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The Cult of Bobby : Hero or opportunist? Almost 25 years after his death, Robert Kennedy is seen as both.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hours after riots erupted in Los Angeles last May, Gov. Bill Clinton debated whether to visit an inner-city neighborhood and speak about racial tensions. The inspiration was political but also historical: During the 1968 presidential campaign, Robert F. Kennedy had given a dramatic speech in Indianapolis after Martin Luther King Jr. was slain, trying to calm an explosive situation. Clinton was keenly aware of the parallel.

Ultimately, he decided against the plan and delayed making a major address. But the fact that Kennedy’s actions influenced a front-running candidate in 1992 says much about a legacy that is unique in America’s political culture. Only 42 when he died, Robert Kennedy never won the presidency, and he spent much of his career in the shadow of his more famous brother, John. Yet nearly a quarter of a century after RFK was shot and killed by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the Cult of Bobby lives on.

It flourishes in political commentaries, in the memoirs of Kennedy loyalists and in the recollections of ordinary people who say RFK still influences them today. It’s become a sad refrain among those who remember his last campaign: When Bobby died, followers say, the United States lost a golden opportunity to heal its racial and economic divisions. And the world lost a potential President who might have ended the Vietnam War earlier.

“I can’t think of anyone who’s had this kind of an impact on U.S. politics, and it’s based almost entirely on what he might have accomplished,” says journalist Jules Witcover, who covered Kennedy’s last race. “There are millions who still mourn his death and think America has never been the same. But it’s not just nostalgia, because he continues to influence people.”

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The evidence is more than anecdotal. In 1988, Rolling Stone magazine conducted a poll of readers ages 18 to 44, asking them to identify their American political heroes. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy won in a landslide.

Next year, the Kennedy family will commemorate the 25th anniversary of Bobby’s doomed presidential bid, and across the nation there will be speeches, conferences and media tributes to him. The intent is to remind people about RFK’s relentless focus on poverty and the underclass and to continue these political efforts in the 1990s, says Kerry Kennedy, his daughter.

“We don’t hear many candidates who speak like he did to those problems,” she says. “And there are a lot of people who want to rekindle his spirit.”

Others would just as soon forget it. While he lived, Robert F. Kennedy inspired as much hatred as admiration from Americans, and the bickering over Bobby the White Knight versus Bobby the S.O.B. continues to this day. Was he the last great hope or just another opportunist milking the Kennedy name?

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True believers hold an unshakable conviction that RFK was the last Democratic candidate to keep the old Franklin D. Roosevelt coalition together. As the heir apparent to his dead brother, Kennedy won over blue-collar workers, middle-class voters and minorities, and he seemed to have a clear shot at the White House.

Shy, awkward and occasionally tongue-tied, Robert was the seventh of nine Kennedy children. He was never expected to be the family’s political leader, but when fate intervened, he more than rose to the occasion. Where his brother was cool and stylish, Bobby was intense and brooding, given to existential ruminations about death while he waged brass-knuckle campaigns.

More important, he showed a capacity for personal change and growth that seemed astonishing in a U.S. politician. The surly congressional staffer who began his career bashing Communists in the 1950s had evolved into a poetry-quoting champion of the underprivileged by the time of his death.

In America’s vast television memory, there are unforgettable images of RFK: The young attorney general prodding his brother to take a tougher stand on civil rights. Hunger strikes with Cesar Chavez. The candidate flashing a “V” sign to supporters and vowing to fight on, seconds before he was shot.

In death as in life, however, Robert F. Kennedy has always drawn mixed reviews. While he was alive, Southern racists vilified him. Some anti-war leaders shunned his presidential campaign, calling him a Bobby-come-lately to the cause. Many people dismissed him as a calculating hack, a man who had served his older brother well but didn’t care whom he stepped over in the process.

Today, critics feast on rumors that RFK had an affair with Marilyn Monroe and may have even contributed to her death. As historians chip away at the myths of Camelot, Kennedy’s documented knowledge of Mafia plots to kill Fidel Castro make him look more like a cloak-and-dagger thug than a martyr.

