scorecardresearch Skip to main content

50 years after RFK’s death, legacy endures

Senator Robert F. Kennedy, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd, campaigned in Philadelphia in April 1968.Associated Press/File/Associated Press

For 12 weeks he traveled the country, up and down the coasts, to Indiana the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed; to Nebraska, where he won a vital primary in a devoutly conservative state; to Oregon, where he suffered the first political loss by any member of his family; and then to California, where he vowed to go on to the Democratic convention “and let’s win there,’’ only to walk through a hotel kitchen where it all — the campaign against a long war, the campaign for a new sense of national purpose — tumbled to an end with an outstretched arm and spray of gunfire.

And then, for 50 years — a half-century of memories and myths — men and women of a certain age, and millions of Americans uncertain of what might have been, have disagreed about the meaning of Robert F. Kennedy’s life but have a curious, almost eerie, agreement about the meaning of that presidential campaign. Many he touched, and even some who were not moved by his insurgency against a sitting president of his own party, cursed his death at the time — and today almost inevitably employ a four-letter word to describe the meaning of his final years:


“He had a sense of hope for a better life for people of color,’’ said Antonia Hernandez, a former Edward M. Kennedy aide on Capitol Hill who now is president of the California Community Foundation.

“The Bobby Kennedy campaign was an investment in hope, in the hope that if Bobby were elected, we could end the Vietnam War and bring the country together,’’ said television commentator Jeff Greenfield, who was a Robert Kennedy speechwriter.

“He represented the possibility of hope in politics,’’ said Martha Minow, former dean of the Harvard Law School.

“When I think of Robert Kennedy, I think of the ripples of hope,’’ said Elaine Jones, former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.


“His death was the death of hope,’’ said Senator Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat.

Kennedy formally announced his candidacy for president on March 16, 1968. Associated Press/File/Associated Press

Hope, as Emily Dickinson put it, is the thing “that perches in the soul/ and sings the tune without the words.’’ And yet, in Kennedy’s case — at least in the half-decade after his brother was murdered in Dallas — it was the words that people leaned on, words that seemed to those near him outward indicators of an inner shift. They were that in 1966, when in South Africa he spoke of the “ripples of hope’’ (which he said could “build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance’’); and in 1968, when he examined the nature of the Gross National Product (which he said “measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country’’); and then a few weeks later when he told a black crowd in Indianapolis that King had been assassinated, and spoke of the need “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Robert Kennedy was perhaps the most religiously driven of the Kennedy men, and certainly the most self-examining, but he had lived to that moment nothing like a sainted life. He was an aide to the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who lent his name to perhaps the worst ism native to American soil. He was regarded as the “ruthless’’ brother, ready and willing to crush rivals, and accomplished in the task. And he was seen as a serial opportunist: an attorney general who hesitated before plunging in on civil rights. A carpetbagger senator in New York. A skimmer — in the argot of old Irish South Boston, where the species is especially reviled — who jumped into a presidential race only after President Lyndon B. Johnson had been softened up by another McCarthy, Gene, of Minnesota.


But by 1968, Kennedy — drowning in despair and inflamed with anger — felt free to speak and act for himself.

He had been, for so long, a serial sufferer, paralyzed by grief (beginning with that phone call from Dallas), freighted with loathing (for the drawling pretender, as he saw him, who took the presidential oath on Air Force One on the Love Field tarmac), consumed with doubt (over his worthiness, his values, his mission), overcome with guilt over his gilded upbringing — he had danced with Princess Elizabeth before she became queen — and the pedestal of privilege on which his career was built.

Kennedy stood with Marian Wright Edelman (second from right) as they visited Greenville, Miss., during an anti-poverty investigation in 1967. Associated Press/File

Now, he was ready to set a fresh and audacious course.

“He reached out to people who otherwise had no full membership in our society,’’ said Peter Edelman, who as a Kennedy aide accompanied the senator to his meeting with the labor leader Cesar Chavez. “He went to see people and listened to them. That was the way he learned. He did this particularly for people of color, but really for people of all backgrounds who were in poverty, or near it.’’


More than his older brother John, who won the presidency and sowed thoughts (on civil rights, on world peace) in the nation’s consciousness, and more than his younger brother, who grew into his role as statesman of the Senate (and delivered a heartbreaking eulogy for RFK), Robert will always be the Kennedy who might have.

