Robert F. Kennedy:
Passion and Promise
By Henry Frost
Biography magazine, 2000
Tears were shed. Many a strong soul wept in St. Patrick’s on that awful day, writes historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., including two men whom only Kennedy could have brought together under the same roof – Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, an icon of old-style machine politics, and Tom Hayden, a long-haired, fist-raising representative of the young generation’s radical wing.
During his short, magnificent run for the presidency in the spring of 1968, Bobby Kennedy struck a chord with a variety of people who seemed to be poles apart: NFL coach Vince Lombardi (who signed an endorsement letter) and the Jefferson Airplane (who performed a fund-raiser). Soul singer Aretha Franklin and linebacker Sam Huff. Author Norman Mailer and artist Andy Warhol. Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and white farmers up the road a piece. Political dealmakers holed up in smoky rooms and boisterous crowds in the streets.
All for naught. On June 5 in Los Angeles the senator was shot and mortally wounded, a bloody end to a short, passionate, and promising life.
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles, June 5, 1968.
Robert Francis Kennedy, born 75 years ago this month, on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, was the seventh child and third son of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, descendants of Irish immigrants. The family was wealthy, with ventures in banking, real estate, movies, and liquor, cobbled together by Joe in the 1910s and ’20s.
The elder Kennedy had an imperial need to provide his family with the financial, educational, and psychological capital it required to achieve big-time political power. He seemed to scoff at the notion of hubris, apparently regarding it as a distant rock, readily avoided as the Kennedy boat raced before the wind. He himself yearned to be president, but the office eluded him, so he raised his sons to go all the way. (He didn’t consider his daughters to be presidential timber, and gave them short shrift, “praising” Eunice with a sexist remark: “If that girl had been born with balls she would have been a hell of a politician.”)
Joe pushed his sons but apparently didn’t overwhelm them – he had a magical ability to balance prodding with encouragement. As Jack said years later, “The great thing about Dad is his optimism and his enthusiasm and how he’s always for you. He might not always agree….but as soon as I do anything (he says) ‘Smartest move you ever made.’”
Robert was a shy, pious, and sensitive youngster, much overshadowed by his two older brothers, Joe Jr. and Jack. (Joe Jr. was killed on a daring air mission in World War II.) In his early years, Bobby connected with his mother, Rose, more than the older boys had done – “my own little pet,” she called him, a remark that doubtless set Joe Sr.’s prominent teeth on edge. She wanted her pet to become a priest.
In the fullness of time, spurred perhaps by adolescence, Robert adopted a thick veneer of Irish toughness. This persona sometimes warped into arrogance and hostility. “His most obvious fault is his rudeness,” wrote an observer some years later. “His face, when it lacks that boyish, photogenic grin, is not a pleasant sight. It has a certain bony harshness and those ice-blue eyes are not the smiling ones that Irishmen sing songs about.” A Harvard classmate wrote that Robert was regarded in Cambridge as “kind of a nasty, brutal, humorless little fellow,” adding, “(I did not find him to be) rigid or dogmatic….He was tough on himself and tough on the people around (him)….He was tougher than hell. He stood up for what the hell he believed and kept going at it.”
Robert graduated from Harvard in 1948 and enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law, graduating in 1951, ranked 56th in a class of 124. While studying law in Charlottesville he married Ethel Skakel, an exuberant and devout woman who brightened his life considerably, who would bear 11 Kennedys in the ’50s and ’60s.
He began his government career in 1951 in the Department of Justice investigating corruption and Soviet espionage. He loved chasing bad guys and was not thrilled a year later when the family – the ever-looming family – required his presence in Boston. Jack, a Democratic Congressman, was running for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.; someone was needed to organize and prod the troops. Robert made a major difference in the result, a victory that put JFK on the national political map.
