Since 1968, the word hope has become the oratorical equivalent of an American flag lapel pin, a de rigueur rhetorical flourish amounting to a vague promise of better days. But the hope that Robert Kennedy offered was specific: that Americans’ belief in their integrity and decency could be restored. His assassination on June 5, eighty- two days after he had announced his candidacy, represented not just the death of another Kennedy or of a promising young leader, but the death of this hope. This explains why the most dramatic display of public grief for an American citizen who had never been elected to the presidency unfolded on June 8, 1968, when a twenty- one- car funeral train, its engine draped in black bunting, carried Kennedy’s body from his funeral in New York to his burial in Washington.
Crowds were expected, but no one imagined that on a steamy Saturday afternoon two million people would head for the tracks, wading through marshes, hiking across meadows, and slithering under fences, filling tenement balconies, clambering onto factory roofs, standing in junkyards and cemeteries, peering down from bridges, viaducts, and bluffs, placing 100,000 coins on the tracks, waving hand- lettered goodbye Bobby signs, and forging a 226- mile- long chain of grief and despair.
Many are still haunted by Kennedy’s phantom presidency. Two decades after his death, Ralph Bartlow Martin wrote, “I have no doubt at all that if nominated he [Kennedy] would have been elected. And if elected, a great President, maybe greater than his brother. But they would have killed him.” As Kennedy lay dying, Jack Newfield told John Lewis, “I can feel history slipping through my fingers.” Four decades later, Lewis says, “I thought that if this one man was elected president, he could move us closer to what many of us in the movement called ‘The Loving Community.’ ” Former Kennedy aide Peter Edelman still believes that his presidency “would have influenced the tone and direction of American politics for decades.” Edwin Guthman, who worked in the Kennedy Justice Department, writes, “To know anything about him is to know that had he lived and won in 1968, he would have been a great President.” Look correspondent Warren Rogers told an interviewer in 1997 that his presidency would have left “a far more decent, a far gentler and less uncouth country than we are today,” and the political commentator Mark Shields, who worked for him in the Nebraska primary, says, “I’ll go to my grave believing Robert Kennedy would have been the best President of my lifetime.”