The first time I ever wrote about Robert Kennedy, he was a mouthy lawyer on a Senate committee investigating labor racketeering. His brother was a senator on the committee, so you know how the kid got the job. I remember Edward Bennett Williams, the lawyer for the Teamsters' boss Jimmy Hoffa, making fun of Kennedy on some point of law: "I'm sure the LAWYERS on the committee, Mr. Kennedy, all know...." Kennedy looked like he wanted to come down to the witness table and punch Williams out.
He was tough and abrasive during his brother's presidential campaign too, the guy who could say no. A campaign needs one of those.
His brother's death was what changed him. He started reading philosophers, Greek poets. He discovered racism, toured and talked to American blacks about their lives. He discovered poverty and talked to poor people about their lives too.
He ran for president almost reluctantly, coming in only after Eugene McCarthy had already announced his campaign. But when he came in, it was like nothing anyone had seen before. His brother had been killed riding in an open car. Kennedy campaigned in one most days. It took three men to hold him in the car, one of them a former football player. People mobbed him, crawled up on to the car to touch him, grasp his hand. He went through cufflinks the way most of go through Kleenex. At the end of the day his hands would be scratched, bleeding.
He never lost his sense of humor, turned often against himself. "I asked Ethel (his wife) about a joke for the speech," he told one crowd. "She said, 'Just let them see your hair. They'll laugh.'" But he was serious too. In Indianapolis, he broke the news of Martin Luther King's murder. He said, in part, "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States...to go beyond these rather difficult times."
He won some primaries and then he won California, the biggest, and then Sirhan Sirhan shot and killed him.
At his funeral, his brother Edward quoted George Bernard Shaw about Bobby: "Some men see things as they are and ask why, but I dream dreams that never were and ask why not?" The conventional wisdom was that Hubert Humphrey had enough delegates and would have been the nominee had Kennedy lived. I never believed that. I think commitments would have been broken and delegates would have flocked to the Kennedy banner. We'll never know, of course.
He was the most passionate politician I can think of. He convinced millions of Americans they really could make the world a better place. But then he died, of course, and the world went on. In that Indianapolis speech he quoted "my favorite poet, Aeschylus...'In our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'"
I don't forget, though it's been forty years now, and I wonder when, or whether, we'll see somebody like him. Maybe not.