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Living in the shadow of Bobby Kennedy: America still feels the loss of RFK, writes Rupert Cornwell

THE Ambassador Hotel where he was shot dead in his hour of triumph 25 years ago stands earmarked for demolition, shuttered and empty on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Since that 5 June, six men have acceded to the presidency and scores have competed for it. Yet none has the hold on the collective American imagination that Bobby Kennedy had.

Everyone present at the Ambassador on the night of the 1968 California primary election knew that more than a political career of unfulfilled achievement had been cut short by the bullets of Sirhan Sirhan. At 42, Robert Francis Kennedy was the embodiment of promise. With his death, a generation lost, if not its innocence, then much of its hope.

Bobby Kennedy is a supreme study in 'What if?' The victory in California had virtually guaranteed him the Democratic nomination. Had he lived, would he not have gone on to defeat Richard Nixon for the presidency? Even Hubert Humphrey, scarred by his association with a discredited Lyndon Johnson and by Mayor Richard Daley's bloody suppression of the anti-war demonstrators in Chicago, still gave Mr Nixon a desperately close race.

A second Kennedy in the White House would probably have meant a speedier withdrawal from Vietnam. No Nixon would have meant no Watergate, and therefore no Jimmy Carter. Without Mr Carter, there could well have been no Ronald Reagan. By 1988, the game of hypothetical consequences is exhausted. But its endurance is a measure of the myth of Bobby Kennedy.

RFK was a man of contradictions. He was overshadowed by his brother Jack. Yet his boyish looks belied a greater shrewdness. He was tough but oddly vulnerable; he was the erstwhile staffer of the witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy who became the scourge of corruption in Jimmy Hoffa's Teamsters union. He was the scion of New England wealth and privilege who adopted the cause of minorities and the poor as no national politician has done since.

As the grainy colour footage, run and rerun on US television in the past few days, so poignantly shows, his last campaign had the passion and commitment of a religious crusade. The images of the funeral train on its slow journey from New York to Washington past the silent, grieving crowds who lined the track, are as overpowering now as they were a quarter of a century ago.

After 12 years of Republican rule, a Democrat who claims to model himself on the murdered Kennedys is in the White House. This weekend Bill Clinton, his standing lower than any President so soon after taking office, will attend a memorial service by Bobby Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery. As the odour of premature failure settles on another young Democrat, RFK has rarely been so missed.

(Photograph omitted)