WASHINGTON – Kathleen Kennedy Townsend still doesn't like to talk publicly about her memories of the June 6, 1968, death of her father, Robert F. Kennedy.
But she clearly remembers — and freely talks about — the letter her father gave her the day her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in 1963 after he was assassinated. Her father would be buried at Arlington five years later.
"'Dear Kathleen,' he said," Townsend recalls part of the letter saying. "'As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren you have a special responsibility: be kind to others and work for your country. Love, Daddy."'
Townsend, now 56, was 16 when Sirhan Sirhan shot her father June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after Kennedy's victory in the state's Democratic presidential primary. Kennedy died the next day. On the 40th anniversary of his death on Friday, family members will attend a Mass at Arlington.
Townsend said she still has that letter and continues to reflect on its message about love of country and compassion.
She said her father passed on the idea that "we have to look forward. We have to be compassionate towards others and we have to have a sense of responsibility."
"It was a very warm and embracing message, and I think it's the message that my father had personally for his family, for our family, but it grew into a larger message for this country," Townsend said this week during an interview with The Associated Press.
Townsend, who lives in Baltimore, said she is often asked if she gets upset when people try to claim her dad's legacy. "I say, just the opposite, because he had such a rich life and such an enormous presence that many people can claim different parts of what he said," Townsend said.
For Townsend, her father's legacy is one of making sacrifices and accepting the burden of trying to work through societal problems to make a better nation.
She said she finds it interesting that in 2008, people still remember 1968 and the issues emphasized in her father's campaign. When her father was running for president, no one, she said, spent much time talking about issues that dated back 40 years.
Townsend, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, said unresolved questions of race relations, the relationship of rich and poor and questions and worries about an ongoing war remain high-profile and politically volatile issues. The availability of health care, an issue her father discussed on the campaign trail, also continues to loom large.
"We are still dealing with those kind of issues today and because of that, many people are asking what would Robert Kennedy do? What is his legacy? What did he care about?"
Were her father alive today, Townsend said his top concern would be urging people to get involved in the political process. Her father fought hard to get the Voting Rights Act passed, and she said the high turnout during the 2008 Democratic primaries would have thrilled him.
Townsend, who backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the presidential nomination, avoids talking about comparisons of Sen. Barack Obama to the charismatic and politically prominent Robert and John Kennedy.
In fact, she makes a point of saying how her father "was not, in a traditional sense, a good politician," at least as a public speaker.
"He often was very nervous when he spoke," Townsend recalled. "I remember, as a little girl, watching him practice over and over in front of the mirror, and he was trembling. I mean, it wasn't easy." He got better, but "it wasn't easy for him to do."
She remembers spending some time on the campaign trail with her father, though not for very long periods because she was in school. She recalls "enormous excitement about what he was trying to do," bringing together black Americans and blue-collar workers.
She recalls "just so many people" wanting to touch her father, enthusiastic for his campaign. "It was like he was a rock star," she said.
Townsend said her father wasn't afraid to risk unpopularity by telling people they needed to sacrifice, particularly those who were well-to-do or well-educated. She remembers him pointing out to students at the University of Kansas who were protesting the Vietnam War that they had draft deferments.
"He was willing to make that moral argument that was uncomfortable to his listeners, rather than just tell them what they wanted to hear, because he trusted that Americans wanted to be better," Townsend said.