FEATURED IN PALM BEACH POST: June 05, 2018
By Eliot Kleinberg, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
ake Clarke Shores man was part of Bobby Kennedy’s brief moment
Jonathan Schuman stood at Arlington National Cemetery. Fifty yards away stood everyone who was anyone in Washington, from the president of the United States to the second woman in five years to become a Kennedy widow.
The “Florida kid” from Palm Beach High had been the No. 4 spokesman for what might have been the shortest serious presidential campaign in modern history. He’d been hired just a few days after it started in March 1968.
Schuman was 22.
“I slept in this morning,” he said on Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of the shooting. He knew morning shows would be all about Bobby, and “I didn’t want to wake up to see the news. I just had flashbacks.”
Schuman had moved with his family from the Bronx as a second grader, he said Tuesday from the living room of his Lake Clarke Shores home. He graduated Palm Beach High. Barely.
“I was an F (and) D student through 11th grade,” the semi-retired lawyer, now 72, recalled.
But, he said, he began a love of newspapers and television news, religiously devouring The Palm Beach Post, The New York Times and CBS’ Walter Cronkite. And he was inspired by a teacher who got him on the debate team. That, he said, “changed my life.”
At Florida State University, he became mostly a straight-A student and earned a Ford Foundation grant that got him into the School of International Service at American University in Washington.
‘You’re not going to believe …’
Just shy of his Ph.D., he met someone, who knew someone, who suggested him to Pierre Salinger, who was the spokesman for the nascent campaign to send Bobby Kennedy to the White House.
Salinger had plenty of staffers who were ensconced well inside the beltway. When young Schuman was able to answer a question for Salinger, an intense baseball fan, about a recent trade between the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs, he was hired. It was just a few days after Bobby had announced on March 16.
Back at Palm Beach High, Schuman had skipped class to see then-President John F. Kennedy in Palm Beach. He didn’t believe then front-runner Gene McCarthy had a chance to defeat the resurgent Richard Nixon, and he believed in Bobby. He’d have been all in even without the whopping $150 a week pay.
He remembers calling his parents back in West Palm Beach and saying, “you’re not going to believe … ” The rest of the school year, and his Ph.D., would wait. As it turned out, he never would attain it.
Schuman’s job was research assistant. In those days long before the internet, he would dig through a roomful of file cabinets to help write position statements that the campaign would sent to reporters.
“If I had not read newspapers all my life, I would not have gotten that job,” he said.
He also would regularly monitor the old-fashion teletype machines that loudly spit out wire service stories chunk-a-chunk on a paper roll, letting people know with a series of bells that big news was breaking. And the $25,000 telecopier that could send one page across the continent in a downright-supersonic six minutes.
He said he wasn’t starstruck by the politicians he met because he felt they were plain old people. Even Bobby, whom he finally met in Los Angeles just days before RFK was killed.
“I said, ‘I’m the kid from Florida who works with Salinger,’ ” he recalled. He said Bobby asked if Schuman ever had been to Palm Beach’s iconic Green’s Pharmacy, a regular Kennedy hangout. Which Schuman of course had.
‘He said the senator had been shot’
In his time with the campaign, Schuman had left Washington just that once: for the California primary. On June 5, the day of the vote, he boarded an afternoon red-eye flight back to D.C. to prepare for the coming Democratic convention in Chicago. Flight attendants had spotted the “RFK staff” luggage tag, and when the plane stopped in Chicago, a stewardess motioned for him to see the pilot in the cockpit.
“He said the senator had been shot,” Schuman recalled. “I was numb. Horrified. I didn’t believe it. I then started processing how it could have happened.”
He also recalled thinking perhaps the wounds had not been grim. They had.
He doesn’t remember much of the ensuing hours. Departing O’Hare. Landing at Washington National. Walking into RFK headquarters.
“It was silent. Some people gathered around TVs and wire machines,” he recalled.
He remembered seeing a neurologist from New York declare on television that even if Bobby survived, he’d be in a permanent vegetative state. Staffers scrambled to push wire services to quash the story.
It didn’t matter, At 1:44 a.m. on June 6, the campaign staff, many of whom had not slept in the 26 hours since Bobby’s triumphant ballroom remarks, watched press secretary Frank Mankiewicz announce from California that Bobby was dead.
“Total silence,” Schuman recalled. “But not surprise. By then we knew the seriousness of it.”
He recalled his first reaction was that he’d lost an opportunity to work in the White House. Then he chided himself for his selfishness. And recalled how days earlier he’d played in the pool with Bobby’s children at the senator’s home in Northern Virginia. But he said he was too young to share the overpowering despair for the nation that others had professed.
And there was work to do. There was a funeral service in New York. And the burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The more senior staffers, people who’d known RFK for decades, wept, some hysterically, and some simply could not function. Many of those who could work were put on the train that would meet Bobby’s body in New York when it flew in from California and, then, after the funeral service, would ride the train to Washington.
So people such as 22-year-old Jon Schuman were told to step up. He suddenly found himself in charge of the limited-space credentials for the press and notables.
‘We have work to do’
“It automatically went from grief and shock to, ‘We have work to do,’ ” he said.
He recalled running into Bill Moyers in, of all places, the men’s room. The future CBS reporter was at the time on the press staff of then-President Lyndon Johnson. Schuman said he had no experience that could help with any of this. He said Moyers told him, “Don’t worry. I’ll get you through this.”
Bobby had been one of New York’s two U.S. senators. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller loaned a private jet to fly RFK staffers to New York. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Schuman helped check entry passes, then stood in the back of the packed church and wept as Teddy Kennedy, his own voice choking, said of his brother, “Those of us who loved him, and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.”
The Rockefeller jet raced Schuman and other staffers to Arlington, where they waited for the train that took Bobby Kennedy on that historic and emotional last ride from New York. The thousands who lined the track made the train run four hours late, and by the time the funeral began, night had fallen. It’s the only nighttime funeral in the cemetery’s history.
Schuman stood between reporters and the brain trust of the entire world, gathered to honor Bobby.
“I have a visual recollection of everything,” he said.
What he doesn’t remember is who gave him a ride home so he could get his first decent sleep in many days. He was back at RFK headquarters for two or three more days. And then the campaign folded up shop and the lights were turned out.
He worked on the campaign for Florida Attorney General Bob Shevin, then worked on health care for Gov. Reubin Askew. He then worked back in Florida for Richard Stone’s U.S. Senate campaign before returning to Washington to work for the federal agency that prosecutes Medicare fraud.
He came back to West Palm Beach around 1985. He’s been married 25 years and has four children and five grandchildren. He’s semi-retired; his biggest legal client is a trade organization for Florida’s acupuncturists, which is in a pending lawsuit against physical therapists.
One of his prized possessions is a photo Ethel Kennedy sent to friends for Christmas 1968. It was of her husband, dead now for about six months. It had been taken in Oregon just three days before he was killed.
It says, “To Jonathan Schuman. With so much thanks. Ethel.”