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A Lynn lawyer remembers working for Bobby Kennedy, 50 years after his death

Robert F. Kennedy
Robert F. Kennedy (File photo)

LYNN — By the time he turned 27, James J. Carrigan had dipped a toe into politics but it would take Robert Francis Kennedy’s magical campaign of 1968 to immerse Carrigan in the rough-and-tumble world of running for office.

For 82 days in that tumultuous year in American history, Carrigan helped Kennedy fight for a chance to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for president of the United States. The fight ended on June 5, 1968 when assassin Sirhan Sirhan shot Kennedy to death.

Kennedy was declared dead at 1:44 a.m. (PDT) on June 6. The brother of the late President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was 42 years old.

“There was horror. There was shock. There was nothing you could do,” Carrigan, who campaigned for Bobby and Ted Kennedy, said on Tuesday.

A Lynn native and former member of the Massachusetts House and Senate and veteran of dozens of campaigns, Carrigan has practiced law since 1977. He has an office in Lynn and lives in Marblehead.

A love of history prompted Carrigan to work on local campaigns for state representative and mayor in the early ’60s. During former Mayor Irving Kane’s 1965 campaign, Carrigan met people who worked on Kennedy campaigns. They invited him to join them and within a year he was working on behalf of a congressional candidate Kennedy was supporting in Virginia. He went on to work for another candidate backed by Kennedy in a hard-fought race for a judgeship in New York, the state Kennedy represented in the United States Senate.

Kennedy’s candidate won the race and Carrigan and other campaign workers were invited to the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport for a classic weekend in America’s Camelot.

Touch football and sailing were the order of the day. Carrigan, a thin but scrappy player, lined up opposite Kennedy’s hand-picked team with the senator playing quarterback.

“I was determined to win. I broke through the line three times. He got pissed and said, ‘It’s time to switch teams,'” Carrigan said.

Kennedy stuck him in as quarterback and Carrigan endured a roughing-up on the impromptu gridiron before getting the chance to talk to Kennedy and learn about the complex man whose quest for the presidency helped define 1968.

“He was called ruthless, but he wasn’t. He was very aggressive on behalf of justice. He was fearless,” Carrigan said.

Kennedy announced his bid for the Democratic nomination on March 16, 1968. By the end of the month, President Lyndon B. Johnson, his conscience wracked by the horror of the Vietnam War, announced he would not seek reelection.

Kennedy, as quoted in Chris Matthews’ book, “Bobby Kennedy, A Raging Spirit,” said in his announcement: “I run because I am concerned that this country is on a perilous course.”

Carrigan spent the final days of the campaign in California where his youth did not keep him  from being tapped to mediate thorny political disputes. He met national leaders and the everyday Americans he said Robert Kennedy loved to embrace and engage in conversation.

The last time he was with Kennedy was in a crowd with people pressing in on the candidate while Kennedy urged Carrigan to relax and not worry about the outpouring of emotion that Kennedy seemed to draw to him.

“He loved it.”

Carrigan was scheduled with other Massachusetts campaign workers to speak to Kennedy following the senator’s June 5 speech to a workers and supporters in a Los Angeles hotel. Instead, Carrigan and stunned campaigners boarded a red eye home. The announcement of Kennedy’s death was made on the plane.

Carrigan will take time today to reflect on what Kennedy meant to America and on what his death meant to the nation. He thinks President Bobby Kennedy would have pulled American troops out of Vietnam, and drilled down deep with policies aimed at ending the poverty he witnessed firsthand in 1968.

“He would have been a fantastic president. He would say what was on his mind, irrespective of political consequences,” Carrigan said.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette executive editor David M. Shribman, in a column published in Tuesday’s Boston Globe, quoted U.S. Sen. Edward Markey as saying, “‘Bobby Kennedy is the greatest president we never had.'”

Carrigan said Kennedy would have found his work cut out for him if he was alive today.

“He would be speaking up, waking people up,” he said.

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