RFK called nation to its better angels Presidential hopeful murdered 30 years ago

June 07, 1998|By Jules Whitcover

WASHINGTON - At the 30th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's death, why does he still enjoy such a special place in the minds and hearts of millions of his generation?

He was not, after all, ever elected president; nor was he even the presidential nominee of his Democratic Party. At the time he was gunned down in a kitchen area of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, dying the next day, he was a candidate only. As a freshman senator from New York, his achievements were modest and largely unheralded. He had built his greatest reputation as attorney general appointed by his brother John, to whom he also was his closest confidant and political adviser. His hopes of being vice president under John Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, were summarily dismissed by LBJ, with whom Robert Kennedy had a long-running feud.

When some liberal Democrats who were opposed to Johnson's conduct of the war in Vietnam moved to unseat him, Robert Kennedy at first declined to lead them, saying a challenge would split the party and assure the election of Republican Richard M. Nixon.

Only after Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota took up the challenge and demonstrated LBJ's vulnerability by nearly beating him in the New Hampshire primary did RFK join the dump-Johnson effort.

His seeming usurpation of that movement at precisely the moment McCarthy was laying claim to it resurrected charges of "ruthlessness" against Kennedy, who as his brother's "no" man had gained a reputation for being ruthless. His belated presidential campaign split the anti-war movement and helped deliver the Democratic nomination to Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, a captive of Johnson's policies.

Yet Robert Kennedy in his failed pursuit of that nomination established an enduring reputation for commitment to the eradication of injustice at home and abroad. He plunged into the race, exhorting the country to right the wrongs he saw in Vietnam and among the poor and minorities at home.

At first, he was fired by his personal dislike for LBJ and his policies. But when Johnson said he would not seek or accept another term, Kennedy was suddenly without his most obvious rationale for running. It was then that his candidacy took on a broader and, for many, a more appealing mode, as he focused on not only seeking a peaceful solution to the war but also looking more inwardly to address what he saw as the threatened loss of the American soul.

On the night of April 4, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Kennedy made what perhaps was his most electric speech to a mostly black audience in Indianapolis.

"For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act against all white people," he said, "I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. I What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or they be black."

When rioting erupted in Washington, Kennedy went into the streets, personally demonstrating his concern and empathy in a way that drew huge numbers of black voters to his cause as no white politician has done since. With Johnson removed from the fray, Kennedy embraced a theme that called the country to its better angels, and those who responded to it did so in unprecedented crowds of screaming voices and hands outstretched to touch him.

It was always difficult then to sort out how much of the reaction was driven by nostalgia for the Kennedys, how much for RFK's considerable personal charisma, and how much for the message. But, taken together, they added up to a remarkable political phenomenon that was snuffed out in that hotel kitchen in Los Angeles moments after Kennedy had claimed victory in the critical California primary.

Since his death, Kennedy supporters and politicians have conjectured about what would have happened had he lived. They are split between those who believe he would have been nominated and elected, ending the war in Vietnam sooner, and those who feel he never could have wrested the nomination from the LBJ-backed Humphrey; or, even had he done so, could never have beaten Nixon.

Humphrey had the delegates needed for nomination going into Chicago, but the unhappiness with the prospect of him at the head of the Democratic ticket was palpable. There was even an effort to draft Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, backed by Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, but the grieving youngest brother squelched it.

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