John and Robert first became close during the ’50s. They were quite different from one another. Jack was poised, cheerful, and ironic, with a showman’s flair for the spotlight; Bob was rough around the edges and prone to brooding, was not much given to irony, and was often reticent at the podium. Jack was a star; Bobby was comfortable being the back-stage manager of a star. They found common ground in the pursuit of power. Robert subsumed a lot of himself in John’s ambitions – at what cost to his own core self cannot really be reckoned – and the brothers became one of the most interesting teams in American political history. “Jack is lucky,” writes Norman Mailer in his 1991 novel “Harlot’s Ghost.” “He has a brother devoted full-time to his aims.”
Robert spent much of the ’50s as a government attorney. He was a conservative in those years, writes Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen, “very close to his father in both ideas and manners, sharing his father’s dislike of liberals.”
He became a tireless pursuer of wrongdoing, including union corruption as exemplifed by Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters. Kennedy’s admirers saw him as determined and brave; his detractors regarded him as “ruthless,” a word that would be used to attack him in years to come. “He not only wanted to win,” writes journalist and historian Garry Wills, “but to destroy evil.” He was not prepared, in those years, to accept the possibility that evil is not destroyable.
Sen. John F. Kennedy declared his candidacy for the presidency in January, 1960, and named Robert as his campaign manager. JFK won a razor-thin victory in November over the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon. The margin of victory can be attributed to any of several factors, one of the most important of which was Bobby’s work – he performed “the harsh jobs,” recalls Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: “….saying no, telling people off, whipping the reluctant and the recalcitrant into line.”
With the triumph, Joe Kennedy offered his sons a piece of advice (or instruction). Bobby, he said, should be made Attorney General of the United States. Jack and Bobby were apparently dubious at first – the idea smacked too much of nepotism – but the patriarch insisted. His demand is sometimes chalked up to his desire to position his third son for the future. But, as a master of how power works in the real world, Joe also knew the president needed someone nearby he could trust completely, someone he could bring to the Oval Office three times a day if need be, but who also possessed his own turf, his own power base, his own refuge, his own office bigger than anybody else’s in the building, his own source of ego nourishment. Bobby, age 35, got the job.
RFK’s Justice Department quickly engaged with civil rights, the central and most complex domestic issue of the day (of the century in fact). His input here was pivotal to the Kennedy Administration’s shift in 1963, after considerable foot-dragging, toward support of the powerful grass-roots effort led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Kennedy Justice Department also did major work on poverty, prison reform, and political reapportionment. And it fought the Mafia and union malfeasance, large factors in American life in those days.
Various mobsters developed hatred for the Kennedy brothers. Years later, when RFK spoke briefly to a friend about conspiracy theories related to Dallas, he said, “If anyone was involved it was organized crime.”
The Bay of Pigs fiasco occurred in 1961. RFK was only marginally involved. In its wake, President Kennedy decided to bring the attorney general into foreign policy discussions. Bobby was a key participant in the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, offering sagacious advice during the most dangerous military face-off of the nuclear age.
“Historians….generally have high praise” for the Kennedy Administration’s handling of the missile crisis, writes the scholar Robert Dallek. Not all historians, of course. Two leading scholars, James T.Patterson and Michael R. Beschloss, are sharply critical of the administration. A summary of their thumbs-down stance, and a refutation to it, is offered by George W. Ball, a respected official of the State Department during the Kennedy years, in the article “JFK’s Big Moment” in The New York Review of Books, February 13, 1992.
Many Americans felt bedeviled by Cuba in the early 1960s, convinced the U.S. could not, should not, live with a newly-Communist nation 90 miles from its shores. Domestic political pressure was intense. Banner headlines screamed when Cuban leader Fidel Castro met Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev: “Red Summit – Castro Meets K – Commies Embrace.”
Robert Kennedy became ramrod for a conspiracy to overthrow Castro, a covert effort called Operation Mongoose, which probably contributed to the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Castro accepted Russian nukes in part because he felt his regime was under attack.) The darkest aspect of Mongoose, buried deep in the corridors of the CIA, possibly not known to the Kennedy brothers, involved plots to murder Castro. The American government considered at least 33 assassination schemes of various levels of seriousness, according to historian Patterson.
