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Journalist Terence Smith on his encounter with Sirhan Sirhan's father

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Former "Sunday Morning" correspondent Terence Smith is out with a new memoir: "Four Wars, Five Presidents," which includes a story about an encounter with the father of convicted assassin Sirhan Sirhan, whose recent bid for parole was denied by California Governor Gavin Newsom. Smith shares his thoughts:

When Robert Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, I was thousands of miles away in Jerusalem, Israel, as a correspondent for The New York Times. I quickly learned that the shooter's father, Sirhan Sirhan Sr., lived in a small village in the West Bank.

It was 10 p.m. and dark by the time I arrived at the Sirhan house. I rapped on the door, and a small man in his pajamas answered. I explained that I was a reporter and, typical of Palestinian hospitality, Sirhan Sirhan Sr. invited me in and insisted on making coffee.

I asked him if he had heard that Kennedy had been shot? Yes, he said, and thought it was terrible news. I asked if he had heard that the assassin had been caught on the spot? Yes, he said.

I asked one more question: Had he heard the name of the captured assassin? No, he said, he had gone to bed and not heard it.

Just stunned, I pushed my reporter's notebook across the kitchen table and asked him to write the names of his five sons. The fourth name on the list: Sirhan Sirhan Jr. I put my finger on that name and looked him in the eye and said: "That's the assassin."

Sirhan was shocked – first incredulous, and then angry. Sirhan Sirhan Jr. had been the best of his boys, he said.

Then his face darkened, and he said: "If he did it, he should hang!"

 / Credit: Rowman & Littlefield
/ Credit: Rowman & Littlefield

With more reporting, I learned the Sirhan family had been deeply troubled. The father had lost his job and blamed the Israelis. He beat his wife and sons, and the mother escaped by moving with the boys to California.

Sirhan Sirhan Jr. grew up hating the Israelis, and hating anyone who supported Israel.

Anyone, that is, like Robert F. Kennedy.

Should the 77-year-old assassin be granted parole after five decades in prison?

As someone who admired Robert Kennedy, I can't claim to be objective. But I would say, no – not now, not in 18 months at the next parole hearing.

I'd say the Governor got it right.

For more info:

"Four Wars, Five Presidents: A Reporter's Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House" by Terence Smith (‎Rowman & Littlefield), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available via Amazon and Indieboundterencefsmith.com

Story produced by Young Kim. Editor: Remington Korper.

See also:

Open: This is "Face the Nation," January 23

Nature: British Virgin Islands

Terence Smith on meeting Sirhan Sirhan's father

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