I hadn’t expected to find a Truman Capote connection. Not to the Bobby Kennedy assassination. It was one of a number of surprising aspects of the case I came upon after being prompted to revisit it by Bobby, the fictionalized film about events at the Ambassador Hotel the day R.F.K. was shot there.
I really didn’t want to see the film. The R.F.K. assassination is still a painful memory to me, an event that shaped my subsequent pessimistic vision of politics ever after. Even more, perhaps, than the murders of J.F.K. and Martin Luther King, although the fact that it followed so closely upon the others endowed it with a kind of cumulative critical mass of murderous bitterness and loss. The trifecta of tragedy. It virtually extinguished any impulse to feel hopeful about any single political figure. Perhaps there is wisdom in this, but I wish it had come in a different way.
But I decided to go to a screening (sponsored by Slate), I guess to see if the wound had healed, and to see if the R.F.K. mystique still had the kind of emotional power it once did.
The closest I ever came, in the sense of physical proximity, to an assassination was in the spring of ’72, when George Wallace was shot. I had been covering the Maryland primary with the Humphrey campaign, and with the news of the Wallace shooting, the press bus raced over to the hospital for what we thought would be a deathwatch.
It was chilling being part of a deathwatch, despite how little I thought of Wallace. It was another haunting instance of the way bullets rather than ballots were shaping the course of American history. With R.F.K., the deathwatch was 3,000 miles away, but it felt closer. I still feel the leaden sense of despair and dread that lasted throughout the day after, as his life ebbed away. The whole nation became a hospital waiting room. (In the words of the 17th-century prose stylist Sir Thomas Browne, “the world, I count it not an Inne, but an Hospital.”)
I haven’t gotten over that Third Kill. I’m not sure the nation has. It shaped and distorted a generation. For those who think the Boomers ruined America, the sad truth is that all those assassins’ bullets, you could say, ruined the Boomers. I’m tempted to say the boom in Boomers is the echo of those gunshots.
But let me get to Capote and Sirhan Sirhan and Bobby. The main strength of the film for me was the documentary footage spliced into the fictionalized soap-opera episodes that make up the bulk of the film. The documentary footage of R.F.K. campaigning, the sound of that harsh yet gentle voice that seemed inflected by tragedy, by the events of Dallas, 1963. Especially in one long, final, voiceover meditation on violence, which—although likely written by a speechwriter—was delivered with such sad and hopeful grace that it’s worth the price of admission, and almost all by itself explains why the R.F.K. mystique has persisted for so long.
The most disappointing thing about Bobby was the way the film depoliticizes, dehistoricizes the assassination. Or historicizes it in a trivializing way. All those trite and strained star-studded vignettes involving mainly fictional characters and Big Issues like sex, drugs, race and war seemed designed to make a simplistic point: something about the way the assassination that night was a kind of dark-side precipitate of America’s Problems in the 60’s. America killed R.F.K. It virtually ignores the man who actually fired the shots and his motive for doing so.
The assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, gets glancing treatment. We see him for a few seconds a few times. I’m not saying the film should be all about him or an examination of the mystery of his motivation.
I’m not suggesting one must explore conspiracy theories. I’ve done that for you. After the screening, I spent some time examining state-of-the-art conspiracy-theory literature about Sirhan and R.F.K.
And despite the flawed investigation and the presence of still-disputed conspiracy-theory icons—“the woman in the polka-dot dress”; the Ghostly Other Gunmen; the Manchurian Candidate intimations of “hypnotic programming”; the C.I.A. connections to the investigation; the Sinister Billionaire Mastermind (Aristotle Onassis, in one account)—I wasn’t persuaded.
It seemed to me from my brief review of the literature about Sirhan Sirhan that, as with Lee Harvey Oswald, the real mystery that remains is not whether he fired the shots alone, but what went on in the mind of the assassin, who or what motivated him.
With Oswald, it’s still a mystery to me: what role the C.I.A., the K.G.B., the pro- and anti-Castro elements had in destabilizing him. Or was he not so much destabilized as unstable—a “lone nut” seeking notoriety to heal some psychic wounds? Was there a conscious and deliberate political motivation—supplied by whom?
Here’s where the Truman Capote connection comes into play in the case of Sirhan Sirhan. The two main non-conspiracy-theory explanations of his actions that night in the Ambassador are personal and political. The former has overshadowed the latter; the former formed the essence of the defense in Sirhan Sirhan’s trial. (Ever since the California Supreme Court initially overturned the death penalty, he’s been serving a life sentence in Corcoran State Prison.)
