In Memory Of Bobby

Robert Francis Kennedy … RFK … was assassinated 40 years ago this coming week. Few Americans will ever forget the shock of that night, and what it would mean. Among those working in Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign was Jeff Greenfield, now our Senior Political Correspondent. He offers a very personal recollection of a man who spoke to so many in so many different ways.

He has been gone almost as long as he was alive, and from a distance of four decades, Robert Kennedy is often seen as a player in a pageant: heir to a murdered President from America's most famous political family … a tumultuous presidential campaign in a tumultuous political year that ended on the floor of a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles.

But why, so many years later, are the memories still so sharp, the loss still so painful?

Photographer Bill Eppridge said, "I don't know of a single person who affected me the way he did."

Veteran CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd said, "There was about Robert Kennedy a perpetual sense of outrage. As a reporter, it was something to behold."

"He had the ability to speak out of his soul, out of his gut," said Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., "and people believed in him."

… including a 24-year-old speechwriter fresh out of law school.

I make no pretense of neutrality; I worked on Kennedy's Senate staff and on his presidential campaign, and still regard him as the most remarkable political figure of my lifetime.

But the question you're entitled to ask of people who believe as I do is, why?

He came from a family of wealth and privilege with a reputation for toughness, even ruthlessness, that began with his campaign against labor boss Jimmy Hoffa in the late 1950s. It was a reputation he could not or would not explain.

"Why do people think you're ruthless?" Mudd asked Kennedy in an interview?

His response? "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know."

"All we knew was that Bobby Kennedy was just a tough cookie," Mudd said. "The ruthless label got on him and couldn't come off, and never came off."

That's a view shared by one of the Kennedy's major adversaries. Monica Crowley worked for Richard Nixon during the last years of his life.

"He said to me one time that Bobby Kennedy was the most brilliant of the Kennedy boys and he was also the most ruthless," Crowley said. "And as somebody who was not unfamiliar with ruthlessness himself, that's something that also quite impressed Richard Nixon."

But after John F. Kennedy's death in 1963, as a war in Vietnam and racial unrest darkened the national mood, something seemed to change or shift in Robert Kennedy.

The freshman Senator from New York was becoming a very different kind of politician, looking at America with a radically original mind.

"Robert Kennedy always had an instinct for the outsider," said Peter Edelman, who was one of Kennedy's key Senate aides. "And it turned out that what he really cared about was people all over this world who don't have a fair shake."

"He saw the anguish," said Lewis, who was a young civil rights worker when he first met Kennedy. "He saw the predicament that black people, that poor people were faced with. And he made a commitment to do something about it, not just as the attorney general. Not just as Senator Kennedy for the presidency. But as a human being."

He went to the Mississippi Delta, where blacks were literally going hungry, to eastern Kentucky, where white people had been without jobs for years, and to the migrant labor camps of California.

And out of this came a sense that there was a fundamental failure of conventional liberal thinking.

  • Jeff Greenfield

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