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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy