Robert Kennedy: The Last Hero

Why Robert Kennedy's message of compassion still resonates in 1988

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It has been 20 years since he died, and still it is hard to take the measure of the man. Robert Kennedy was mostly a brother in his lifetime: a campaign manager, an Attorney General and then the younger brother to whom the torch was passed. Again, as a brother, he had to battle past his own dark night of the soul to take up a doomed burden, knowing that every time he rose to speak in front of a crowd it was to stare his own death in the eye. But the Kennedy magic, both a blessing and a curse, attached to him, and he quickly became a Senator, then a rebel candidate for President. Almost as quickly, he too was killed. He was 42.

What echoes today is a memory, almost mythic in proportions. Like all leaders who die young, Bobby is frozen in death as larger than life. As a memory, he evokes an era of political passion and social commitment that stands in haunting contrast to 1988. As a myth, he is a vessel into which all dreams can be poured. A recent Rolling Stone survey found that to this day only Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. stand out as heroes to the 18- to 44-year-olds who were interviewed.

Twenty years ago, Kennedy had just won the Nebraska primary. Roy Lichtenstein's celebrated pop portrait on the cover of TIME captured all the vibrancy and passion of Kennedy's surging campaign. Three weeks later Bobby lay on the floor of the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The anniversary of that heady quest and its horrifying finale has become an occasion for a subdued outpouring of nostalgia, bespeaking a sense that something is missing in the year of Bush and Dukakis. A week ago, about 800 people -- led by such old colleagues as Paul Schrade, Arthur Schlesinger, Cesar Chavez and Frank Mankiewicz -- gathered in Los Angeles to reflect on Kennedy's legacy. Said Jack Newfield, author of Robert Kennedy: A Memoir: "If you took the best half of Jackson and the best half of Dukakis, you would have half of Robert Kennedy."

The rising nostalgia about Bobby seems to embody an inchoate yearning for a time in U.S. political life when everything seemed possible: topple a President, end a war, bring peace between the races, fight poverty and injustice. Whatever verdict history renders on the short life of Bobby Kennedy, this is certain: he brought a passion to public life, a sense that government in the hands of the right people could be mobilized for something good. Politics mattered. Like other times when the country gave up its individual dreams for a collective vision -- during the World Wars, the Depression -- there seemed to be a brief moment in the '60s when people believed that one person, by force of character, could seek a newer world. "There is," says Kennedy's old speech writer Adam Walinsky, "a lot of nostalgia for this country as it used to be."

Both friends and foes have enlarged Kennedy beyond what he was in life to the point where it is hard to separate the myth from the man. Tim Giago, editor of the Lakota (S. Dak.) Times, runs a story every other year to commemorate the anniversary of the day Kennedy visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. "It was almost as if a saint had come and was reaching his hand to the people," he says. "He went to the grubbiest children and hugged and kissed them." But Bobby was, of course, much more complicated than the myth will allow, more flawed and human.

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