Robert Kennedy honored nation's loss mourned



BOSTON -- As old Robert F. Kennedy relatives, friends and supporters gathered here at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library to observe the 25th anniversary of his death this weekend, the inevitable what-might-have-beens were heard.

Some were obvious. Had he lived and been elected president in 1968, as one panelist put it, "there would have been no burglar tools in the White House" in the Watergate scandal four years later. Richard Nixon as president and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, would not have been forced to resign in disgrace in the country's most corrupt period.

The Vietnam war likely would have ended much sooner, assuming Robert Kennedy would have acted on his very strongly felt and expressed opposition to continuing it. His formula during the 1968 campaign for negotiating with the Viet Cong and giving them a voice in the formation of a coalition government might not have worked. But it is inconceivable he would have permitted the loss of American lives to continue in a war in whose purpose, and chances of victory, he did not believe.

More than these what-might-have-beens, however, repeatedly expressed here, was the sense of the loss of firm and determined leadership in repairing social injustice and inequity in America since Robert Kennedy's death.

The late senator's eldest son, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, charged that since then leaders in the White House had "bled down our assets" and used racial divisions "to keep themselves in power." He spoke, obviously, of the Republican years under Nixon and the last 12 under Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

But there was also an undercurrent of criticism of President Clinton, mired now in public doubts about his leadership. Without mentioning Clinton, Joe Kennedy charged that there continues to be concern in the land for social justice "but we have to have some kind of political leadership to stand up to those special interests in Washington." There is, he said, "no one who is willing to give the tough message that America needs if we are truly going to come to grips with our problems."

One panelist, former Boston Globe executive editor Robert Healy, observed that while Clinton is a "cerebral person," he lacks RFK's "passion and core" and what he needs is "his own Robert Kennedy."

Former JFK and RFK speech writer Richard Goodwin took a poke at Clinton by remarking that "a new Democrat is a Republican who got in the wrong line." And in the audience there was much criticism of Clinton's abandoning Lani Guinier, his nominee to head the civil rights division at Justice, in the face of strong congressional pressures. That, more than one in the crowd said, was something Bob Kennedy never would have done.

Although the conference here was a retrospective, several speakers emphasized that Robert Kennedy's legacy was not in what he had achieved in his own life as much as his continuing admonition for individuals to involve themselves personally in fights against injustice and inequality.

Goodwin said Kennedy argued that it was not enough to act on one's conviction in one's own life "but to take it into public life," breaking with institutions in "the revolution he really led in his own heart."

Peter Edelman, another RFK aide who is now counselor for Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, said of him: "This was a man who lived by a moral code -- who understood the importance of individual responsibility." Edelman did not make the comment in comparison with Clinton. But in the context of the growing public sense that Clinton has no rudder or has lost it, the words had a special bite to them for many in this particular audience.

In all the comments about Robert Kennedy, one element was mentioned repeatedly -- the quality of his empathy with the underdogs of society, and the phenomenal way in which those underdogs responded to him. "He said he would take up [their] fight," Goodwin said, "and they believed it." Healy, in a dig at Ross Perot, observed that RFK "did not need an electronic town meeting to tell him what to do when he saw a hungry child's extended stomach."

Many in the audience were young men and women who had been brought into political activism by the life and fervor of Robert Kennedy. The speakers called on them to continue to fight for the underdog.

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