ARLINGTON, Va. -- As about 18,000 people watched from the hillsides of Arlington National Cemetery, President Clinton late yesterday joined the family and close friends of Robert F. Kennedy in a graveside Mass on the 25th anniversary of the New York senator's death by assassination.
The president -- who for most of the tribute sat next to Robert Kennedy's widow, Ethel, while first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton sat beside Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. -- lauded the slain leader as "a relentless searcher for change, for growth, for the potential of heart and mind that he sought for himself and that he demanded of others."
The Roman Catholic service, organized by a foundation headed by a Kennedy daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, on a splendid late-spring evening, emphasized Kennedy's concerns for social justice and racial reconciliation.
Kennedy, Mr. Clinton said, "would dare us not to mourn his passing but to fulfill his promise . . . to leave yesterday and embrace tomorrow."
Readings from stirring Kennedy political addresses of the 1960s were delivered by two of Kennedy's daughters, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo and Rory Kennedy, and two of his sons, Douglas and Michael. Attorney General Janet Reno read a Kennedy passage on legal rights for the poor. Sarah Brady, a leading advocate of handgun control, recited Kennedy's words on crime and violence.
The atmosphere, lightened by a Baltimore gospel choir, was one of smiles and relaxation, with Ethel Kennedy occasionally looking pensive. The most emotional moment came when Kennedy's son, Rep. Joseph Kennedy II, D-Mass., choked up while delivering a remembrance.
"May the good Lord hold Robert Kennedy close," the congressman said, burying his face in the shoulder of his uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., when he ended his speech. The senator later recited Tennyson's poem "Ulysses," his brother's favorite, which begins, "Come, my friends, 'tis not too late to seek a newer world."
Andy Williams, who performed at Robert Kennedy presidential campaign appearances in 1968 before Kennedy was fatally shot on the night he won the California primary, sang "Ave Maria" while grandchildren, friends and daughters-in-law of the late senator placed flowers beneath the white cross marking his grave.
The simple gravesite lies 200 feet from the eternal flame at the grave of President Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963.
Robert Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, and died the following morning.
Aretha Franklin opened last night's service with "America the Beautiful" and also sang the Lord's Prayer and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."
Martin Luther King III and Thurgood Marshall Jr. alternated with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., his sister Courtney and his brother Maxwell in readings from the Book of Psalms. Others reciting during the event included Andrew Cuomo, Andrew Young and the author Toni Morrison.