By Tom Brokaw Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/4/2008 5:28:08 AM ET 2008-06-04T09:28:08

NBC's Tom Brokaw was a news anchor at KNBC-TV in Los Angeles when Robert Kennedy was killed there forty years ago. He reflects on those turbulent times and the man the nation mourned.

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There are so many indelible memories for me from 40 years ago, that volcanic year of 1968 when Vietnam was the killing field for 16 thousand young Americans; when Lyndon Johnson stepped aside, refusing to run again as president; when Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, touching off raging riots in the inner cities of America; when the counter-culture Baby Boomers pushed back hard against almost everything their Greatest Generation parents represented and believed in. Then, there was Bobby. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the tough little brother of the martyred president who had been assassinated less than five years earlier.

When Bobby entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination against Senator Eugene McCarthy who had been the LBJ-giant-slayer in New Hampshire many saw it was one more ruthless, calculating act by the political enforcer of the Kennedy family.

But as he campaigned across the country, shirt-sleeves rolled up, hair tussled, accompanied by famous black athletes and little known Mexican-American farm workers as well as the glittering friends of the family dynasty, Bobby transformed his image. He was compassionate as well as tough, self-deprecating and fun-loving. He never failed to join in the sing-along on his campaign plane and he was brutally honest with college students hiding behind deferments to avoid service in Vietnam.

Struck down
He reminded them that while they were protected by privilege, working-class kids from other neighborhoods were going in their place. That's wrong, he said.

When Bobby came to California for the final primary it was his last chance to prove to the Democratic Party bosses he was their best hope to win in the fall. He won in California, and lost his life the same night, struck down by bullets from a crazed Palestinian in a hotel pantry.

I had covered RFK throughout California and watched him grow every day into one of the most impressive political figures of my time. I was anchoring the local NBC coverage of that election night and when I heard he'd been shot I left the studio and raced to the precinct house where Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin, had been taken -- and then to a nearby hospital where Senator Kennedy had been rush in a vain attempt to save his life.

Great tribute
I stayed on duty at the hospital through the night and into the next day when he was declared dead. By then I was so drained. I was numb, too emotionally exhausted to cry. I went home and hugged my wife and two small children.

For America to lose Dr. King and Senator Kennedy within a few months of each other was blow so powerful I wondered whether we'd recover.

But the great tribute to both men is that they had already set us on a course to be a better nation. To correct racial and economic injustice, to be more tolerant of cultural differences and to never give up the fight or a place in the public arena.

As a citizen, husband, father and journalist I knew I had been in the presence of greatness.

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