From RFK, a living legacy

His idealistic example lingers as an inspiration

RFK ASSASSINATION : 40 years later

June 06, 2008|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is still moved by the strangers who approach her to describe how her father inspired them.

Former U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings, a Maryland Democrat, says that his dear friend Robert F. Kennedy's murder transformed him into a gun control activist, a move that cost him his political career.

And civil rights advocate Kweisi Mfume remembers 1968 as a pivotal year of his life, with Kennedy's death as one in a series of events prompting him to pursue a political career that led him to the halls of Congress.

Forty years ago, Kennedy was leaving a victory celebration at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when he was felled by an assassin's bullets. Kennedy had just won the California Democratic primary for president. He died on June 6, 1968 at age 42.

His death shattered his family, people across the nation and a generation of young idealists who had looked to him with hope during a decade of great upheaval. Though shaken, many went on to follow his path. Today, notable Marylanders point to his legacy of social justice, integrity and courage as an enduring inspiration for their lives and deeds.

"Not a day goes by that someone doesn't come up to me and say they were affected by my father's legacy in some way," Townsend, now 56, said during an interview this week at a Lutherville coffee shop.

"1968 was really changing America, and that change of America is something we are still gripping with today. That, in a sense, is why he is so compelling."

Townsend, who was Maryland's first female lieutenant governor, doesn't discuss where she was or what she was doing when her father was killed.

"That's voyeuristic; I'm not going to talk about that," she says curtly. But she acknowledges that 40 years later, she still struggles with grief.

"It's really sad, it's sad for my family and it's sad for our country," she said. "It's often said, when someone dies, time will heal all wounds. Well, no, time does not heal all wounds. It's really raw, and it's very awful. It's important it is not forgotten."

Robert Kennedy's death came two months after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and five years after his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was slain in Dallas.

During Robert Kennedy's passionate 82-day campaign for the presidency, he identified with the swelling outrage about the Vietnam War and racial injustice at home, promising to fight poverty, end the war and heal divisions.

But early on, some historians note, Kennedy's career was less idealistic, his actions less compassionate. He developed a reputation for ruthlessness with enemies and fierce defense of his older brother.

But those close to him, such as Tydings, saw many facets: thoughtful and tough, passionate and strategic, outgoing and introspective.

Tydings, a former U.S. attorney for Maryland, worked closely with Kennedy when he was U.S. attorney general in his brother's administration. Later, they served in the U.S. Senate together and became close friends, with Tydings heading to Kennedy's Hickory Hill estate in northern Virginia on the weekends for touch football games and Kennedy visiting Tydings' farm in Harford County, his daughter Kathleen in tow.

Of all the Kennedy memorabilia lining the walls of his Washington office, Tydings cherishes a photo of him and RFK taken during a hearing of the Senate Committee of the District of Columbia. Home improvement operators were preying on city dwellers, remembers Tydings. In the photo, Kennedy is staring ahead, his eyes penetrating.

"If you look at him, that's the real Bobby Kennedy," he said. "Really worried about protecting those who needed to be protected; willing to wade in where angels fear to tread. Well, there were not many like him."

The last time Tydings saw Kennedy was in 1968, on the campaign trail in Omaha. The pair sat down to dinner, to strategize, Tydings assumed.

"But all he said to me was, 'Don't worry about issues and meeting people. Take your day and fly all over Nebraska and observe the way that Native Americans are treated ... and go back to Washington and figure out a way to do something about it,' " Tydings remembers him saying. "I don't think any other political leader at the time would say such a thing. It was extraordinary."

Two weeks later, Kennedy was shot by Sirhan B. Sirhan with an unregistered handgun.

Tydings responded by becoming a leading advocate of gun control. The NRA lobbied aggressively against his efforts, and Tydings lost his 1970 re-election bid by some 20,000 votes.

"He certainly gave me confidence to take on the difficult, politically unpopular things," Tydings said of Kennedy. "A lot of people called me insane, said it would cost me the election. They were right. But he taught me courage. You have to do what you think is right."

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