He might have won the presidency, he might have brought the Vietnam War to an earlier conclusion, he might have healed a broken nation. Or he might have lost to Richard Nixon (Hubert Humphrey, a more experienced and in some ways more sophisticated politician, did lose), he might have found the conflict in Southeast Asia much more difficult to wind down than he expected (as Barack Obama discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan), he might have stoked resentment from his foes and produced a furious conservative backlash (as Obama, as fluent a campaigner as RFK, surely did).

Those might-haves taunt and haunt those he left behind.

“He’d have been a more revolutionary president than Trump,’’ said Mark Shields, a syndicated columnist from Weymouth who, 50 years ago, organized 40 Nebraska counties for Kennedy. “We have never had a tough liberal. He was the last tough liberal. Every one after him was a can’t-we-get-along, bleeding-heart liberal. He was a tough son of a bitch.’’

Then there is the question of what Kennedy, by 1968 at heart a rebel, would have been like in the White House — a deft manipulator of power, like the Lyndon Johnson he despised? Or a more pastoral presence, like the early Jimmy Carter and the later Ronald Reagan; or a disrupter, like Donald Trump, who mobilized the marginalized as Kennedy sought to do with his tour of Appalachia in the month before he entered the 1968 presidential race.


“He was constantly growing and changing and developing, just as the country was growing and changing and developing,’’ said Douglas Brinkley, the Rice University historian and prolific author of accounts of American life. “He was not, at the end, the same Bobby Kennedy he was as a young man.’’

That change was personal, spiritual. At Harvard, Kennedy had used football, as historian Arthur Schlesinger put it, “to prove to his family, and to himself, that he was approaching parental standards of toughness.’’ But increasingly that hardness wore away, eroded by misery, perhaps, or ground down by the weight of his sense of responsibility and the bent of his mind. He indulged his taste for Tennyson and Aeschylus. “There was now an easy grace, a strength that was unafraid of softness,’’ the speechwriter Richard Goodwin, who died late last month, wrote in a 1988 account.

It can be hard to tell how much the “new RFK” was real, and how much it lives on as the creation of memory, as recorded by his acolytes.

“There is a rosy haze of nostalgia over these accounts by men who helped create the Kennedy legend,” wrote Evan Thomas in his 2000 biography of Kennedy.

Kennedy campaigned in Omaha, Neb., on June 4, 1968. UPI/File

It is fact, however, that as Kennedy changed, the profile of the Kennedy family in politics changed, too. His stepping out as a liberal avatar was something largely new for him and his clan, a shift that also launched his younger brother, the veteran Massachusetts lawmaker, on a leftward path.

“Bobby is the pivot of the Kennedy family,’’ said Peter Robinson, the conservative Hoover Institution scholar who wrote Ronald Reagan’s “tear-down-this-wall’’ speech the 40th president delivered in Berlin in 1987. “His brother Jack had much in common with Reagan: He referred to the Soviet Union as the enemy, he was an internationalist, he wanted lower taxes. By the end of his life, Teddy was the total liberal. Bobby is the turning point — Irish, both feet on the ground, cool — and then with those beautiful, aspirational speeches he set the Democratic Party on its modern path.’’

That is the ultimate meaning of Robert Kennedy — not so much his accomplishments but his legacy as a man whose changed voice changed the American conversation.

“In some ways, he and Malcolm X were bigger losses than John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, because Malcolm and Bobby were both evolving figures,’’ said Douglas D. Ross, assistant secretary of labor in the Clinton administration and author of “Robert F. Kennedy: Apostle of Change,’’ published shortly after the senator’s assassination. “Today he stands as the last person to put together minorities and white working-class voters. . . . Bobby was the only political figure who could create a different kind of coalition.’’

If Robert Kennedy is the pivot in the Kennedys’ and the Democrats’ passage, then the 1968 campaign, perhaps even more than the death of his brother, was the pivot for Robert Kennedy — and for so many others.

“I got my values on how to live in a free society from Jack,’’ said Thomas M. Pazzi, chief financial officer of the American Constitution Society, who was an RFK organizer in Michigan, Indiana, and California, and later worked for Edward Kennedy and on the presidential campaigns of Senator Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts and US Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. “Bobby was my opportunity to put into practice all the stuff that was rattling around my head from Jack.’’

And yet from this distance, we see that Robert Kennedy did more than change the American conversation. He changed many Americans’ minds, especially about the war he and his brother had broadened and defended, and about the great poison in American history — racial animus.

That was evident in the first full paragraph of his presidential candidacy announcement, delivered in the same Senate Caucus Room that John Kennedy used for that purpose in 1960 and that Edward Kennedy would use in 1980. It was a pure distillation of his motives — motives that were doubted by Johnson and McCarthy but that are clung to by Kennedy’s aides, supporters, and many misty-eyed nostalgists:

“I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I’m obliged to do all that I can.’’

