Remembering Robert F. Kennedy

Once again, the flags slid down to half-staff. Once again, a starlit and star-crossed family came together to mourn its fallen. Once again, a Presidential jet called Air Force One streaked homeward across a continent, its cargo the body of a vital young man of unqualified promise and uncompleted destiny.Once again, the queues wound past the coffin, and once again Washington paused in sadness for a state funeral procession wending toward Arlington's slopes. With a terrible symmetry, a lone assassin struck down Robert Francis Kennedy last week, and once again a nation was left to watch and grieve and wonder.

Death came to Kennedy just as he was celebrating the latest victory of his run to reclaim the Presidency his brother has lost—a run that had already helped force Lyndon Johnson's abdication and now, in California, had eked out a win over rival dissenter Eugene McCarthy. He died not as President but as pretender, felled not in the bright sunshine but in the gloom of a dingy serving pantry in a Los Angeles hotel. Yet the parallels between his murder and John Kennedy's were only too apparent, and the most awful of all was its absurdity. For each died a martyr without a cause; John Kennedy's accused assassin was a tormented loner with Fidelista fantasies, Robert's a Jordanian Arab immigrant apparently bent on avenging the six-day Israeli-Arab was a year to the day after it began.

Amid the national agony and the political and emotional convulsions touched off by Robert Kennedy's death, a stunned and bewildered nation could only ponder fearfully what violence might come next in the most cruelly unpredictable election its tumultuous history has produced.

For four full days, until his body was lowered to its grave on the green slopes of Arlington, there to rest near that of his brother John, the television screens glowed through almost every waking hour. At St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, the line of mourners stretched for more than a mile and some 150,000 citizens filed past the mahogany coffin on the catafalque.

Uncounted thousands of other mourners came out to stand along the route of the funeral train as it wound its way along the 227 miles of track between New York and Washington's Union Station, the greatest suck demonstration the nation has seen since Franklin D. Roosevelt's body was borne from Warm Springs, Ga. to Washington 23 years ago.

Abroad as well as at home, shock yielded to horror, horror to grief, and grief to anger. A few hours after the shooting, while Kennedy still fought for his life in Los Angeles's Good Samaritan Hospital, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered Secret Service protection for all major Presidential candidates. That night, a somber Mr. Johnson went on national television and vigorously rejected the suggestion that the entire nation was somehow collectively guilty of the attack. "Two hundred million Americans did not strike down Robert Kennedy," the President said. Then he entered a solemn plea: Let us, for God's sake resolve to live under the law! Let us put an end to violence and the to the preaching of violence."

But all the while, as the somber pageant of the funeral unfolded, the brooding questions on the nature and extent of the violence in the U.S. persisted—why, why, why? There were, of course, no cheap and easy answers, but under the circumstances, the President felt obliged to appoint a commission of notables to study the phenomenon. However inadequate the gesture, it was an understandable expression of the natural desire to respond, somehow, some way, to this latest and perhaps most poignant of all recent examples of insensate political violence in America.

For Robert Kennedy, was in his own way a political personality as extraordinary as his brilliant brother, from whom he derived most of the initial mystique, the fame, the glamour, and the aura of terrible tragedy that invests the fabled Kennedy family.

In the last few years, Bobby had emerged dramatically from the shade of his murdered brother. He became increasingly concerned with the quality of U.S. life in general, and in particular with the plight of the poor and the downtrodden, black and white alike. His enemies, of course, chalked this up to political opportunism, but in London last week, the day after Kennedy died, former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, 74, went on television to sum up his impressions of the young American he had known for so long and so intimately—and in the process to offer a moving dissent to Kennedy's critics. "Whatever people may say and whatever history may write about Bobby," Macmillan said, "he had a genuine compassion, a real love of people, humble people, poor people—I think the word now is underprivileged people—not in a pompous or pedantic way, but genuine." Tears coursed down the old man's face as he spoke.

For the rest, there was the grief-stricken response of the poor and humble themselves, who wept unashamedly in the streets at the news, who flocked to his bier by the scores of thousands, and who saw in his death the loss of their most compelling and authentic single voice. Kennedy's removal from the political scene thus deprived this increasingly vocal segment of the U.S. electorate of precisely this kind of rare, trusted leader it so desperately needs, and inevitably served to widen the chasm of suspicion, silence and mistrust that separates the majority of the affluent U.S. from its estranged minority. Among the many bitter ironies surrounding Robert Kennedy's death, then, was the gloomy prospect that all the exhortations and all the work of Presidential commissions, it may well inflame, not heal, the violence that inflects the land.

Though there was no telling how far or for how long the shots fired in Los Angeles might reverberate, there were some things that, as the pall of horror began to lift, seemed immediately clear. The first of these was that Robert Kennedy's death further certified the prospect that the contenders in November would be Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and former Vice President Richard M. Nixon. The second was that the millions who looked to and trusted Bobby must now find a new leader to fill the void left by his departure. How far they would have to look could depend on just how accurate John F. Kennedy's powers of prophecy were some years ago, when he observed: "just as I went to into politics because Joe died, if anything happened to me tomorrow, Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, our younger brother Ted would take over for him."