America hadn’t seen a send-off like this since President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train 103 years before. More than a million people turned out along the Penn Central tracks as the train carrying Robert F. Kennedy’s body made its 226-mile run from New York to Washington.

The crowds were a panorama of the nation on that sticky Saturday afternoon in June 1968. Girl Scouts came with Little Leaguers. Factory workers stood alongside ragpickers and nuns, stretching on tiptoes to see. Husbands embraced sobbing wives. They arrived in yellow pickup trucks and flotillas of boats, wearing Bermuda shorts and hair curlers, tossing roses. A pair of corpulent policemen stood at attention beside their squad car as the train surfaced in New Jersey. Outside Newark, three firemen saluted from the deck of their vessel, The John F. Kennedy. There were brass bands, police bands, school bands, Catholic bands. As the locomotive slowly pulled through the station in Baltimore, 7,500 mourners led by the mayor sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the same sorrowful tones that had greeted Lincoln a century before.

It was Bobby’s America, bearing, as always, signs that spoke from its collective heart. “We have lost our last hope.” “Who will be the next one?” “Rest in peace, Robert.” And, hand-lettered and held aloft by black youngsters on the platform in Baltimore: “We loves you, Bobby.”

Those sentiments seem especially resonant today, almost half a century later, as America suffers through the most divisive presidential campaign in memory, facing a choice of candidates most Americans neither trust nor like. Looking back reminds us not just of how deeply the country mourned Jack Kennedy’s little brother, but of why – and ways in which that longing could uplift and transform one of this year’s nominees as the general election campaign kicks off.

Michael Harrington looked out the window of Bobby’s 21-car train for as long as he could bear. “Every time I did, I began to cry. The sorrowing faces along the way were a mirror of my own feelings,” said the author whose writings helped launch the “war on poverty” and who saw Bobby as “the man who actually could have changed the course of American history.” As for those with him inside the rail cars – politicians of the old school and new, intellectuals and trade unionists, blacks, Irish, Chicanos and Jews – they were, said Harrington, “the administration of Robert Kennedy that was never going to be.”

Ted, the baby of the Kennedy family, tried to step in for Bobby in countless ways, starting with his eulogy. “My brother,” he told us, “need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. He should be remembered simply as 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.”

Five months later, in a letter to Bobby’s children, he filled in the image: “When I think of Bobby, I shall always see Cape Cod on a sunny day. The wind will be from the southwest and the white caps will be showing and the full tide will be sweeping through the gaps in the breakwater. It will be after lunch, and Bob will be stripped to the waist and he’ll say, “Come on, Joe, Kathleen, Bobby and David, Courtney, Kerry, come on Michael and even you Chris and Max – call your Mother and come on for a sail.’ … The tide is gentle – the sand shifts – the sky is blue – the seagulls watch from above and the breeze is warm. And there will be happiness and love and we are together again.”

The questions that everyone asks and none can answer are whether Bobby would have been the Democratic standard-bearer rather than Hubert Humphrey – and the president instead of Richard Nixon. Nixon himself thought the former, telling his family the night Kennedy won the California primary – just before he was shot dead at his victory party – “It sure looks like we’ll be going against Bobby.” Bill Daley thought so too, saying that his father, the powerful mayor of Chicago, believed that Bobby “was going to stop in Chicago on his way back from L.A. I would say there was a 70 percent chance (Dad) was going to endorse him. … Then the momentum would have shifted to where other people like my dad who were still left would have been hard pressed not to go there.” While that is speculation, what is certain is that if Bobby had been the Democratic nominee, he knew Nixon’s vulnerabilities better than anybody else, having orchestrated the campaign that beat him eight years before. And if he had become president, he almost certainly would have been the tough liberal – or perhaps the tender conservative – that the country still yearns for.

But the tribute Bobby undoubtedly would have liked best was from his son David.

“Daddy was very funny in church because he would embarrass all of us by singing very loud. Daddy did not have a very good voice,” the 13-year-old wrote as part of a Christmas surprise for his mother at the end of that year of their terrible loss. “There will be no more football with Daddy, no more swimming with him, no more riding and no more camping with him. But he was the best father their (sic) ever was and I would rather have him for a father for the length of time I did than any other father for a million years.”