How Journalist Hugh McDonald Became Collateral Damage in the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

Hugh McDonald was a reporter for Newsday in New York when in 1967 he received a Congressional Fellowship to work in 1968 on Capitol Hill. Hugh asked Frank Mankiewicz, press secretary to Senator Robert F. Kennedy, if he could spend the fellowship year in RFK’s office. Mankiewicz said yes and Hugh became Senator Kennedy’s assistant press secretary. On March 16, 1968, Senator Kennedy anounced he was running for president and two weeks later President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for reelection.

Craig Colgan’s story, “Dreams Lost,” was written in 1998 for Hugh McDonald’s hometown paper in Jackson, Michigan, and it describes what happened to Hugh the June night of Robert Kennendy’s assassination and how it helped end Hugh’s life. Craig, now based in Alexandria, Virginia, looks back in this post on what it was like doing the “Dreams Lost” story and how he might now do it differently.
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By Craig Colgan

Fifty years ago, a 30-year-old guy from my hometown in Jackson, Michigan, got to experience, up close, what likely was the wildest presidential campaign of the 20th century. Hugh McDonald was an assistant to Frank Mankiewicz, the press secretary for Robert Kennedy, during Kennedy’s brief but intense race for the Democratic nomination, officially from March 16 to June 6, 1968.

In 1998, I was a freelance writer in South Carolina and over about eight months I reported and wrote what became a 3,000-word newspaper piece about Hugh. He was a local boy who made good. But Hugh McDonald’s story is also a dark one. In the years following Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Hugh survived multiple suicide attempts, lost several jobs and a marriage, and died mysteriously and alone a decade after the campaign.

His family and others attribute Hugh’s confounding life after 1968 to his being present at Kennedy’s shooting. That thesis was believed by many who knew him and exploring Hugh’s experience became a way to think about the loss of Robert Kennedy to the country. The metaphor holds in some respects, and not in others. But sadness and loss are of course emotions strongly linked to the story of Robert Kennedy, who as we have seen in the many recent 50th anniversary tributes remains a beloved but elusive figure.

I spoke to Mankiewicz, Time’s Hays Gorey, Life photographer Bill Eppridge, Jules Witcover—then with Newhouse—as well as Kennedy staff and Hugh’s family. To get some of the bigger names to agree to interviews, I may or may not have claimed I was writing a book. I plan to write a longer follow-up piece about some of the issues I dealt with in reporting and writing this and I will post it at my website. For instance: Gorey and one or two others told me that Hugh may have blamed himself for allowing Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy’s murderer, into the hotel ballroom that night.

In 1998, I tracked down some film collected in the Sirhan criminal investigation through the California State Archives. In one sequence, a film crew accompanying comedian Pat Paulsen, who performed briefly at the primary-night party at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, films Paulsen walking down a very crowded hallway. At the end of their short journey, there is Hugh, waiting at a door, a credential around his neck, waiving people in. Paulsen enters, then performs from behind from what looks like the same podium Kennedy would speak from later. Which is just steps from the kitchen area where Sirhan would shoot Kennedy. This proves nothing, but shows at least how some pieces of this self-blame explanation are based in truth.

I still have all these interviews on cassette tapes. A fast critique of my 1998 interviewing style would be: Stop interrupting! The best interview was with Eppridge, the Life photographer whose iconic photo of RFK on the floor resembles something out of neoclassical art. Eppridge was very open and helpful. He spoke of hanging out with the candidate at RFK’s United Nation’s Plaza apartment with columnist Jimmy Breslin. A regular theme Eppridge talked about with me was how so many press people covering that campaign had either asked off the assignment because they felt too close to the candidate, or regularly had to fend off their editors’ claims of too much closeness. Eppridge told other great stories that I must write about.

One thought: There has been an increased awareness of overuse and addiction to opioids and other depressant drugs, which could be an explanation for what happened to Hugh. Several people mentioned pills in describing Hugh’s struggles.

I would not write the Hugh story from 1998 the same way today. Looking at it 20 years later, I do appreciate how lean it is. It sticks to the reporting. Much is left out, though. At the time, I thought this is a story that could interest national magazines. I queried several big-time outlets. Hearing nothing, I reached out to Hugh’s hometown daily newspaper. Hugh and I had worked in the same Michigan newsroom as reporters about 20 years apart. Jackson Citizen-Patriot editors did a great job with editing and presenting this 1998 story.
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From Jack Limpert: In 1968 I also was a Congressional Fellow, coming to Washington after four years with UPI, two of the years in Michigan. The 1968 fellows came to Washington in November 1967 for orientation and to give us time to visit Congressional offices, looking for a Senate or House office where we wanted to work and they were willing to have us. In December I visited Senator Robert Kennedy’s office and was interviewed by press secretary Frank Mankiewicz and Joe Dolan, the senator’s administrative assistant. Several days later Mankiewicz called to say they had selected Hugh McDonald as their fellow, partly because he was a reporter at Newsday, a New York newspaper. I then went to the Senate office of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, where press secretary Norman Sherman took me on as his assistant press secretary. During the fellowship, I met and talked with Hugh but never got to know him well and never saw him after the RFK assassinaion.

Comments

  1. Martin Lobel says:

    I,too, was a Congressional Fellow that year and worked with Hugh while I was in Sen. Proxmire’s office and he in Kennedy’s office. He was a changed man after the assassination. He kept talking about how the loss had affected him and his dreams for the future of America. He never recovered his ebullience. Before he was always cheerful, afterwards he almost never smiled and in the end couldn’t face the world without hope. It was a tragic loss.

    • Craig Colgan says:

      Would love to hear more about this, Martin. Would love to connect. Please reach out through colganwrites.com?

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