“I hear people say to Bill Clinton, ‘You’re no Bobby Kennedy.’ And I’d say that’s just as well,” says political essayist Christopher Hitchens. “The cult of the Kennedys has been ruinous to the country and to the Democratic Party generally. But for some reason, there are very intelligent people who have a soft spot about Robert Kennedy. It’s a fascinating phenomenon.”

One reason may be that voters seem more disillusioned than ever about government and that RFK--warts and all--reminds them of a time when America still seemed capable of solving its problems and overcoming its divisions.

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“I don’t blame Clinton for not making the kind of speech after the L.A. riots that Bobby did in Indianapolis,” says a former RFK press aide. “He had his reasons and probably didn’t want to appear opportunistic. But Bobby had guts. He tried to calm the waters, and that’s why people miss him today.”

It helps, of course, that the members of America’s most famous political family are determined to keep his memory alive. As the 25th anniversary commemoration kicks off next year, a new round of books about RFK will appear. One such title will be a collection of his speeches, which is being produced under the supervision of Ed Guthman, a former RFK press secretary.

“People will be amazed when they read these speeches again,” says Guthman, who teaches journalism at USC. “They’re as relevant today as they were then. The problems are the same. And he addressed them head-on.”

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The Cult of Bobby. It’s cropped up in the present campaign, when commentators lament the scant attention paid to poverty and racism. “Where is RFK when you need him?” asked historian Ronald Steele in a recent New Republic column. “There are times when silence is cowardly, not golden.”

Sometimes, the cult throws itself a party. At the Democratic National Convention in New York last July, the hottest ticket was for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial fund-raiser at Gracie Mansion. As movie stars, business VIPs and journalists mingled with the Kennedys, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo saluted a man he never knew personally but who he says influenced him profoundly.

“Bobby Kennedy taught us that you’ve got to keep the middle class and the poor together. . . . That it’s not just a matter of loving your neighbor, but that it’s good for you to do this, as a matter of survival,” said Cuomo.

“The next time you hear someone talk about a new generation in politics, that should trigger recollections of Robert Kennedy,” he added. “Let’s read him again. Let’s study him again. And learn what made him so effective.”

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Sometimes, RFK prompts feelings that people can’t express in words. In 1988, thousands turned out for a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery, where Kennedy is buried next to his brother. Asked why they had come, some shook their heads and fought back tears. Others remembered that night in Indianapolis, when Kennedy told a largely black crowd that King had been murdered. In a prophetic speech less than eight weeks before his own death, he said:

“This is not the end of violence. It is not the end of lawlessness. It is not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

For some, the cult lives on in memorabilia. Journalist Jack Newfield leads a visitor to the third floor of his Greenwich Village townhouse, rummages through a box of old papers and finds a note that RFK wrote before his last speech at the Ambassador Hotel. Amid the hoopla of his victory in the California primary, Kennedy reminded himself to congratulate Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale, who had just pitched his record-breaking sixth straight shutout.

“Not a day goes by when somebody doesn’t mention something to me about Robert Kennedy,” says Newfield, who wrote a book about RFK and is now a columnist for the New York Post. “I might talk about something different, but somehow the talk always gets back to Bobby. People just never forgot.”

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On the night Kennedy died in June, 1968, Melissa Green was a high school student in Dayton, Ohio. Shaken by the tragedy, she began writing a diary that she continues to keep. Now a 39-year-old author in Atlanta, Green was honored recently when her book about the civil rights battles in a small Georgia town, “Praying for Sheetrock,” won the 1992 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

“Is this man somebody I think about every day? I really do,” says Green, thumbing through her diary. “And the important point is, I know that I’ve done things in my life because of what he stood for. Like working for VISTA in the rural South or writing this book. For me, he’s still a presence.”

The yearning for Robert Kennedy--or somebody like him--is an open wound in some parts of America. But historian Herbert Parmet, who has written several books about John Kennedy, suggests that the passage of time has blurred RFK’s rough edges to the point where they are almost forgotten.