Did the Kennedys personally sanction this effort? Historians use this question as a test of the character and judgement of the two men, their capacity for common sense in a time of enormous international tension – i.e., when nuclear missiles were seemingly ready to fly at any provocation. Scholars disagree in their answers, as they do about many aspects of the Kennedy legacy.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a Kennedy loyalist, and a splendid historian capable of objectivity, writes, “The available evidence clearly leads to the conclusion that the Kennedys did not know about the Castro assassination plots….No one who knew John and Robert Kennedy well believed they would conceivably countenance a program of assassination.” (It was Schlesinger’s belief that “intelligence agencies in all countries tend to go into business for themselves.”) Robert Dallek writes, “Assassination was undoubtedly a topic of discussion and something the emotional, messianic Bobby may have seen as a necessary evil. But his more dispassionate brother seems to have resisted the suggestion, not necessarily as immoral, but as impractical and counterproductive….There is no evidence that the White House, perhaps after briefly entertaining (the possibility of assassination), saw it as anything more than a bad idea.” RFK biographer Evan Thomas writes, “There can be little doubt that (JFK and RFK) discussed assassination as at least an option, however sordid.” The columnist James Reston wrote in 1991, “Bobby monkeyed around with amateur plots to assassinate Castro.” Garry Wills, in his scathing 1982 book “The Kennedy Imprisonment,” writes, “The evidence that the Kennedys directly ordered Castro’s death is circumstantial but convincing.”
(As deep background, Wills notes John F. Kennedy’s admiration for Lord Melbourne, a British prime minister in the 19th century. Wills identifies in Melbourne a class-based arrogance and hubris, and links it to the Kennedys and Cuba: “The world of aristocratic rakes like Melbourne has an underside, the dark area where T.E. Lawrence moves, and Richard Hannay, and James Bond, all the Green Berets and gentleman spies of the CIA. Presiding over this potentially dangerous world is the honor of the aristocrats, their code of national service.”)
Another topic that has long fascinated some people is the possible relationship of the Kennedy brothers with Marilyn Monroe. She possibly dallied with the president (this is by no means certain); did she have a fling with the attorney general? Robert met the star in May, 1962; rumors bubbled. Monroe spoke about Bobby to her masseur, with whom she was close: “I like him, but not physically.” Monroe died in August of ’62 under somewhat odd circumstances. The idea that the Kennedys played a role in her death is far-fetched. Various writers have speculated that such a notion may have roots in right-wing members of the FBI and/or CIA seeking to damage RFK and the Kennedy name; certainly J. Edgar Hoover hated the Kennedys.
The murder of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, plunged Bobby into a crisis of religious faith and a corrosive depression. He struggled to regain his moorings; he took a step back and re-examined life and death. Close observers saw in him a deepening of soul, a broadening of mind, an eschewal of the messianic, a new connection to the complexities and ironies of history. He shed the harsher aspects of his persona and accepted a certain amount of openness. Perhaps, as some writers suggest, there was an element of political calculation to the “new” Bobby, but a fair number of tough-minded observers saw something genuine. Journalist Anthony Lewis said, “He changed – he grew – more than anyone I have known.”
Some of the growth was a reclaiming of aspects of his deepest self. He allowed himself to show – in public, in his policy decisions – his quite striking sensitivity and empathy. Actual human sensitivity and empathy were, and are, exceedingly rare in presidents and in politicians who have a serious chance for the presidency. (Lincoln had these qualities.) RFK could go down this path only because of an accident of fate: his brother had cleared a wide path for the Kennedy name and then left the path to him.
He established a power base in 1964 by winning election to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from New York. He worked hard at the job, racing around the state, the country, and the world, giving speeches, asking questions, listening, debating, arguing, legislating, brokering – “always with the same single-minded, almost frightening intensity,” writes one observer. He may have believed that he had limited time to act.
