The door shut behind him.

I could not believe my good luck!

I had just conducted an “exclusive interview” – in retrospect a bit of a grandiose way to describe a question in the hallway — with Sen. Kennedy!

I had also obtained what I considered to be a direct answer to the question that was on the mind of every political reporter in the country!

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

March 9, 1968, was a Saturday. The next Dallas County News edition published on Wednesday, March 13. I slid my scoop in the News office mail slot on Sunday, March 10. The gist of that story was, of course: “Exclusive: RFK Is Not Running in 1968!”

As I waited, burning with impatience to see it in print, I was certain that — at age 14 — it was just a matter of time before the Pulitzer Prize award people would be calling me.

Things didn’t quite work out that way.

For starters, McCarthy’s strong showing in New Hampshire on March 12 changed and accelerated everything.

Even a kid just learning the ropes could see that things were changing fast.

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” appeared in print — Robert Francis Kennedy stood before a huge bank of microphones in the Russell Senate Caucus Room in a nationally televised press conference and said: “I am today announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United States.”

The ink was barely dry on my scoop.

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

Subsequent histories have documented that on March 9, he had made no decision about entering the 1968 presidential race. He was still trying to decide. The meeting with Midwestern Democratic governors really was to help him decide.

There is a phrase to describe what happened to my first big scoop: “overtaken by events.” Things changed.

There was also a valuable lesson in all this for a budding journalist:

Ask exactly the question you want answered. Be precise.

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

That’s good advice for voters, too.

This column was originally published by Barry Piatt on Politics: -Behind the Curtain. It is republished here via the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Barry Piatt
Barry Piatt

Barry Piatt has had a front row seat for state and national government and politics for over 50 years, working first as a political reporter in Iowa, and later as a senior advisor for members of the U.S. House and Senate and candidates for U.S. president. His blog, Barry Piatt on Politics: -Behind the Curtain, is on Substack.