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40 years later: Remembering Robert Kennedy

Forty years ago today, the dream died again. Robert Kennedy, gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen, clutched a rosary handed to him by a busboy as he bled from a head wound. Amid shrieks of despair, his wife Ethel comforted him as his life ebbed away.

His brother, President John Kennedy, was killed less than five years before. Martin Luther King was assassinated two months earlier. By June 1968, violence from the inner cities to Vietnam was tearing the country apart, and had robbed the nation of three of its most inspiring leaders.

Forty years later, the story of Robert Kennedy's life, cut short at 42, and the ripples from his brief, passionate campaign for the presidency remain powerful. He was killed celebrating his greatest triumph, winning the California primary as he fought for the Democratic nomination.

The double blow of the King and Kennedy assassinations remains a raw wound for many who worked with them or were inspired by them. “We saw two bright lights snuffed out, our hopes and dreams shattered,” recalled John Seigenthaler Sr., the former NBC anchor's father, who worked for Kennedy.

It's still surprising today that Kennedy was only 42 when he died. If he were alive now he would be 82, one year younger than former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.

Kennedy's 82-day campaign for the presidency, with its urgent themes of ending the Vietnam War, attacking poverty and bridging the racial divide, was a “noble moment, brutally truncated,” said Todd Gitlin, a political writer and sociologist.

Ethel Kennedy, in a brief interview, said she hoped the 40th anniversary of her husband's death this week will highlight two aspects of his legacy – his focus on poverty and his ability to attract youths into politics and public service.

Many voters this year say Barack Obama reminds them of John or Robert Kennedy, and Ethel Kennedy did not shy from that comparison. She said her husband and Obama “were cut from the same cloth – they reached out to people and inspired them.”

Frank Mankiewicz, Kennedy's press secretary, said he was one of the few politicians who could attract white and black votes, and often challenged audiences.

“These days, you don't find politicians telling people what they don't want to hear, but he did that all the time,” Mankiewicz recalled.

The political rules of 1968, with a handful of primaries, were different from today. Kennedy started the race taking on President Lyndon Johnson, but antiwar activists had already rallied behind Sen. Eugene McCarthy and disparaged Kennedy as an opportunist.

After Johnson decided not to seek re-election, party bosses began to support Vice President Hubert Humphrey, but some waited as Kennedy won Indiana and Nebraska. Then Kennedy lost Oregon to McCarthy – which made the California contest crucial.

He won.

“On to Chicago and let's win there,” Kennedy told a jubilant crowd at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Moments later, just past midnight on June 5, a Palestinian immigrant named Sirhan Sirhan who was angry about U.S. support for Israel shot him in the head. He died 26 hours later, on June 6.