The personal—a variation on the mostly apolitical “lone nut” theory—depicted Sirhan Sirhan as a borderline psychotic, a “diminished capacity” killer, a case that was bolstered at times by Sirhan’s journals and his depiction of himself indulging in self-induced “trance states” brought on by mirror-gazing (he had that mirror-like name, right?), chanting and various self-hypnotic, borderline-occult practices. In addition, he claimed to suffer from episodes of “amnesia.” He claimed to have no memory of the night at the Ambassador when he shot R.F.K., nor of writing “R.F.K. Must Die!” in notebooks found in his room afterwards.
The Capote connection involves Sirhan’s report that he’d read In Cold Blood and identified with one of the killers, Perry Smith. According to his partner in crime, Dick Hickock, Smith engaged in “mirror-gazing” to the extent that “every time [he saw] a mirror [he went] into a trance.” In addition to “dreamlike” trance states, Smith was said to have suffered from “amnesiac episodes.”
So the question becomes: Did Sirhan Sirhan genuinely suffer the same symptoms, or did he use his familiarity with Capote’s mirror-gazing killer to help construct a diminished-capacity defense for himself to escape the death penalty? He wouldn’t have to confess to or at least recall for a jury his murder of R.F.K. if it happened during an “amnesiac” episode, perhaps induced by a “trance state” brought on by “mirror-gazing.”
On the other hand, was there a more explicit conscious and intentional—wide-awake—political motive that he was, if not covering up, at least hoping to downplay with all the mirror-gazing material, because it would diminish the death-penalty-triggering element of “deliberation”?
In fact, of course there was a deliberate motive for choosing R.F.K. as a target, regardless of how you interpret the Capote connection. But the mumbo-jumbo of mirror-gazing and “trance states” and “amnesiac episodes” has succeeded over the years in obscuring just how explicit that motive was.
I was reminded of this when reading over a review of R.F.K./ Sirhan conspiracy-theory literature by the U.K.’s Mel Ayton, a writer I’ve found to be a valuable debunker of unwarranted conspiracy theorizing.
He reminds us with copious quotations in “Why Sirhan Sirhan Assassinated Robert Kennedy (http://crimemagazine.com/ 05/sirhansirhan,0906-5.htm) how repeatedly and explicitly Sirhan made clear why he targeted R.F.K.: because Sirhan hated the state of Israel and hated R.F.K.’s support for Israel.
Ayton amasses a litany of Sirhan’s quotes to that effect. The most straightforward one Sirhan gave to a court-appointed psychiatrist: “He believed Robert Kennedy listened to the Jews and he saw the senator as having sold out to them.”
Sirhan, born in Jerusalem of Christian Arab parents, was, Ayton argues persuasively, brought up to feel hatred for those he believed had stolen the land of his people. “They (the Jews) have stolen my country,” he says elsewhere. “They have no right to be there.”
According to an acquaintance, he felt “towards the Jews as they (the Jews) felt towards Hitler. Hitler persecuted them and now they’re persecuting me in the same style.”
While there is no indication that Sirhan had suffered “persecution” in America, he burned with hatred for what he believed happened in his homeland. And not long before Sirhan shot him, R.F.K. made a speech at an L.A. synagogue in which he reiterated his support for the Jewish state: “We are committed to Israel’s survival. We are committed to defying any attempt to destroy Israel.”
There’s much, much more in Ayton’s account. But it may not be an either/or question. It may be true that Sirhan killed R.F.K. both because he was an unstable loner seeking the drug of celebrity or notoriety and because he hated Israel.
Sirhan told one writer that he wanted to inspire Palestinians. “They want action. They want results. Hey! I produced action for them. I’m a big hero over there.” Political motives and psychotic celebrity-craving are not always incompatible.
Mel Ayton’s forthcoming book about Sirhan and the R.F.K. shooting is entitled The Forgotten Terrorist and claims the R.F.K. assassination was a precursor of suicidal martyrdom. That it “may have been the first act in an international political drama that culminated in 9/11.” Sirhan Sirhan as suicide bomber. (After all, he fired the shots in such close proximity to his target that he knew he’d face immediate death or the death penalty.) If that’s a stretch, it’s perhaps an overcompensation for the way the truth has been stretched the other way, the mirror-gazing lone-nut depoliticized way.
Both elements may be necessary for a sufficient cause. Or the Capote/mirror-gazing could be a sham entirely. Bobby seems to look at the day of the assassination as a mirror of America. It’s a mirror-gazing approach—seeing ourselves in the crime. It was somehow the fault of a destabilized culture producing a destabilized assassin.
I would be grateful for a documentary that held a true mirror up to the mind of the assassin and the events of that awful night. Not for the sake of “closure,” but for the sake of historical truth.
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