RFK's Political Legacy, 40 Years After Assassination

Robert F. Kennedy was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery 40 years ago Sunday. Weekend Edition Sunday remembers Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign as part of the NPR series "Echoes of 1968." Guest Host Audie Cornish talks to John Seigenthaler, Kennedy's former colleague, about the effect of RFK's campaign on American politics and the role of race in the current presidential campaign.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Forty years ago today, Robert F. Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, just steps away from the grave of his older brother, President John F. Kennedy. The New York senator had been killed by an assassin's bullet two days earlier in Los Angeles while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.

During the funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, Teddy Kennedy, who was serving his first full term as Massachusetts senator, gave the eulogy.

Senator TED KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. To 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. Those of us who loved him, and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world. As he said many times in many parts of this nation to those he touched and who sought to touch him: some men see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say why not?

CORNISH: That was Senator Ted Kennedy eulogizing his brother Robert 40 years ago today at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

John Seigenthaler was one of the pallbearers at the funeral that day. He had served as RFK's administrative assistant when Kennedy was attorney general in the administration of his brother John. And in 1968 Seigenthaler went to work on Bobby Kennedy's election campaign.

Mr. JOHN SEIGENTHALER: His method in that campaign was to address problems and to seek to change the public mind.

CORNISH: Public opinion in 1968 was probably more polarized than at any other point in American history since the Civil War. Lyndon Johnson was president, the country was deeply divided over the war in Vietnam and shocked by the bloody Tet Offensive that spring.

Civil rights activism in the South stirred up white backlash, often violent. By 1968, civil rights activists themselves had begun to confront a more militant black power movement. Seigenthaler says Bobby Kennedy went after this divided electorate in a new and different way.

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: I thought the campaign had vitality and meaning because of his willingness to confront controversy and to go against the grain of public opinion; to argue against what the polls said the people wanted to hear.

CORNISH: On June 4th, Kennedy won the California primary. Bobby Kennedy was killed just after addressing supporters in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. With the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. some two months earlier, the political mood of the country shifted.

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: Suddenly it was a politics of despair and not a politics of hope. It was a shattering experience not only for those of us who were close to him but for the country. And frankly I think that the spirit and the hope that was present that year in that campaign, I don't think we have recaptured it until this year.

CORNISH: This year, Seigenthaler notes, the issue of race was again present, but in a radically different way than it was 40 years earlier.

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: Well, I really feel that Barack Obama, obviously, had hoped that his candidacy would be an obvious statement without having to be commented on. It almost was needless to discuss it simply because it was there. But then, of course, Jeremiah Wright made that impossible and then, I think, comments by Hillary Clinton thrust it into the forefront.

And my own feeling was as I listened to that powerful and passionate speech that Barack Obama gave on race, you know, I was suddenly, after hoping against hope that we'd have a campaign free of it, I felt elated. I thought he addressed it in a way that spoke to the nation's heart. And I thought the response to it was helpful.

CORNISH: John Seigenthaler is founder of the First Amendment Center, a foundation dedicated to protecting freedom of the press and free speech.

During the course of this year, NPR is producing Echoes of 1968. It's a series of stories looking back on the events of that tumultuous year. Please go to our Web site, NPR.org, to read more about 1968 and to listen to other stories in the series.

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