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WO DECADES ago, I wrote a journal entry on the 20th anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, 1968.

Now, another 20 years have passed, and a new generation is cutting its political teeth on a presidential campaign in which my 1988 message still reverberates.

When his heart stopped beating and his pulse was stilled, the promise of life was stripped from more than just his gangly body. Millions died with him, robbed of their hopes and dreams, their aspirations and innocence.

When Robert Kennedy died, so did part of me. As his family mourned and cried, so did I, as if he were a member of my own family, an older brother.

How do you describe to one generation the loss of another generation's leader, a beacon of hope to so many people here at home and abroad?

My memory of Robert Kennedy is of an individual whose political aspirations were transformed before our eyes, fueled at first by personal and family ambition, then energized by his passionate indignation at injustice and a nation's failure to fulfill its lofty promises.

He seemed so real. So simple. Yet layered in complexity and paradox. Born to wealth, he stood with the poor.

Passionate and intense, he frightened his enemies but engendered the love and support of millions of others, from the poor of the Mississippi Delta to blue-collar workers in Indiana to longhaired college students on America's campuses.

To win and govern, he needed to mold a consensus of disparate groups, but he did not avoid speaking the brutal truth whether it was - at a segregated university in the South or a medical school of potential detractors.

He relished and sought public office, yet appeared at times painfully shy, stammering as he brushed his hair from his eyes. While he was literate and recited Greek poets, he was not a stellar orator. But the passion of his words, the intensity of his burning eyes, the fervor of his conviction, seized your attention. You listened to each and every word.

He would readily laugh and could make others laugh. He had the Kennedy wit. But you sensed an eternal sadness deep within, born from great family tragedy.

He appeared lonely, a singular figure on the world's stage, and yet he stood with many - as many stood with him.

His slaying on that June night was the culmination of a series of losses that tore at the nation's heart: his brother John murdered five years earlier, and in April of that fateful year of 1968, another killer's bullet found its mark - Martin Luther King.

An age of despair was unleashed. The spirit of hope that was at its zenith only a few years earlier was tossed aside. Optimists became skeptics, even cynics; selflessness was turned on its head, and became selfishness.

Since then, we've longed for another leader whose words can kindle our soul, inspire us to act, appeal to our better nature. But, resigned, we simply accept what is at hand.

My psyche wrestles with RFK's message that "one man can make a difference," but evidence to the contrary erodes my will. Robert Kennedy's message was one of justice and hope; he challenged us to make a difference. But what message, what challenge, do we have for today's generation, for my daughters Michele and Jill and their friends?

And who provides that message? What leaders or mentors?

Perhaps my generation, despite our grief and loss of heroes and innocence was actually fortunate. At least we had, if for a brief moment only, a ray of hope, a sense of purpose, high ideals - a true leader. Today a new generation is awash in labels and emblems - seemingly oblivious to the world's problems or to be fair, maybe they are simply convinced that nothing can be done.

Some day, perhaps, a new generation will hear a voice, a voice that challenges them, excites them, incites their sense of outrage and calls them to action to do whatever they can, however they can, to stem the flood of injustice that swells around them.

May they be so lucky to find such a leader. And may they be even luckier still to have their leader live long enough to have a chance to succeed. *

Phil Goldsmith was formerly the city's managing director. Read his blog at

philgoldsmith.blogspot.com.