Exploring the Legacy of a Fallen Leader : Politics: Friends and family of Robert F. Kennedy say the themes of his 1968 presidential bid have renewed relevancy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What has been going on with the United States over the period of the last three years: The divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society . . . whether it's between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups . . . we can start to work together.

Those were among the final words spoken by Robert F. Kennedy before he was shot to death at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in the early hours of June 5, 1968.

Today, nearly 25 years later, they provide a haunting reminder of how little has changed in the city--and nation--that took his life, friends and family members said Saturday at a conference in Los Angeles honoring the slain presidential candidate.

"When you look back at Daddy's campaign, it is really quite incredible that the themes of that campaign are again central to the American agenda," said Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, who was 8 years old when her father was assassinated.

"Twenty-five years ago, Robert Kennedy talked about the riots in Watts and why they occurred," Cuomo said. "Twenty-five years later, of course, the nation came almost to a standstill waiting with bated breath for the outcome of the second L.A. police brutality case."

One of Kennedy's 11 children and executive director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Cuomo was among a host of Kennedy admirers--including another daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend--who gathered at USC for the daylong conference.

It was one of a series nationwide sessions sponsored by the center to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Kennedy's bid for the presidency. The Los Angeles gathering, however, carried special meaning, Cuomo said, because of the city's tragic role in her father's lost dream.

"My father was killed here," she said. "Los Angeles feels a particular union with him and his ideals, especially because he was killed after he had won the support of this state in his presidential bid."

The conference included several panel discussions about issues that were important to Kennedy, such as racial equality, economic and social justice, and politics as a profession. It also featured testimonials to Kennedy by Dolores Huerta, a negotiator for the United Farm Workers who turned to Kennedy for help during the union's grape boycott of the 1960s, and Mayor Tom Bradley.

Bradley, a councilman in 1968, credited the senator from New York with giving him the courage to seek higher office at a time when skeptics discounted his chances. Bradley described Kennedy as a hero whose campaign "swept like a tornado" across California, only to be snuffed out on the morning after winning the Democratic primary.

"He inspired us to believe . . . that there was an opportunity to change this nation and to change the way we relate to each other," Bradley said. "That alienation of 1968 still continues today; in some cases it is more pronounced. But the mission of Bobby Kennedy did not die with him. It remains for us to pick up and to carry that torch just as he did during his life."

Several members of the Clinton Administration took the opportunity to promote the President's proposed national service program, which would enable students to repay college loans through volunteerism. Eli Segal, director of the Office of National Service, invoked the memory of Kennedy's compassion for the disadvantaged and his calls for community activism and self-help.

Segal said Kennedy served as the "conscience of one historical era" and is now "the guiding light of our own." Young people were at the heart of Kennedy's campaign in 1968, Segal said, because he believed in their redemptive power; Clinton's call for national service is based on the same principle, he said.

"Our national service program is designed to take the greatest national resource we have, the energy and idealism of young people, and direct it to our hardest domestic problems," Segal said.

In one of the more personal accounts of the day, Peter Edelman related anecdotes of Kennedy on the campaign trail, characterizing him as someone who was as comfortable with activist Tom Hayden as with political boss Richard J. Daley, the mayor of Chicago. Edelman, who served as a legislative assistant to Kennedy and edited many of his speeches, described his former boss as a committed visionary who loved people above all else.

"He was in so many ways ahead of his time," Edelman said. "When we lost him, the development of (his ideals) was put on hold, put into a deep freeze, and we are only now getting back to them."

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