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RFK: what we lost

ROBERT F. KENNEDY was born 80 years ago today. If life were fair, he would be at Hickory Hill celebrating with Ethel, surrounded by a brood of children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews, and friends. But, as his brother Jack once pointed out, life is unfair, and so 37 years after his passing, we are left to wonder what his and our lives would have been like had he not walked through that kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night of the 1968 California primary.

Today it is difficult to impart to young people how electrifying a presence Robert Kennedy was during the period between his brother's assassination in 1963 and his own death a mere five years later. In this era of programmed, consultant-controlled candidates, RFK would stand out even more than he did in the '60s.

Having devoted his adulthood to helping advance his brother's career, he was on his own after 1963. Jack Newfield wrote that it seemed that most of the men around President Kennedy had their own lives cut short after the assassination. They never recovered from that tragedy. In some ways the lone exception was Robert Kennedy, who grew in astonishing ways. His brother's death made him empathic with others who suffered: The tough, single-minded political operative became a public figure who used his celebrity to help us to see the dispossessed and powerless in our country. Kennedy saw his role after 1963 as carrying on the work of his brother. Because JFK's death hurt him so much, he began to read the Greek philosophers to gain insight into the very nature of personal torment. His journey out of the abyss of grief transformed him in fundamental ways. He identified with those who were oppressed. In those years, one could see the pain and grief etched on his face. Martin Luther King Jr. said that suffering is redemptive; Robert Kennedy proved him right.

Once elected to the Senate in 1964, Kennedy began his travels around the country to expose the suffering of blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and poor children. Supported by an extraordinary staff, including Jeff Greenfield, Peter Edelman, and Adam Walinsky, he was determined that the United States confront the racial, economic, and social abuses that had been the nation's dirty little secret. Kennedy found allies in people who went on to make a real difference like Marian Wright, Robert Coles, Cesar Chavez, Allard Lowenstein, and most notably, his brother, Ted.

In throwing his political weight behind the powerless and the oppressed -- and later in his opposition to the war in Vietnam -- Robert Kennedy took huge political risks. He possessed a rare moral vision for what America might become if it would only confront the demons of racism and poverty. His support for the civil rights and peace movements stood conventional political wisdom on its head. The safe, smart thing for him to have done would have been to support Lyndon Johnson and patiently await his turn for the White House. It is a measure of his political courage that he chose a far more dangerous course.

When Robert Kennedy died, I was 24 years old. My generation was cheated by the deaths of President Kennedy and Dr. King. But I remember thinking after each was murdered, ''Well, at least we still have Bobby." The deaths of the Kennedys and King robbed us of the most inspiring leaders we will ever have in this country; after they died, nothing was the same.

Looking back over the decades since the death of Robert Kennedy, I realize that for many years we simply assumed that another comparable leader would appear to battle for the causes he cared about. Every four years, we've been bitterly frustrated by the failure of our candidates for the White House to live up to RFK's standards. Now that I am much older, I realize what I should have known in 1968 -- that Robert Kennedy was irreplaceable.

These days, when I have had enough of listening to so-called political leaders who cut corners and waffle on fundamental issues like poverty and war, I close my eyes and I see the youthful and passionate RFK. I see him as he was in the '60s, going to South Africa to take on apartheid, to Delano to support grape workers, to Appalachia to show us its desperate poor, speaking out against the war in Vietnam.

I hear him speaking boldly, without fear, urging us to become involved, to make a difference. I open my eyes and I feel unspeakably sad about what we lost.

Philip W. Johnston, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, served as executive director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and was founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps.

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