Those words set some hearts soaring, but they also prompted alarm, from Republicans who worried about the profligacy of the liberal agenda and who feared a Kennedy restoration, and from Democrats who worried that Kennedy’s antiwar insurgency would lead to a Nixon presidency and a disastrous repudiation of Johnson, who had been JFK’s running mate and vice president, who won the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act that President Kennedy had envisioned but did not realize, and who added the Medicare Act for good measure.

Though Eugene McCarthy had fought a brilliant campaign in New Hampshire, managing to win the first primary of 1968 without actually taking the most votes, it was clear that Kennedy, who never quite seized the moral high ground from McCarthy, nonetheless had enough high purpose, and enough traditional Democratic support, to surpass the Minnesotan’s early lead.

“McCarthy had blazed the trail, with great courage,’’ recalled Robert B. Reich, one of the Dartmouth students who mobilized for the Minnesota Democrat in the “get-clean-for-Gene’’ campaign in New Hampshire. “He had shown how many Americans were against the war, and that an antiwar presidential candidacy was feasible. Now, Kennedy was taking advantage of that. . . . Kennedy’s entrance into the Democratic primary gave the antiwar movement force and legitimacy that McCarthy couldn’t possibly give it. Now, we thought, Lyndon Johnson had met his match.’’

So too, in the aftermath of Kennedy’s death, would liberalism be knocked to the defensive. It is increasingly clear that perhaps the principal product of the liberal rebellion of the 1960s was the conservative backlash to that upheaval; it was not Robert Kennedy liberalism but Ronald Reagan conservatism — and perhaps Donald Trump rebellion — that may be the ultimate legacy of that decade of tumult. “The 1960s,’’ said Craig Shirley, who worked for the presidential campaigns of Reagan and both Bushes and who has written four volumes on Reagan, “helped create the modern conservative movement.’’

Kennedy spoke to campaign workers in Los Angeles minutes before he was shot on June 5, 1968. Associated Press/File/Associated Press

But in 1968, long before any of that was evident, Kennedy — who liked to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw and say he dreamed of things that never were, only to ask “why not?’ ’— transformed the entire nature of the Democratic presidential race, even as the Democratic race transformed Kennedy. Members of his own family perhaps understand this best, and it revealed itself in conversations this past spring.

The daughter (Kerry Kennedy, president of an organization now called Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights): “When Daddy campaigned for the presidency, he spoke of ‘peace, justice, and compassion toward those who suffer — that’s what the United States should stand for.’ Imagine this: Imagine someone running for president today saying that exact thing.’’

The grandson (US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, a Brookline Democrat): “He believed in people and he saw in the most marginalized and most destitute the potential to change the world, and he thought their government should see that, too.’’

Today, Robert Kennedy’s older brother John is a figure from history; his 1961 inauguration is as distant from today as Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inauguration was from the day Kennedy delivered his famous “Ask not’’ admonition. Today his younger brother is fading from memory; he died nine years ago and his impulse to reach across the aisle to find Republican allies such as Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah seems oddly antiquarian.

Alone among the brothers, RFK — the Kennedy who updated “ask not’’ to “why not?’’— seems like a figure from today.

Indeed, when Tim Cook, the chief executive officer of Apple Inc., delivered the commencement address at Duke University this spring, he paused to salute Robert Kennedy, saying:

“Kennedy gave the students a call to action. When you look across this country, and when you see people’s lives held back by discrimination and poverty, when you see injustice and inequality, he said you should be the last people to accept things as they are. Let Kennedy’s words echo here today.’’

For many, they always will.

“There’s a strange and strong bond that many people still feel a half-century later,’’ said Philip W. Johnston, a former Massachusetts secretary of human services. “Others get forgotten or become such iconic figures that they don’t seem like real people.’’

And so Robert Francis Kennedy, slain in Los Angeles 50 years ago this week, seems oddly alive today.

He is not one of the “exhausted volcanoes” of history, as Disraeli put it, not like Franklin Roosevelt, who spent himself entirely before he died in office, or even Lyndon Johnson at the ranch, his hair long and his sideburns bushy, drained, care-worn, tortured, and listening repeatedly to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” in his post-presidential Texas exile.

No, Robert Kennedy was stopped dead in time, at the pinnacle of possibility. He remains fresh, vibrant, unsettling, challenging. Bobby, forever 42.

Nuns waved as the train bearing Kennedy’s body passed through North Philadelphia on June 8, 1968.Associated Press/File

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at