He became, as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. describes it, a “tribune of the underclass.” A notable success in this regard was his co-creation of a re-development project for the huge Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, using foundation and corporate money, and local control rather than the Great Society’s federal dictates, to begin regeneration of a decaying ghetto.
Meanwhile he read the starchy poetry of the ancient Greeks, including Aeschylus, who knows about “the antagonism at the heart of the world,” and Euripides, who writes, “Know you are bound to help all who are wronged.” He read the Frenchman Albert Camus, who provides secular perspective on the problem of evil: A person who aspires to be moral, Camus believes, is not permitted to accept evil even while acknowledging its permanent presence; the aspirant must defy the darkness, must defy “history as it is.”
Bobby sampled and savored life. “He was driven to explore new worlds of thought and poetry, pleasures and the manifold varieties of human intimacy,” writes author Richard Goodwin, a key aide to the Kennedys through the ’60s. “Although I am sure he acted from deeply felt personal inclinations, it was almost as if he were deliberately equipping himself for a larger role, laboring to become worthy of succession to his romanticized vision of the fallen leader” – i.e., to become worthy of his older brother.
He sought physical risk – shooting rapids, skiing furiously, climbing Mount Kennedy in Canada (named for JFK). His bravado in the great outdoors generated nice photos in magazines and made him a romantic hero; cynics sneered, but maybe he pursued something more interesting than publicity or becoming a legend. “It was like he was thumping his chest,” recalled a friend, “like he was saying, ‘Okay, Death, you just try it, I dare you!'” Such a dare can, of course, become recklessness, a passage not unknown to the Kennedy family over the years. On the other hand, such a dare can have value. The author Stendhal, who fought for Napoleon, endorses the idea of combining pleasure with “the frequent presence of danger”; it’s good for the life force, he says. Nietzche offers the counsel “Live dangerously” as does Churchill. Many interesting commentators over the years have speculated about the connection between physical guts and moral courage, including Ernest Hemingway, John Ford, Andre Malraux, and Oriana Fallaci.
Kennedy angered some of his Senate colleagues by declining to consistently observe time-honored (or hidebound) niceties of the club, such as deferential language and keeping a low profile during one’s first term. But some of his fellow senators decided he was OK. “I had not thought at first that I would like Robert Kennedy,” said Sen. Fred R. Harris, an Oklahoma populist raised from childhood to distrust rich kids, but RFK was “about as impressive a person as I ever met.”
By early 1967, American soldiers were dying in Vietnam at a rate of 20 per day, and Kennedy became willing to announce his disenchantment with the war, sensing that the conflict did not, in fact, advance or protect America’s vital interests and was not worth the sacrifice of the nation’s youth. (See here for reading suggestions on the conflict.)
He conceded the obvious – that his brother’s administration had enlarged the American presence in Southeast Asia. In a speech in March, 1967, he said, “If fault is to be found or responsibility assessed, there is enough to go around for all – including myself.” (At the same time, he believed that President Lyndon B. Johnson, by committing hundreds of thousands of combat troops to the war, had changed JFK’s approach. Whether President Kennedy would have followed the same course as LBJ is one of the great what-ifs of American history.) Bobby staked out in this speech a moderate dove position, enraging Johnson, with whom he had long been at loggerheads. (The LBJ/RFK relationship was “complicated to almost Shakespearean proportions,” notes journalist and one-time Johnson aide Bill Moyers.)
Activists in the Democratic Party, led by Allard K. Lowenstein, felt Johnson could be successfully challenged for the 1968 nomination by a peace candidate from within the party. Rumblings about this had begun in the party’s left wing as early as the summer of 1966, with Kennedy seen as the best possible challenger. The activists formally asked RFK in late 1967 to take the job, promising a legion of volunteers for the New Hampshire primary, where door knocking and forthright discussion of issues is standard procedure. Kennedy and his advisers thought carefully about the chances, but he turned down the Lowenstein pitch, partly because he didn’t wish to appear divisive or ruthless. He also felt unsure about whether he could win against a president who could manipulate events in Vietnam to his own advantage. Lowenstein and his group eventually turned to Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, a gutsy, intelligent, and principled maverick with less to lose than Kennedy. McCarthy announced his candidacy in November, 1967. Kennedy kept the door slightly open about running until finally deciding in January of ’68 not to do it.
