An hour or so before midnight, it was already clear that a wake was setting in at the Beverley Hilton Hotel, where the youngsters for McCarthy roamed in great numbers in and around the grand ballroom.
The percentage gap between McCarthy's lead over Kennedy was shrinking every quarter hour or so, as the returns form Los Angeles County began to overtake McCarthy's anticipated strength in Northern California. It was a young and doughty crowd, gamely but hopelessly trying to keep its spirit up.
In this country, at any rate, only the very pure in heart love a loser. And it seemed a good idea to move on to the victory boy at the Ambassador. Wilshire Boulevard is one of the longest of the long straight avenues that bisect the huge east-west spread of this city, and at such a time it seemed as long as a Roman road. The hotel's driveway was a miniature freeway in a traffic jam, and the human traffic inside the foyer was almost worse.
But at last, through the strutting cops and guards and the elated crowd and the din of whistles and cheers, it was possible to reach the north ballroom, a bone-white glare of light seen at the far end of the lobby.
Security is a fighting word at the Kennedy headquarters anywhere, and not without reason. You had to have a special Kennedy press card to acquire the privilege of being suffocated in the ballroom, and no other credentials for a reporter would do. I had only a general press card, a McCarthy badge, a driver's licence, and such other absurdities. So I turned back and thought of fighting the way back home.
But just alongside the guarded entrance to the north ballroom was another door, around which a pack of ecstatic faces, black and white, was jostling for some kind of privilege view. There was a guard there, too, and a Kennedy man who recognised me, caught in the general wash, squeezed me through into an almost empty room. It was like being beached by a tidal wave.
The place was no longer than about 40 feet. It was a small private dining room, fitted out as a press room. There was a long trestle table against one wall loaded with typewriters and telephones and standing by were a few middle-aged lady operators taking a breather.
In one corner was a booming television set switching between the rumblings of defeat at the McCarthy hotel and the clamour of victory in the adjacent ballroom. A fat girl wearing a Kennedy straw hat sucked a coke through a straw. There were15 or 20 of us at most, exchanging campaign reminiscences and making the usual hindsight cracks at the Kennedys.
Kennedy's press secretary had promised that once the Senator had saluted his army he would go down from the ballroom stage and come to see us through the kitchen that separated our retreat from the ballroom.
It was just after midnight. A surge of cheers and a great swivelling of lights heralded him, and soon he was upon the rostrum with his eager, button-eyed wife and Jessie Unruh, his massive campaign manager. It took minutes to get the feedback boom out of the mikes but at last there was a kind of subdued uproar and he said he first wanted to express "my high regard to Don Drysdale for his six great shut-outs." (Drysdale is a base pitcher whose Tuesday night feat of holding his sixth successive opposing teams to no runs has made him legend.)
It was the right, the wry Kennedy note. He thanked a list of helpers by name. He thanked "all those loyal Mexican Americans" and "all my friends in the black community." Then he stiffened his gestures and style and said it only went to show that "all those promises and all those party caucuses have indicated that the people of the United States want a change."
He congratulated McCarthy on fighting his principles . He hoped that now there might be "a debate between the Vice-President and perhaps myself." He flashed his teeth again in his chuckling, rabbity smile and ended, "My thanks to all of you - and now it's on to Chicago and let's win there."
A delirium of cheers and lights and tears and a rising throb of "We want Bobby! We want Bobby! We want Bobby!"
He tumbled down from the rostrum with his aides and bodyguards about him. He would be with us in 20 seconds, half a minute at most. We watched the swinging doors of the kitchen. Over the gabble of the television there was suddenly from the direction of the kitchen a crackle of sharp sounds. Like a balloon popping.
An exploded flash bulb maybe, more like a man banging a tray several times against a wall. A half-dozen or so of us trotted to the kitchen door and at the moment time and life collapsed. Kennedy and his aides had been coming on through the pantry. It was now seen to be not a kitchen but a regular serving pantry with great long tables and racks of plates against the wall.
He was smiling and shaking hands with a waiter, then a chef in a high white hat. Lots of Negroes, naturally, and they were glowing with pride, for he was their man. Then those sounds from somewhere, from a press of people on or near a steam table. And before you could synchronise you sight and thought, Kennedy was a prone bundle on the greasy floor, and two or three others had gone down with him. There was an explosion of shouts and screams and the high moaning cries of mini-skirted girls.
The doors of the pantry swung back and forth and we would peek in on the obscene disorder and reel back again to sit down, then to glare in a stupefied way at the nearest friend, to steady one boozy woman with black-rimmed eyes who was pounding a table and screaming, "Goddamned stinking country!" The fat girl was babbling faintly like a baby, like someone in a motor accident.
Out in the chaos of the ballroom, Kennedy's brother-in-law was begging for doctors. And back in the pantry they were howling for doctors: It was hard to see who had been badly hit. One face was streaming with blood. It was that of Paul Schrade, a high union official, and it came out that he got off lightly.
A woman had a purple bruise on her forehead. Another man was down. Kennedy was looking up like a stunned choirboy from an open shirt and a limp huddle of limbs. Somehow, in the dependable fashion of the faith, a priest had appeared.
We were shoved back and the cameraman were darting and screaming and flashing their bulbs. We fell back again from the howling pantry into the haven of the pressroom.
Suddenly, the doors opened again and six or eight and police had a curly black head and blue-jeaned body in their grip. He was a swarthy, thick-featured unshaven little man with a tiny rump and a head fallen over, as if he had been clubbed or had fainted perhaps.
He was lifted out into the big lobby and was soon off in some mysterious place "in custody." On the television Huntley and Brinkley were going on in their urbane way about the "trends" in Los Angeles and the fading McCarthy lead in Northern California.
A large woman went over and beat the screen, as if to batter these home-screen experts out of their self-possession. We had to take her and say, "Steady" and "Don't do that." And suddenly the screen went berserk, like a home movie projector on the blink. And the blurred, whirling scene we had watched in the flesh came wobbling in as a movie.
Then all the "facts" were fired or intoned from the screen. Roosevelt Grier, a 300lb coloured football player and a Kennedy man, had grabbed the man with the gun and overwhelmed him. A Kennedy bodyguard had taken the gun, a .22 calibre. The maniac had fired straight at Kennedy and sprayed the other bullets around the narrow pantry.
Kennedy was now at the receiving hospital and soon transferred to the Good Samaritan. Three neurologists were on their way. He had been hit in the hip, perhaps, but surely in the shoulder and "the mastoid area." There was the first sinister note about a bullet in the brain.
In the timelessness of nausea and dumb disbelief we stood and sat and stood again and sighed at each other and went into the pantry again and looked at the rack of plates and the smears of blood on the floor and the furious guards and the jumping-jack photographers.
It was too much to take in. The only thing to do was to touch the shoulder of the Kennedy man who had let you in and get out on to the street and drive home to the top of the silent Santa Monica Hills, where pandemonium is rebroadcast in tranquillity and where a little unshaven guy amuck in a pantry is slowly brought into focus as a bleak and shoddy villain of history.