“This is not historical memory at work, it’s historical myth,” he says. “In recent months there’s been a desire in some quarters to envision Bill Clinton doing some of the things that Robert Kennedy might have done. And so Bobby remains in our image, magnified by this very romantic memory.”

Forget the fact that RFK was a staunch Cold Warrior who once worked for Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red-baiting committee. Or that he tried to downplay civil rights issues as his brother’s 1964 reelection campaign approached. It’s inconvenient to recall that Bobby resorted to racial demagoguery during a 1968 California debate with Sen. Eugene McCarthy, falsely suggesting that his opponent wanted to move 10,000 poor blacks into lily-white Orange County.

The problem, Parmet says, is that Americans deify dead politicians who were disliked by millions when they lived. People are euphoric today about Harry S. Truman, he notes, but the man was not universally admired when he left office.

So it has been with Robert Kennedy. Those who wish that someone like him would burst onto the scene tend to forget how bitterly divided America was in 1968 and how his frenzied campaign may have stoked those tensions.

“1968 wouldn’t play so well now,” says George S. McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate who lost to Richard M. Nixon in 1972. “The ‘60s were a time of turmoil, there was discontent everywhere, and people were responsive to the campaign Robert Kennedy ran. But today there’s more skepticism in the country and less of a feeling that anyone can bring about real change.”

In the late ‘60s, millions of Americans thought otherwise. And the notion that RFK would have brought about sweeping change is central to his legacy, says Roger Wilkins, a former State Department lawyer whose uncle once headed the NAACP. The idea persists, he suggests, because Robert Kennedy was the last white politician to be trusted by some American blacks.

“More than most white people of his time, who were inexperienced in dealing with the dilemma of being black, Robert Kennedy was a pioneer . . . not just in thinking about this, but in feeling the conflicts that black people went through,” Wilkins says. “People have been wandering in a fog since he died, and they’re still wandering around. No one ever took his place.”

It’s the Kennedy myth in its purest form, and some critics have lost patience. Historian David Horowitz, who co-authored a book about the Kennedy family, says he was initially “taken in” by RFK’s political halo.

“I’d say that (the section on Robert Kennedy) is the weak part of our book in terms of drawing an accurate portrait,” says Horowitz. “We gave him more credit for being a puritan and a moralist than he deserved. Especially in light of all the damaging material that’s come out on Marilyn Monroe.”

A sore subject for Bobby buffs: Ever since Monroe died in 1962, there have been persistent allegations that both John and Robert Kennedy were sexually involved with her. The stories gained credence in 1986, when Anthony Summers’ “Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe” listed numerous liaisons, including dates and locations. By now, they’ve even become fodder for fiction. “The Immortals,” Michael Korda’s latest novel, features steamy passages in which Marilyn and Bobby relax after sex and compare his performance to Jack’s.

Ruthless. The last American hero. Lothario. What you believe about RFK is still based on what you felt about him at the time, says historian Nicholas Lehman. His image may fade, but don’t tell that to people who remember.

In April, 1968, Rick Tuttle was a Los Angeles college student who had been working against the Vietnam War. He and his friends backed RFK, and Tuttle remembers the huge crowd that greeted Kennedy for a speech at Cal State Northridge.

“He got incredible applause,” says Tuttle, “and I remember him saying: ‘We’ll go all the way. We’ll win the nomination, and then we’ll take on Richard Nixon.’ Then he smiled and said: ‘And I think we know how to beat Richard Nixon.’ The place went crazy.”

Nearly 25 years later, Tuttle is the Los Angeles city controller, and he credits RFK’s legacy for propelling him into politics. But it’s not just nostalgia that gets his juices flowing when it comes to Bobby Kennedy.

“That afternoon at Northridge was springtime in America,” he says. “I know this sounds corny. But you had a feeling he was going to win, and you could see a light at the end of the tunnel. Things would get better.”

Tuttle ponders what might have been, then adds: “I know people who want to feel that way again. For us, Robert Kennedy is not just a memory.”


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