"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us."
Those words, taken from the opening of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, were the beginning of the speech I delivered to my fellow classmates at our commencement ceremony on June 6, 1968, at Fort Atkinson High School.
It was also the day Robert F. Kennedy died - cut down by an assassin's bullets after claiming victory in the June 4 California primary.
Nearly 40 years have passed since that day and, while time may heal most wounds, some pain never fully surrenders to the passage of time. So it is with the loss of Robert Kennedy and the 1968 Spring of Hope.
The most extraordinarily gifted politician in my lifetime, Robert Kennedy brought passion, romance and poetry to American politics. A man who was comfortable quoting Aeschylus, Tennyson, Pericles, Shakespeare and Camus is a rarity in politics today. We used to call such a person "well-educated" or "literate." Now we use the term "elite."
When did America become ashamed of educated men? When did educated men become afraid to show it?
Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race on March 16, 1968, saying, "I run for the presidency because I want the Democratic Party and the United States of America to stand for hope instead of despair, for the reconciliation of men instead of the growing risk of World War."
You see, Barack Obama didn't invent "hope" in 2008. He just borrowed it from 1968, arguably the most pivotal year in American history since 1865.
Inside all of us is a deep yearning to be better people (what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature") as well as a collective desire to be a better country. Once in a generation, sometimes less, a political figure like Robert Kennedy (or Obama) comes along with the ability to tap into those desires.
Two weeks after Kennedy entered the 1968 presidential race, President Johnson withdrew. Four days after that, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis. On the night King was killed, Kennedy was in Indianapolis to address supporters at an outdoor rally. There were many African Americans in the crowd who had not yet heard the news about King.
In his extemporaneous remarks that night, Kennedy said: "What we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; 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 they be black."
Kennedy urged his shocked audience to seek like the Greeks "to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."
In the days that followed, riots broke out in more than 100 U.S. cities, but Indianapolis remained calm.
The next day, April 5, 1968, Kennedy spoke eloquently about the coarsening effect of violence in a speech to the City Club of Cleveland: "Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. We must admit that our children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge."
Two months later, Kennedy would be dead.
We are left to imagine how different the history of the past 40 years might have been if Robert Kennedy had become president. Unfortunately, history is what was, not what we wish it had been. But for many who lived through that time, Robert Kennedy remains a powerful symbol of lost possibilities.
"He who learns must suffer," wrote the Greek poet Aeschylus. Throughout history, great pain has often produced great literature and great art. Robert Kennedy was no stranger to pain, having emerged from the long, dark shadow of Dallas.
His own life reflected the human capacity to evolve and grow. Despite growing up rich and traveling the corridors of power, he would later feel more at home in the extreme poverty of Appalachia and on the streets of Watts. The cameras were often there, rolling and recording, but there was never any sense that Kennedy was playing to them. There was nothing insincere or phony about him. He was the real deal.
Politics spends too much time holding up a mirror to American culture; reflecting back whatever it sees. Robert Kennedy held up the best there was in the human spirit and challenged us to raise our sights.
It was a message of hope and empowerment 40 years ahead of Obama's.
In closing his speech of April 5, 1968, Kennedy said: "We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. We can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can."
Forty years later, we may be no closer to that reality but we still have the hope that dreams deferred will not be dreams denied.
Rick Berg is a Madison-based writer and commentator.