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A Dream Denied: Remembering Robert Kennedy


The 1968 presidential race was shattered by the murder of Democratic Senator Robert F. Kennedy, gunned down on the night he won the California primary. Forty years later, RFK's press secretary and advisor Frank Mankiewicz reflects on Kennedy's White House race. VOA's Jeffrey Young reports.

In June, 1968, New York Senator Robert Francis Kennedy was riding high, charging toward the Democratic Party's presidential nomination after a series of primary election victories. But RFK, as many called him, never had the chance to savor victory at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

He was gunned down, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, after winning the California primary. His dream, shared by so many, was denied.

Robert Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, where his brother, President John F. Kennedy, also lies.

Frank Mankiewicz was RFK's advisor and press secretary.

Today, Mankiewicz is a public relations executive in Washington. But those days 40 years ago are still with him.

Mankiewicz says that 1968, like 2008, was a time of discontent and deep wounds. He says RFK attracted people with his message of healing.

"Well, that was a message that he carried. And, I think that is why people were attracted to him, who would not otherwise gotten themselves involved in politics," Mankiewicz said. "Because, they sensed that the country was at a crisis point, and that he [RFK] could indeed bring them together."

In 1968, like today, the United States had an unpopular president and a war many opposed. When Lyndon Johnson started his re-election bid in the March, 1968 New Hampshire primary, he was nearly defeated by anti-war candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy. That drove Johnson out of the race.

"I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president," Johnson said.

Johnson's withdrawal cleared a path for Robert Kennedy. Then several weeks later, on April 4, America was shattered by the murder of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Robert Kennedy spoke with words of healing.

"What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another," Kennedy said.

Kennedy's momentum toward the Democratic presidential nomination grew one state primary after another, culminating with victory in California on June 4.

But his quest for the White House was stopped by bullets to his head, fired moments after his Los Angeles victory speech. The gunman was Sirhan Sirhan, who has never fully explained his crime or whether he acted alone. On June 6, RFK died, changing the course of the nomination in favor of Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

"So, I think the fight would have been [between] Kennedy and Humphrey at the convention," Mankiewicz said. "And how that would have come out, I don't know. But I think we would have won it. And I think, as you say, had he won the nomination, I think he would be president - - he would have been president because he could beat Richard Nixon."

Many analysts have compared current Democratic hopeful Barack Obama and his inspirational tone to Robert Kennedy's. Mankiewicz says there are similarities but there are also differences.

"I think one thing that where Obama is falling short is his connection to America, his connection to the country, his connection to the broad base of the Democratic Party. People who work for living. People who pay taxes," he said.

40 years later, people still come to Arlington National Cemetery to visit Robert Kennedy's grave. And for those old enough to remember what could have been, their feelings can be seen on their faces.

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