McCarthy’s polling numbers in January were paltry, but in February, in the wake of the completely unexpected Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and a massive effort by volunteers, he achieved a stunning 42 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. (LBJ won with 49 percent. Because of procedural rules, McCarthy got the majority of the delegates.) “How would I have done?” Kennedy asked Richard Goodwin, who had signed on temporarily with McCarthy. Goodwin replied, “You would have won sixty-forty.”
Kennedy entered the presidential nomination contest on March 18, 1968, infuriating McCarthy and his supporters. (So, the “ruthless” label got hauled out anyway.) In late March, a harried President Johnson withdrew from the race.
Could Kennedy somehow win? Could he corral enough delegates by August? He had little in the way of a national organization. The White House and many party poobahs were against him, favoring Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Many liberals, Kennedy’s natural base, had signed on with McCarthy. On the other hand, RFK had money, a good staff, national campaign experience, and firm, coherent stances on the issues of the day. He had the favorable opinion of several key figures in the party, including long-time Kennedy ally Richard Daley of Chicago, where the convention would be held, and Jesse Unruh, a pivotal figure in California, the nation’s most populous state since 1962, site of an important primary and a lode of electoral votes. Also, RFK connected strongly to the African American community and other minority groups, who trusted him far more than any other white politician of national stature, meanwhile enjoying significant support from working class whites who would, in 1980, vote for Ronald Reagan. And he seemed to want the nomination, to want victory and power, more than McCarthy, who sometimes came across as ambivalent.
(McCarthy, in a nationally-televised interview, was asked a standard softball question, “Why do you want to be president?” He gave a reply that would have caused his instant banishment from the dinner table of Joe and Rose Kennedy: “I didn’t say I want to be president. I’m willing to be president.” Years later, McCarthy defended his comment by indulging in a bit of semantic bobbing-and-weaving, claiming that “willing” is “a stronger commitment than ‘wanting.'”)
The United States of America was overheating in 1968.
The Tet Offensive in January killed and wounded many young Americans and overturned the nation’s conception of how the war was going. In February, the Kerner Commission dashed the country’s hopes for quick racial healing. LBJ’s abdication in March, the murder of Martin Luther King in April, the Columbia University riots in late April and early May – traumatic, off-kilter, confusing events crashed against one another with a bang and a bloodiness not experienced by the country since the Civil War and perhaps the 19th century labor wars. (World Wars I and II were not seen as confusing once the commitments were made.) Strange phrases entered dinner table conversations: “body bags,” “separate and unequal societies,” “campus riot.”
Some Americans in 1968 yearned for nothing so much as peace and quiet – even for a slothful, soothing, martini-laced retreat from the endless demands of a huge democracy. Kennedy seemed to add to the tumult as he campaigned for the presidency. As journalist and historian David Halberstam notes, RFK in the spring of ’68 had the look of a man who “wanted to rock the boat.” Witness, for instance, the pop-art painting of Bobby on the cover of Time magazine in May of ’68 – a classic portrait of a boat-rocker.
Lots of people felt that if the boat got rocked anymore it would be in danger of swamping. Meanwhile, some people wanted the boat to swamp – they wanted, and expected, a revolution. They said, “The system is rotten; tear it down.”
