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The nightmare was repeating itself.

There was Ethel Kennedy crouched beside her fallen husband on the floor of a hotel pantry. Frantic but defiant, pregnant with their 11th child, she raised her hand toward the cameras as if to ward off the death of another Kennedy brother.Twenty years later, it still is difficult to summon memories of Robert Francis Kennedy, 42, without remembering he was a brother. He died from a bullet wound to the head, just as President John F. Kennedy, the older brother he served and cherished, had died less than five years earlier.

The Kennedy credo of personal excellence and public service also had claimed a third brother, Joe Jr., in the privileged but ill-starred family of nine children born to Boston-Irish Catholics Joseph Patrick and Rose Kennedy.

The power and fate of the Kennedy legacy was such that, with the loss of each brother, the torch passed to the next in succession, and he would move to fill the void.

A passionate but abrupt man whose longish hair reflected his empathy for the era's rebellious youth, Bobby Kennedy was struck by three bullets as he took a shortcut through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968.

A few minutes earlier he had declared victory in the California Democratic presidential primary, believing it signaled a turning point in his controversial crusade against fellow peace candidate Eugene McCarthy and the establishment favorite, Hubert Humphrey.

Pandemonium swept the hall of Kennedy supporters as eight shots were fired, knocking Kennedy to the floor and injuring five others. Kennedy, staring up at the ceiling, was said to have whispered, "Is everybody safe, OK?" before lapsing into a motionless silence. Someone pressed a rosary into his hand.

His supporters pounced on the gunman, a Palestinian immigrant named Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, who bore a hatred of Kennedy's pro-Israel beliefs. They wrested away his .22-caliber revolver.

Kennedy died 25 hours later. His grave in Arlington National Cemetery, on a sloping hill below the eternal flame burning for his brother, is marked by a simple white cross.

Sirhan, who is serving a life sentence in the California prison at Soledad, has said he acted alone. But conspiracy theories flicker two decades later, fueled by the release in April of previously secret Los Angeles police files that critics insist lack potentially key evidence.

Bobby Kennedy's death came only two months after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis. King's death sparked race riots in cities across the country, but Kennedy was credited with easing tensions that night in Indianapolis with a speech to blacks that included a rare reference to his brother's assassination.

"For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust, at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say I feel in my heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man," Kennedy said.

"What we need in the United States is not division . . . but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."

As a New York senator, Kennedy had not set out to run for president in 1968. But after months of indecision, disturbed by McCarthy's successes, he belatedly chose in March to challenge President Lyndon Johnson over the escalation of the Vietnam War.

Kennedy's public break with Johnson, John Kennedy's vice president and successor, was an affirmation of a longstanding loathing between Johnson and RFK.

"He's mean, bitter, vicious - an animal in many ways," he said of Johnson in a newly published oral history, "Robert Kennedy: In His Own Words," taken from interviews at the Kennedy Library.

His words illuminate the complexities of a man whose nature was so difficult to grasp that his contradictory sides simply came to be known as "Bad Bobby" and "Good Bobby."

Was he aloof and hostile or simply shy? Reckless or winsomely adventurous? Ruthless or merely determined?

A man born to wealth, he delivered rousing speeches that reflected a compassion for America's underdogs: the poor, blacks, Hispanics, the young.

After running John Kennedy's 1960 campaign, Bobby Kennedy became the president's most trusted adviser. He was made attorney general at the age of 36 - the youngest since the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. As the president's "no man," his tough side handled firings and other unpleasantries.

The nation's foremost law enforcer, he prodded the FBI to track organized crime rather than domestic communism, but also agreed to Director J. Edgar Hoover's request to wiretap King to determine if King had ties to communists.

He enforced civil rights in the reluctant South, but quarreled with King's push to publicly dramatize, in marches and bus rides that sometimes sparked violence, how far his people still had to go.

Kennedy's crusade as attorney general against the mob was complicated, even compromised, by a reported 1962 memo from Hoover asserting John Kennedy had an affair with Judith Campbell, a girlfriend of Chicago mobster Sam Giancana.

Marilyn Monroe was a woman to whom both Kennedys were linked by rumor. The British Broadcasting Corp. in 1985 tracked down the gossip, interviewing private detectives who alleged the Kennedys had rendezvoused with Monroe at a Malibu beach house bugged by the mob.

But friends considered Bobby Kennedy a devout Catholic who cherished his wife. Visitors to the family's Virginia homestead, known as Hickory Hill, were engulfed by a chaos of animals and children. Touch football was the family sport. Winning athletic competitions was a measure of competence. Bobby Kennedy liked to surround himself with those who had achieved.

The political events of 1968 unfolded quickly. As support built for Kennedy and McCarthy, a besieged Johnson withdrew from the race. Democratic Party leaders, believing Kennedy and McCarthy divisive, gave their blessings to Humphrey, Johnson's vice president.

But a torn country still mourned the charismatic magic of those Camelot years, and Americans welcomed this resurrected image of their slain young president. Bobby Kennedy's campaign stops were mob scenes. Supporters grabbed his bruised hands, tore off his cuff links, tousled his hair.

His presidential campaign lasted less than three months.

Hickory Hill is a quieter place these days. Rory Kennedy, born six months after her father's death, left for Brown University last fall. Her eldest brother, Joseph Patrick Kennedy II, holds the congressional seat previously held by House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill and Jack Kennedy.

Twenty years ago on a darker June 6, Edward Katcher, chief political reporter for the New York Post, wrote that "the excitement, the drive and the dream" had been drained from Democratic politics. And then he typed, "As long as his name will be remembered, Democrats will have a star to reach for."