Robert Kennedy: On One California Night, Triumph and Tragedy

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“In many ways, the personal characteristics of Robert Kennedy are very much like the dominant characteristics of the American people,” the New York Times columnist James Reston wrote on June 6, 1968, the day Kennedy was murdered, and maybe that was why he connected so viscerally with his impassioned constituency.

“We are an ambitious, strenuous, combative, youthful, inconsistent, abrupt, moralistic, sports-loving, non-intellectual breed,” Mr. Reston wrote, and Kennedy “was a passionate and pugnacious man who confronted the inevitable and sometimes the avoidable contradictions of life, and inspired a great loyalty and great fear in the process.”

Kennedy, at the time New York’s junior senator and a former attorney general in the cabinet of his brother John F. Kennedy, had just claimed victory in the California presidential primary in a rally at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when he, like his brother four and a half years earlier, was felled by an assassin. He died 20 hours later, the first assassination of an American presidential candidate.

His death, just two months after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, was another shock that only deepened Americans’ soul-searching as they grappled with the legacies of racial injustice and divisions over the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In a searing Op-Ed critique, the playwright Arthur Miller demanded that Americans “face the fact that the violence in our streets is the violence in our hearts.”

Before a funeral train carried Kennedy’s body to Washington from New York for burial, diverse thousands paid their respects. “World statesmen in formal dark suits stood next to Harlem school boys in torn Levis and sneakers,” the reporter J. Anthony Lukas wrote in The Times.

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A crowd watching the funeral train in New Jersey in 1968. Credit William Sauro/The New York Times

Kennedy had been revered by many as a political savior in a turbulent time and despised by others as ruthless and opportunistic. “Many men succeed in politics by using their worst qualities, and this applied to Robert Kennedy at the beginning of his legislative career,” Mr. Reston wrote, “but in the end he failed while using his best qualities.”

In his eulogy, Senator Edward M. Kennedy urged that his brother be judged at face value. “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life,” he said. “He should be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

Since then, the quadrennial California primary has shouldered the added distinction of marking the anniversary of Kennedy’s death. Californians, 48 years later, go to the polls Tuesday.

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