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When Robert F. Kennedy Decided to Run for President

Updated on January 19, 2013
Robert "Bobby" Francis Kennedy (RFK), candidate for U.S. President.
Robert "Bobby" Francis Kennedy (RFK), candidate for U.S. President. | Source

Everyone knows that an assassin’s bullet ended Robert F. Kennedy’s bid for the Presidency on June 5, 1968. It is widely known that the senator from New York announced his candidacy in March of that year. But do you know when he first decided to run? Kennedy was often called Bobby or, in the press, simply RFK.

Historical context

Bobby’s brother John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, had been felled by an assassin’s bullet on November 22, 1963. There was much speculation about a plot far beyond a lone gunman in a distant window. RFK was one of the President’s closest advisors and the U.S. Attorney General at the time.

The 1960’s was a period of Beatlemania, and the Beatles made their first tour of the U.S. in February 1964. The counterculture movement was in full swing. Allen Ginsberg coined the term flower-power at Berkeley in 1965.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, which sparked full-blown riots in 60 cities nationwide. It was an era of civil rights protests and social upheaval.

In the shadows of all this headline news, there is a little-known story that occurred during a trip to Brazil in November of 1965. Few people know that it was while bathing in a Brazilian river deep in the Amazon jungle that Robert Kennedy decided to run for the Presidency of the United States.

Where Kennedy Decided to Run

A markerNhamunda River -
Nhamundá - Pará, Brazil
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In 1965, while bathing in the Nhamunda River in Brazil, Kennedy decided to someday run for the Unites States Presidency.

Robert Kennedy and His Times
Robert Kennedy and His Times


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A visit to Brazil

An adventurous senator, Kennedy liked to experience things first-hand in order to form accurate impressions, and he wanted to see what life was like for poor villagers deep within the Amazon jungle. Kennedy sought logistical help from SIL, an organization that had researchers studying unwritten languages in remote areas. SIL loaded him into the Norseman floatplane they used to transport people and supplies to remote villages in Brazil.

At the time, Des Derbyshire was working among the Hixkaryana people, living with them as he learned their language and documented it for other linguists. On this particular November morning in 1965, he heard the far-off whine of the Norseman and watched it circle, curious because he had not been notified of the flight.

The plane landed in the river in front of his house, the motor stopped and the door opened. The pilot, Paul Marsteller, stepped onto the pontoon and grinned, “I’ve got Robert Kennedy on board.” Des peered back into the fuselage and, sure enough, in the passenger seat was New York's U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy.


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RFK Assassination

Free-hand drawing of the assassinated senator Robert Kennedy lying in the Ambassador Hotels kitchen. He is being comforted by a Filipino busboy.
Free-hand drawing of the assassinated senator Robert Kennedy lying in the Ambassador Hotels kitchen. He is being comforted by a Filipino busboy. | Source

The decisive bath

Bobby Kennedy had asked to visit a village location and stay overnight. For three days he visited the Hixkaryana, sharing the daily lives of the people in the village and getting to know Des and his wife Grace and their work. An excellent guest, Kennedy participated fully in village routines, never complaining about the accompanying hardships.

Bathing in the river one afternoon, Kennedy asked Des, “What is the name of this river?”

“The Nhamunda,” Des replied. Why did Kennedy want to know?

“I want to remember the name," said Kennedy, "because just now in this river, taking my bath, I have decided to run for President of the United States."

While Kennedy may have made his decision to run—someday—politics would yet help determine the timing. He at first did not want to weaken incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson for the 1968 race. But LBJ was losing popular support, and it became clear that an alternative Democratic candidate was needed.

Robert F. Kennedy, having predetermined that he would someday run for the office, announced his candidacy in March 1968, when it was already too late to enter some of the primaries. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated less than three months later, immediately after winning the California primary.


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    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Great Hub Howard. It is a shame RFK's life was snuffed out before he had the chance to be President. I feel this country would be a much better place. Though I'm not sure how the military war machine would have allowed him to operate. I would like to think he would have been able to put the brakes on it so he could do great work with his social programs.

    • Howard S. profile image

      Howard S. 7 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia

      Thanks, Mindy and UW. Actually, I've had this on the back burner for a few months, and your hub, UW, was the onliest logical one to reference. I think I've read some others of yours--incredibly detailed in the arena of political history.

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 7 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      Very interesting, thanks for linking to my hub about the speech RFK about Martin Luther King's murder.

    • mindyjgirl profile image

      Mindy 7 years ago from Cottage Grove, Oregon