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Editorial: RFK's Legacy

The message lives

Ted Kennedy summed up the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy best in delivering his brother's eulogy at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, calling him a "good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."

Indeed, Bobby Kennedy's 1968 run for the presidency centered on racial and economic justice, and an end to the Vietnam War.

Forty years after the second Kennedy assassination, many still wonder how his death altered the course of history. If RFK had been elected president, there would be no President Nixon or Watergate. No President Ford, who was sworn in after Nixon resigned, and probably no President Carter, elected in the Watergate backlash.

Who knows where that would have left Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton? Would George W. Bush be president? Would there be a war in Iraq?

In some ways, 2008 has parallels to 1968. An unpopular war dragged on then, too, killing thousands and dividing the country. And an upstart senator energized young voters with an idealistic message of hope, change and social justice.

Indeed, Sen. Barack Obama's historic climb as the first African American poised to become the Democratic presidential nominee would have made Bobby Kennedy proud.

In a 1962 interview, as U.S. attorney general, Kennedy was asked what was his most pressing problem: crime or internal security? He responded, "Civil rights."

He toured South Africa in 1966, speaking out against apartheid. A quote from a speech he gave at the University of Cape Town is at his gravesite: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance."

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, Kennedy gave a powerful speech that quoted Aeschylus: "In our own despair, and against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God."

That same year, Kennedy toured parts of Kentucky to raise awareness for those mired in poverty. He also traveled to California to support labor activist Cesar Chavez and striking farmworkers.

No doubt, Kennedy had his flaws. As attorney general, he approved federal wiretaps of King. In politics and in confronting the mob and the Teamsters union, he could be tenacious, hot-tempered and vindictive. He was aware of his reputation, joking once to a reporter, "If I find out who called me ruthless, I will destroy him."

He was also a trusted advisor to his brother John. After the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, President Kennedy said: "Thank God for Bobby."

At the conclusion of his eulogy, Ted Kennedy referenced a favorite RFK quote from George Bernard Shaw: "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream things that never were and say, 'Why not?' "

For many voters hungry for change today, that message still resonates.