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Remembering Bobby Kennedy

By Nick Bryant
BBC News

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The last images of Robert Kennedy before he was shot

Robert Kennedy's campaign for the presidency was not yet a month old when reports came through from Memphis, Tennessee, that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

Campaigning in the Indiana primary, the then New York senator flinched at the news - so much so, that aides would later recall that it was almost as if he himself had been struck by a bullet.

Had he accepted the advice of his colleagues and the local police chief, the improbably named Winston Churchill, he would not that night have been heading towards a mainly black neighbourhood of Indianapolis, where reports of Dr King's death had not yet reached the pool halls, barber shops, corner drug stores.

Standing on a flatbed truck, without apparent fear, Kennedy broke the news to the crowd.

"I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world," he said, before announcing that Dr King was dead.

Totally unscripted, it was a speech that surpassed even his brother John's more oft-quoted efforts

Then he issued an eloquent appeal for calm.

"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 within our country, whether they be white or they be black."

Totally unscripted, it was a speech that surpassed even his brother John's more oft-quoted efforts.

Bringing his brief remarks to a close, he said: "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: 'To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world'."

Such was its power that it even stood comparison with the words of the civil rights leader he sought to eulogise.

Such was its calming effect that Indianapolis remained peaceful, despite the explosion of black fury in others parts of the country.

Assassin's bullet

The impromptu speech also demonstrated that, by 1968, Kennedy had emerged as by far the most extraordinary member of his ill-fated family, with an emotional depth and passion that was lacking in his more celebrated elder brother, John.

Bobby Kennedy speaks at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles
Kennedy was shot just after winning California's Democratic primary

How tragic, then, that just 63 days later Bobby Kennedy himself became the victim of an assassin's bullet - shot at close range in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after clinching victory in the all-important California Democratic Primary.

It was the third in a trinity of killings which denied America three of its most talented and seemingly providential leaders.

Still only 42 years old, Kennedy had declared for the presidency in March, an audacious move which helped persuade his hated rival, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, to withdraw from the race just over two weeks later.

Even after his victory in California, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey remained the favourite to secure the presidential nomination, not least because Johnson had bullied and corralled the party establishment into supporting him.

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Harry Benson reflects on the night of Robert Kennedy's assassination

Still, 1968 was that most unpredictable of years - arguably more so than 2008 - and anything seemed possible, especially given the restless mood of the Democratic rank and file.

Family loyalty

Though he ended his life a liberal darling, in the early stages of his career Robert Francis Kennedy was the object not of affection but mistrust.

Attorney General Robert F Kennedy and President John F Kennedy at the White House, March 1963
Bobby Kennedy (right) agreed to be attorney general for his brother

He started out as a scrappy political hatchet man, whose tightly-coiled energies were concentrated on promoting his brother's career.

Ruthless and abrasive were normally the adjectives that attached themselves to the young campaign manager.

Readers might be surprised to learn that in the early 1950s, Bobby Kennedy was a participant in the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunt rather than a critic - though he eventually resigned as an assistant counsel in disgust at McCarthy's increasingly paranoiac tactics.

In 1960, JFK asked his brother to become his attorney general, a post he did not want to take - not only was he worried about the obvious charge of nepotism, but he had never argued a case in court. Still, his profound sense of family loyalty eventually prevailed.

Arguably, his time as attorney general proved the making of him.

Repeated battles with recalcitrant southern governors over the extension of black civil rights eventually aroused the nobler instincts of his character.

And when the civil rights revolution threatened to overwhelm his brother's presidency in the summer of 1963, it was Bobby who provided much of the administration's fortitude.

Legacy

Bobby was a complex character. The same man who venerated Dr King had also authorised FBI wiretaps on the civil rights leader - and not only at the insistence of the then FBI director J Edgar Hoover, who had cabinets full of dirt files on the Kennedy brothers.

Robert Kennedy lies on the ground awaiting medical treatment after he was shot, 5 June
Kennedy's death came only a short time into his presidential campaign

The devoted family man, and pious Catholic, shared many of the sexual impulses of his brother.

What would Kennedy have made of the 2008 candidates, I wonder?

In Hillary Clinton, he might have recognised some of his own single-minded determination to win.

Certainly, he would have admired John McCain's physical courage and bravery - the qualities he admired most in other men.

But he would no doubt have warmed to the lyricism and political romanticism of Barak Obama.

The wave of nostalgia which will accompany this anniversary should benefit Mr Obama, whose rhetorical skills and insurgent campaign are reminiscent of Bobby Kennedy.

Kennedy bequeathed his family a confronting legacy. Judged against his memory, his surviving siblings or children have seemed slightly pallid imitations. Perhaps that is the reason why the Kennedys have struggled to produce a modern-day standard-bearer.

These days, Kennedy might be judged an elitist for his habit of peppering his speeches with poetry and the words of great writers.

But it seemed to satisfy that intermittent need in America, and elsewhere, for the lofty and noble.

In his final campaign, he loved quoting George Bernard Shaw, whose words serve almost as an epitaph.

"Some men see things as they are and say 'Why?' I dream things that never were and say, 'Why not?'"

Nick Bryant is the author of The Bystander: John F Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality


SEE ALSO
Kennedy illness to impact US race
24 May 08 |  Americas
US crowds mark King anniversary
04 Apr 08 |  Americas
Who was Bobby Kennedy?
30 Jan 07 |  Magazine
Lohan's political hopes for Bobby
05 Sep 06 |  Entertainment
JFK's legacy
06 Jan 06 |  Magazine

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