Bill Clinton as candidate and president often compared himself to John F. Kennedy. A very young Bill had the opportunity to meet his hero...

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Bill Clinton as candidate and president often compared himself to John F. Kennedy. A very young Bill had the opportunity to meet his hero at the White House, and a previously obscure photograph of their encounter become famous around the globe after the Arkansan himself achieved the presidency.

That earlier president is today firmly established in the American popular imagination as a great leader. A device at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia gives visitors the opportunity to vote on the nation’s greatest president. Kennedy consistently is third, just behind Washington and Lincoln.

Now, a desperate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has invoked another Kennedy, alluding to the bloody assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles just after his victory in the 1968 California primary. The resulting torrent of criticism has brought a Clinton apology. Sen. Barack Obama gracefully noted that verbal gaffes easily happen in exhausting campaigns.

On one level, Sen. Clinton engaged in tasteless exploitation of a dead leader, but in fairness, she perhaps also was highlighting the value of fighting in the face of strong odds, a point generally neglected in immediate media commentary.

RFK was struggling hard against long odds when death took him. He had just been defeated by the other anti-Vietnam War candidate, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, in the important Oregon primary — a fact overlooked in most contemporary media recounting of those days. A big win in California might have undone that damage, but Kennedy barely edged out McCarthy in the vote.

Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey had lined up a majority of the convention delegates even before the California primary. In the 1960s, the proverbial smoke-filled room was still prevalent in politics, and Democratic Party bosses — Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley excepted — were Humphrey stalwarts. Many had strong anathema for Bobby, the result of his years as enforcer and hatchet man for his older brother.

After California, delegates from New York were selected. Kennedy, politically weak in the state he represented, was not expected to do well. One rarely mentioned incentive for seeking the 1968 presidential nomination was the possibility that he would have lost a bid for re-election to the Senate in 1970.

And yet, there is just a chance that RFK could have secured the nomination. Had Mayor Daley decided to support him publicly, other Democratic power brokers could have been swayed, especially in the violent turbulence of the 1968 Chicago convention.

The one Kennedy brother who was short, slight and lacking in natural athletic ability, Robert was also the only one to earn a Harvard letter in varsity football. His physical discipline and mental determination were legendary. Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, a particularly dangerous as well as angry enemy, liked to describe Bobby as “the runt of the litter.” In light of what the runt accomplished, this can be viewed as an unintentional compliment.

Even had RFK not secured the nomination, there is a very good chance that Humphrey would have picked him for vice president. The two politicians were on good terms, and both were ultimately pragmatists. A Humphrey-Kennedy ticket would likely have defeated Nixon-Agnew in 1968, just as the Humphrey-Muskie team came from far behind to a very close finish. Such an outcome would have reflected shrewd calculations by the realistic Democratic politicians of that era.

Karl Marx remarked that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as comedy. Violent 1960s America, including urban riots as well as assassinations, was literally a bloody time. For all our current problems, we remain far distant from those grim and gruesome years. Let’s hope that continues.

Arthur I. Cyr is the Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., and the author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at