Reagan, RFK and a time when politicians changed their minds

President Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan AP Photo

In 1968, California Governor Ronald Reagan wasn’t sure he wanted to run for president until he learned in the second week of March of that year that his hated nemesis, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was planning to announce his own run for the White House. Reagan then ordered up a 727 and made it clear that he would go all out for the Republican nomination and stop Bobby Kennedy, the man he held responsible for destroying his Hollywood career.

In 1961, the Kennedy Justice Department had summoned a grand jury in Los Angeles to investigate corrupt collusion between the Screen Actors Guild (of which Reagan had served as president during the early 1950s) and the Music Corporation of America (MCA) popularly known in Hollywood as “The Octopus.” RFK believed that the secret deal cut by SAG and MCA under Reagan’s watch to permit the talent agency to produce TV shows while representing, at the same time, the actors that would star in them violated federal anti-trust law. After Reagan was grilled by federal lawyers before the grand jury, Kennedy ordered the IRS to audit the actor and the FBI to subpoena SAG archives. Although nothing was found, Reagan’s career took an irreparable hit. “General Electric Theater,” the popular prime-time TV show that the actor had hosted for eight years, was cancelled and Reagan lost his job.

Daughter Patti Reagan remembered how her family burned with indignation at the Kennedys. On the day JFK was assassinated in November 1963, Mrs. Nancy Reagan made sure that everyone scheduled to attend the dinner party at the Reagan home that evening did so. When Mrs. Reagan picked up the weeping Patti from school that day, she coldly told her eleven year-old daughter, “That’s enough.”

Five years later on June 4, 1968 when Governor Reagan breezed to victory as “favorite son” in the California presidential primary on June 4, 1968, he took his first step toward payback. That same evening, RFK edged out a close win in the Democratic primary, but was mortally wounded by an assassin that night in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Reagan was so horrified by the killing that he could scarcely even talk about it and lost interest in fighting for the Republican nomination, which ultimately went to former Vice President Richard Nixon.

Sometime afterwards, over dinner one night at Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s mountaintop home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Reagan brought up the Kennedys brothers, both of whom Goldwater greatly admired. “Knowing how much he disliked them,” Goldwater told me in an interview in July 1989, “I remember how surprised I was when he (Reagan) said, ‘Well, at least they had balls.’”

Within days after his inauguration as president in January 1980, Reagan seemed to act on that sentiment, requesting that the gold medal that the Congress had bestowed on RFK (and President Jimmy Carter had spitefully declined to pass along to Ethel Kennedy and her children) be scheduled for award forthwith. Although the March 1981 attack on Reagan’s life delayed the ceremony, the following June the president addressed the Kennedy clan in the Rose Garden with eloquent force, repeating RFK’s last words at victory celebration at the Ambassador Hotel, and giving them a fresh and touching relevance.A few weeks later, the president personally invited RFK’s mother, Rose Kennedy, to lunch with him at the White House. When she arrived, Reagan walked with her and Senator Edward Kennedy through the Entrance Hall where the presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy had been rehung at Reagan’s insistence. The president stopped in front of the haunting portrait and wordlessly gestured toward it. This became his practice with many visitors to the White House.

When JFK’s two children. Caroline B. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, Jr., stopped by the White House to ask the president for help in fund-raising for the Kennedy presidential library, Reagan graciously agreed and thereafter headlined an event at Senator Ted Kennedy’s home in McLean, Virginia. The president’s remarks about JFK that evening were deft and sentimental. “And when he died, when that comet disappeared over the continent, a whole nation grieved and would not forget. A tailor in New York put up a sign on the door – ‘Closed because of a death in the family.’”

Ronald Reagan had come full circle about the Kennedys. When he went out to Phoenix for the funeral of his mother-in-law, Edie Davis, in late October 1987, Reagan made plans to have his usual private dinner with Barry Goldwater but was forced to cut short his trip and hurry back to Washington. En route, he phoned Goldwater from Air Force One. In the course of catching up, the two men returned to a subject they had long talked about. “I have thought so more about Bobby Kennedy,” Reagan said. “Could you have beaten him?” Goldwater asked. “Who knows,” Reagan replied. “But I’ll tell you one thing. He would made a helluva president.”

Richard D. Mahoney, the former John F. Kennedy Scholar at UMass and Secretary of State of Arizona, is currently the Director of the School of Public and International Affairs at NC State. He is working on a biography about Ronald Reagan.