Politics were unimaginable without RFK. Then they were unimaginable with him.

Robert F. Kennedy speaking at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. The New York senator was shot shortly after proclaiming victory in California’s Democratic presidential primary election. (Dick Strobel/AP)

My memory of the events 50 years ago this week is gauzy but powerful. There was great shock at my house, because someone had shot Robert F. Kennedy. My father had put his career on hold to work as one of the New York senator’s presidential campaign aides, traveling to far-flung locales such as Nebraska and California for the primaries. By June 5, he was back home in the D.C. suburbs, watching the news from Los Angeles on our black-and-white television and, according to my memory, crying.

RFK lingered about 24 hours before he died. In that interval, my older sister and I took red, white and blue nylon campaign banners emblazoned with the name “Kennedy” and stood outside our house in the D.C. suburbs, waving them at passing cars.

I recall the sun was shining, incongruously, but I do not remember what we kids hoped to accomplish.

My parents probably admired RFK for the same reasons others did. As attorney general, he helped his brother President John F. Kennedy manage the Cuban missile crisis and force Gov. George Wallace of Alabama to admit the state university’s first black students. As a senator, he picketed with the United Farm Workers. As a presidential candidate, he promised to end the war in Vietnam.

A quoter of Aeschylus and Yeats, and heir to his brother’s legacy, RFK spoke of uniting the country, of seeking to “do better.” He forged a coalition of liberal white professionals, blacks and Latinos, anticipating the one Barack Obama would assemble 40 years later. Film from 1968 shows near-delirious crowds swarming Kennedy, clutching, grabbing and tugging until his minuscule security detail finally pushes them away.

To his fans, charisma excused a multitude of sins — negated the ambitious, ruthless Bobby who had made common cause with Joseph McCarthy, authorized FBI wiretaps of…

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