The warm morning was full of overlapping ironies. A Republican president gave a medal to a Democratic legend, grown children returned to a childhood home, and the familiar covered walkway, now packed with Ronald Reagan aides, brought memories of the times when Robert F. Kennedy had walked there with his brother John.
It was the 13th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's death, almost exactly to the hour. Yesterday in the White House Rose Garden, Ronald Reagan awarded the Robert F. Kennedy medal to Kennedy's widow Ethel. It was for the late senator's service to the country.
"He aroused the comfortable," Reagan said of Kennedy. "He exposed the corrupt, remembered the forgotten, inspired his countrymen and renewed and enriched the American conscience."
The short ceremony was emotional for the Kennedys and friends who came, its quiet marred only by the sound of a passing ambulance siren. There were Kennedy children everywhere in dark suits and bright spring dresses: John Jr. and Caroline, children of the late president; Jospeh P. Kennedy II, Courtney Kennedy Ruhe, and the nine other children of Robert Kennedy, the late presidential candidate and spirit of a generation. There were the familiar faces connected with the clan: singer Andy Williams, Robert McNamera, columnist Joseph Alsop, producer George Stevens Jr. On one side of the garden, Averell Harriman held a bright blue and white parasol to shade the sun from Louise Cooper.
In the corridor outside the Oval Office, just above the Rose Garden, were presidential assistants Ed Meese, Jim Baker and Mike Deaver. They looked out on the scene, observers but not participants.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) accepted the medal for the family. "Thirteen years ago at this hour," he said, "Robert Kennedy lay dying of his wounds. Accepting this medal in his memory. I would say again what I said when we took leave of him. He was a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. . .
"Those of us who were with Robert Kennedy when he died in 1968 felt a special sense of relief this year, Mr. President, at your own recovery from the attack against you."
The medal was authorized by Congress in 1978 for Ethel Kennedy, "in recognition of the distinguished and dedicated service which her late husband gave to the government and to the people of the United States." It took almost two years to make, and didn't arrive at the White House for presentation until the fall of 1980. "When Jimmy Carter was president," Meese pointed out yesterday.
"We don't know why it took so long," another White House aide said yesterday. "We have no idea."
"I don't have any idea," former Carter press secretary Jody Powell said yesterday. "This is the first I've heard of it." Last year, Carter was in a bitter primary battle with Ted Kennedy, although by fall, the Democratic Party was attempting to reunite.
So it was a Repubican -- and a Republican now criticized for ignoring the poor that Bobby Kennedy publicly embraced -- who performed yesterday's ceremony. Ronald Reagan, politician:
"Those of us who had our philosophical disagreements with him always appreciated his wit and his personal grace," he said. "And may I say I remember very vividly those last days of the California primary and the closeness that had developed in our views about the growing size and unresponsiveness of government in our political institutions."
After the ceremony there was iced tea and cookies. The lawn was soft from the rain. Then 125 people went back to Ethel's for lunch, back to Hickory Hill.