ONCE AGAIN, New York state is host to a celebrity carpetbagger seeking one of its U.S. Senate seats as a launching pad for the presidency. This time the intruder is Hillary Rodham Clinton of Illinois and Arkansas.
Soon to relinquish her First Ladyship, she is taking full advantage of lax residency requirements in a bid to be elected the state's junior senator and eventually (let her deny it) the nation's first Madame President.
All this is a replay of 36 years ago when the intruder in New York was Robert Francis Kennedy of Massachusetts and Virginia.
Denied the 1964 vice presidential nomination by Lyndon Baines Johnson, who understandably did not want a longtime foe as his ticketmate, Bobby looked around impatiently for a public service job that would enable him to carry on the torch of brother John's Camelot. The only opening devoid of a dependency on President LBJ was the Senate seat in ever-receptive New York.
Sure enough, four years later Bobby was off and running for the White House, a goal he might have attained had he not been martyred by assassin Sirhan Sirhan on the night he won the crucial 1968 California primary.
Striking parallels mark the political adventures of RFK and Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC): Both Democrats, both seeking elective office for the first time, both confronted by far lesser known opponents, both marching out from the shadows of someone very close, both intensely loathed or loved by large cohorts in the electorate, both able to count on large infusions of out-of-state money from their national constituencies, both intensely ambitious, introverted and complex.
But there are differences too. Kennedy faced a respected liberal Republican incumbent, Sen. Kenneth B. Keating, who had been an adversary during the Cuban missile crisis (more of that later) and a valiant ally in the long, hard fight to pass the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Clinton thought she would be tangling with New York City's incendiary Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, but instead is running against a Long Island congressman, Rick A. Lazio, a political bush leaguer called up from the minors to replace Giuliani, who has prostate cancer and marital problems.
Hillary has to win this year if her storybook odyssey is to continue. Right now the contest is too close to call. There is little likelihood that Al Gore will provide the huge top-of-the-ticket LBJ coattails that ensured Kennedy's victory over Keating. But his selection of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate might strengthen the Jewish vote for Hillary Clinton in New York.
At least she is not a shooting-gallery target for the New York Times. The state's most influential newspaper says "she has managed to contain, if not totally defuse, the carpetbagger issue" with her line that "I may be new to the neighborhood but I'm not new to your concerns."
An endorsement is yet to come, but neither has there been a repeat of the Times' editorial lambasting of Bobby Kennedy. Sample: "Mr. Kennedy apparently needs New York, but does New York need Bobby Kennedy?"
Month after month during the spring of 1964, he grieved for his murdered brother and wondered what he would do with his life to ensure that John F. Kennedy's legacy would continue. "If I could figure out some cause for me that would keep all that alive and utilize it for the country, that's what I'd do," he told friend and journalist Ben Bradlee.
Anticipating his departure as attorney general, he even volunteered to be ambassador to South Vietnam, but LBJ dared not send him to a place of danger.
Finally there was nothing left but the Senate challenge to Keating. At first, Bobby dismissed the idea: "I'd tell them [voters] right out, if you want someone who has lived in New York all his life vote for Ken Keating."
And when his younger brother Teddy, already a senator from Massachusetts, broke his back in an airplane accident in late June, he publicly proclaimed: "I wish to state that I will not be a candidate for U.S. senator from New York."
Then several developments turned the political scene topsy-turvy.
At that moment, New York was the second-most (after Kansas) Republican state in the country. The GOP held the governorship, two Senate seats, a majority of the congressional delegation, the majority in the state legislature and control of most county governments. Hungry political bosses promised RFK the Democratic nomination on a silver platter.
Another problem was Bobby himself. Despondent and unfocused, he took a trip to Berlin, where he spoke from the same spot where President Kennedy had delivered his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, and then went on to Poland, where ecstatic crowds greeted him. The overseas journey got his political juices flowing.
And so, ignoring all previous disclaimers, Robert Kennedy entered the lists against Keating and pushed aside home-state Democratic hopefuls as easily as Hillary Clinton was to do in the faraway year of 2000.