At the end of his last day of campaigning - typically one long leap from Los Angeles to San Francisco and then back down the California coast to Long Beach and San Diego before returning to L.A. - Robert Kennedy encountered massive crowds everywhere he went. In Long Beach, at a rally in the center of town, he struck a note that summed up his day - and himself.

A young voter had been holding up a large poster with a huge portrait of Kennedy. As Kennedy began speaking extemporaneously, he interrupted his remarks. He asked the young admirer to lower the sign so other in the back could see.

"Down, down, down - that's it," he said lightly, as the poster was lowered to the ground. Then, amid applause, he said:

It's nothing, ladies and gentlemen. That's just the beginning of what I could accomplish if I were elected president of the United States."

Robert Kennedy, that supposedly ruthless politician, was laughing at himself.

Many of the reminiscences about Robert Kennedy carry the same message. His promise: he wanted to make a difference. His tragedy: if only he had lived, the country would be better. A sense of what might have been permeates them all.

That's understandable, but to this observer not the main point.

What stands out today about Robert Kennedy from the perspective of such a different America are not his political policies, nor his prescriptions for solving the nation's familiar problems. It's inconceivable that Kennedy, the very practical politician, would have remained wedded to the 1960s style of big government programs emanating from Washington. He was anything but doctrinaire in his approach to political questions, and a genuine capacity for change was his most impressive professional attribute.

But those aren't the traits that make Kennedy so memorable in retrospect. His personal qualities, the way he had of looking at himself and at life, are what endeared him to millions. They are what endure a decade after his death.

Bob Kennedy certainly was a serious man, driven, compulsive, impatient. He was a supreme fatalist who performed despite - or because of - the personal demons that tormented him in his last years after his brother's assassination. That constant knowledge of fate, of life and death, of the Kennedys and the world, drove him to climb those mountains, take those rapids, plunge into those jungles, fly those small planes out of those wayward airports.

He took risks. He experienced near misses. On the day before he entered the presidential race 10 years ago, he was in a car riding along a Long Island super-highway at speeds exceeding the then-legal limit of 60. Suddenly, the car struck something in the road, snapping the brake shaft. The driver rode the car to a stop while the other speeding vehicles swerved around the Kennedy one. It was close.

The same sort of near miss occurred two years earlier on the superhighway from Buffalo to the airport. That time it was a blowout at a speed above 70. I happened to be with him on those occasions, and others like them. At such times, he would get that faraway look in his eyes as if to say: "Almost, almost."

But it wasn't his fatalism nor his almost grim tenacity at times that came through so strongly. It was his ability to laugh at himself, to make light of problems, to tease and be playful, to employ a wry, self-deprecating sense of his own limitations and frailties that had such great appeal.

He possessed both Scott Fitzgerald's "wise and tragic sense of life" and a highly developed sense of humor and irony. It gave him a special perspective, and accounted for his extraordinary hold on so many different types of people. There really wasn't any great mystery in why voters who started out supporting George Wallace ended up saying they wanted Kennedy. Ideology didn't count to them; their conviction that Kennedy cared made the difference. He had touched them in ways that are not easy to explain and yet are quite simple. They believed him to be real, and they admired his spirit, both his humor and his seriousness of purpose.

In today's more cynical times, I'm sure such a recitation of personal traits about a politician arouses suspicion from those who didn't know him. I can only testify that those are the qualities that remain most vivid to me.

The day before he announced his presidential candidacy was Kennedy at his most typical. He had flown to New York early that morning on the Eastern shuttle, having kept his plans to himself. On the plane his demeanor had been somewhat somber as he talked about the race to come, but once in Manhattan he brightened. He started joking, deprecatingly, about his chances.

To an aide, he suggested sending a telegram to a journalist friend in Vietnam who had urged him to run. "Tell him," Kennedy said, "I took your advice. I need you. Please come home.' You might say, 'I'm in trouble, too.'" In the same vein, he remarked that his wife, Ethel, and all his sisters wanted him to run. But his brother, Ted, remained doubtful.

"I think he thinks I'm a little nutty, maybe," Bob Kennedy said. "But you see he's an entirely different kind of person. You've got to march to the music, and mine is measured to a different beat."

Later, in his brother-in-law's Central Park apartment, he kept up the banter. To a woman politician, he joked over the phone: "Do you love me in March as you did in December?" To his aide, a quick smile, and another instruction: "Send a telegram to the editor of the Harvard Crimson. Just say: 'Are we alone?'" When told the St.Patrick's Day parade that Saturday would start before he could get back from Washington after announcing his candidacy, so he couldn't march at the front, he paused a moment. "You don't think the announcement will hold them?" he asked. Then, flashing the grin, and giving a teasing aside: "Be ruthless."

As his doomed political race proceeded, he campaigned with an air of increasing fatalism and wry humor about his future. On that last day, while moving back down the California coast, he became wistful.

"What's happened to the Irish?" he said. "There's only a few of us left."

Much was made of Bob Kennedy's ruthlessness and opportunism. He was tough, all right. He made enemies, and mistakes. He hit hard. But he was also capable of the personal - and unpublicized - acts toward people who could never do him any good, politically or otherwise.

A public figure who has the capacity to cry over injustice or the cruelty of life can never be entirely bad. Bob Kennedy could weep at times. His friends loved him for that quality, and forgave him for his faults.

THe tears aren't what are remembered now. It's the humor, the lightness of spirit, the depth of feeling that never go out of style. They are, in their way, the real Kennedy legacy, and the reason so many people responded so strongly to one politician who wanted to be president. Poolitics had nothing to do with it. The humanity did.