Despite the boat-rocking vibe of the Kennedy candidacy, a close examination of what he actually said during these months reveals that he recommended a middle path: a critical scrutiny of the received wisdom of both major political parties. His message in essence was, let’s haul everything out on the table – Vietnam, welfare policy, how presidential power is exercised, down the list – and examine it in the cold light of day. Let’s keep the system intact but let’s critique it with all our powers, and let’s reform it. As historian Sean Wilentz writes of Kennedy in ’68, “He challenged his fellow Democrats to rethink the conventional liberal wisdom – to ask themselves why, for example, the nation’s version of the welfare state seemed to be failing so many….why public improvements should always preclude private investment, why liberals always had to favor concentrating more power in Washington.” Garry Wills spots in Bobby’s last campaign a willingness to rethink the hubris that had built up in the presidency (driven by the demands of the Cold War), exemplified, in the 1960s, by Democrats, including JFK.
Campaigning tirelessly and fearlessly, Kennedy in May of ’68 won Democratic presidential primaries in Indiana, Nebraska, and the District of Columbia, but lost in Oregon, the first public electoral defeat ever experienced by a member of his family. On June 4 he won primaries in California and South Dakota. The delegate count still strongly favored Humphrey, but the situation seemed to be fluid, and Kennedy felt he had momentum. He sensed something else too. “Finally,” he said in a private conversation after news came of his California victory, “I feel that I’m out from under the shadow of my brother.” The older brother’s performance from 1946 to 1963 was spectacular, exactly suited to the times. Bobby, in June of ’68, had a new conception of what America needed and wanted. He was on his own; he felt ready.
In the early minutes of June 5, as he made his way through a crowded kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy was shot in the back of the head by Sirhan Sirhan, 24, a citizen of Jordan. He died on June 6 at the age of 42. He was buried two days later in Arlington National Cemetery after the service at St. Patrick’s in Manhattan.
“We have now murdered the three men who more than any other incarnated the idealism of America in our time,” wrote Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in his journal on June 9, referring to Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. “Something about our social ethos has conferred a kind of legitimacy on hate and violence.”
Robert Kennedy was not guarded by the U.S. Secret Service during his presidential campaign, nor were any of the other candidates. The need for such a shield was obvious to some observers. One magazine journalist covering Kennedy in 1968 flatly predicted, privately, and with significant woe, that an assassination attempt would occur.
The federal government, spurred by the shooting, ordered Secret Service protection of major presidential candidates at 5:19 a.m. on June 5, 1968 (2:19 a.m. West Coast time), about two hours after the assault.
Could he have won? Opinions vary. Kennedy aide Lawrence O’Brien, speaking of RFK’s prospects for the nomination in 1968, said his chances were extremely slim. Sen. George McGovern concurred, privately. Ted Sorensen, another Kennedy associate, fully as politically savvy as O’Brien and McGovern, writes, “I have no doubt that Robert Kennedy, had he lived, would have been nominated….Bobby would have united the divided party, thereby winning the presidency.”
Would the life of the nation have been better if RFK had achieved the White House? One’s answer depends on one’s politics, needless to say, but in the fractious year 1968, millions of people were prepared to vote for him to see what might happen.
“He’ll keep the Kennedys together,” said Joseph Kennedy Sr. of his third son. After the assassination in Los Angeles the clan showed signs of falling apart. In 1969 came the horror at Chappaquiddick. One can imagine Bobby, in its wake, telling brother Teddy to go into retreat at, say, some quiet rural seminary, taking along a Bible and the ancient Greeks. (Bobby had pondered in 1964 a retreat to Oxford to study.) Whether Teddy would have consented is debatable; in any case, he climbed right back onto the introspection-be-damned boat. In the ’70s and ’80s members of the younger Kennedy generation used drugs with abandon, culminating in 1983 with the conviction of Robert Kennedy Jr. for heroin possession and in 1984 with the death by overdose of David Kennedy. Journalist Lance Morrow may be correct: the death of Robert Kennedy “let loose something anarchic and despairing” in the family. The Kennedys continue today in public service, but, to expand on a phrase of Crosby, Stills & Nash, something vital is gone, a long time gone. ●
Witnesses to the funeral train of Robert Kennedy. Photograph by Paul Fusco (Magnum Photos).