BOBBY KENNEDY: THE MAKING OF A LIBERAL ICON by Larry Tye

(Robert Francis Kennedy)

Early in the morning on June 6, 1968 I got out of bed and turned on the news and learned that Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated.  Kennedy had just won the California primary and as a college freshman I was convinced that had he lived he would have been elected president.  For me, the “what ifs” of American history applied, particularly because of the path taken by the Nixon administration.  I often wonder what would have been the course of American history had Bobby Kennedy lived – Civil rights?  Vietnam?  Income equality?  But counterfactuals are an intellectual exercise, not reality.  There have been numerous books written about Robert Kennedy and one must be careful to look at the entire picture, not just the last few years of his life when he evolved into a liberal icon.    A new biography by Larry Tye entitled, BOBBY KENNEDY: THE MAKING OF A LIBERAL ICON is a major contribution to the RFK literature as it is a very nuanced analysis of the former Attorney General and relies on a vast array of materials, interviews, and newly released documents from the Kennedy Library that results in a fresh approach to examining the life of the third Kennedy brother.

The key to Tye’s narrative is that he is able to effectively chart Robert Kennedy’s transformation from a rabid cold warrior who had been counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, plotted the elimination of Fidel Castro, wiretapped Martin Luther King, supported the war in Vietnam to the liberal hero who was on the precipice of the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1968 when he was struck down by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles.  The question that emerges is could he “have stitched back together a divided land whose vision seems at best as resonant in today’s polarized America?”  It is hard to forget the violence and hatreds that the upheavals of the 1960s wrought with Robert Kennedy at its center; as Attorney General and his brother’s main advisor on domestic and foreign policy, and as a senator from New York.  Many argue had he lived the latter part of the 20th century would have been quite different, but it was not to be. Tye’s work is impactful because of the attention he devotes to the earliest, hardest-edge part of Kennedy’s career and how his conservative roots fostered his later transformation.  In addition, the author has the ability to unearth, then describe the senator’s unabashed humanity and empathy for others no matter the color of their skin or their religious beliefs.

Of all the Kennedy children, Bobby was most like his father, Joseph P. Kennedy.  He took to heart his father’s adage that family came first, and in a crunch, it was only your parents and siblings that you could count on.  Like his father he would see life in terms of “black and white,” and eventually he was able to prove to his father that he had another able son who could carry on the work of his brothers.  Tye’s organizes his book into a series of chapters highlighting the most important aspects of Bobby’s career.  Beginning with his service on McCarthy’s Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations we see evidence of how his reputation as a ruthless and vindictive operative developed, a reputation that would stay with him for most of his life.  Tye describes the relationship with the Wisconsin senator in detail and we see how the concept of loyalty developed in Kennedy’s mind.  Tye provides incisive analysis of their relationship and why they remained friends until the senator’s death in 1957.

(Jimmy Hoffa flips off Robert Kennedy during hearings into Teamsters and organized crime)

Tye examines the often told story of the Kennedy-Jimmy Hoffa feud.  He relies on the usual documentation as well as a new book by James Neff, VENDETTA that explores the war between the two men in detail.  What is interesting is that Tye argues that part of the reason the war between the two men intensified over the years was their similar personalities, i.e., tenaciousness, competitiveness, and the refusal to lose.  What is also interesting is that over the three years of hearings Robert Kennedy received more press that his brother Jack, and more importantly it allowed him to emerge from behind his father’s shadow as well as his brother.  Employing many of the tactics he used working with McCarthy, the Hoffa hearings were extremely beneficial to Bobby’s career.  The feud will remerge once Bobby becomes Attorney General and Tye provides numerous anecdotes based on his research of conversations between the two men, as well as legal transcripts.  The Hoffa war was integral to Bobby’s expansion of the Justice Departments war on organized crime.  This expansion also carried over into the Civil Rights division, adding lawyers and federal marshalls which became the basis of the Kennedy administration’s attempt to harness the civil and voter rights issues that exploded in the early 1960s.  Tye covers the standard material dealing with events in Mississippi and Alabama, but what makes his approach unique is that we see events through the prism of the President’s brother and the strategy they pursued.  In the end the events in the south would be so impactful that it helped Kennedy further understand the poverty and lack of rights that black American citizens suffered.

Robert Kennedy’s evolution in foreign policy is on full display as he was his brother’s most trusted advisor.  This is abundantly clear during the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis as Bobby becomes obsessed with getting even with Fidel Castro, a major error that he would come to realize later as he let his vendetta against the Cuban dictator get in the way of broader goals and values, just as he had done with his Hoffa campaign.  Further, Tye is correct to point out that the book THIRTEEN DAYS, an account by Robert Kennedy of the missile crisis is not an honest appraisal of Bobby’s role, but what is really important is that Kennedy gained a new perspective on the nuclear world he lived in, and how accommodation was just as important as sabre rattling to achieve the nation’s national security goals.

For Tye, Robert Kennedy does not emerge as a complete person until the assassination of his brother.  Having earned the respect of his father during the 1960 presidential campaign, he would begin to evolve into being his own man during the Cuban crisis, but it took the death of John F. Kennedy for him to complete the process.  He would assume greater family responsibilities for his own children and those of his brother.  He became the person the family could lean on, but he himself grew depressed and lost his focus concerning his future.  He was able to recover in part by jumping into the New York senatorial race in 1964 and his burgeoning political and personal war with Lyndon Johnson.  Bobby viewed the president as the usurper of the Kennedy throne, and Johnson who suffered from an Adlerian inferiority complex when it came to the Kennedys, despised the man he referred to as that “grandstanding little runt.”  The relationship would only spiral downward as past slights and two extremely divergent personalities dominated the relationship as is described in greater detail in Jeff Shesol’s book MUTUAL CONTEMPT: LYNDON JOHNSON, ROBERT KENNEDY AND THE FEUD THAT DEFINED A DECADE.

(Freedom Rider bus attacked in Mississippi in 1961)

Robert Kennedy’s reputation was enhanced during the 1963 Freedom Rides summer and his election to the Senate, a move that would provide the therapy to deal with the loss of his brother.  Once ensconced on Capitol Hill he threw himself into his work as he traveled to the Mississippi Delta and experienced the ills of poverty first hand.  Further he took a major interest in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, NY where he witnessed the effects of white flight from urban areas and the resulting racial tension and poverty.  Though he was a senator, it was the Kennedy name that allowed him to confront the federal bureaucracy to try to mitigate social, economic, and racial problems that he confronted.  The key to burnishing his new found liberal reputation was his changing opinion on Viet Nam.  Tye examines the evolution of Kennedy’s cold warrior view of the war in Southeast Asia, beginning in 1951 and sees the change in his perception coinciding with Johnson’s expansion of the war in 1965.  At the outset Bobby was careful not to alienate the President, because so many Kennedy appointees were part of the Johnson administration.  However, after witnessing the corruption of the South Vietnamese regime by February, 1967 he called for a middle way when he was informed by a French diplomat that Hanoi was open to negotiation in return for an unconditional bombing halt.  Tye includes a number of LBJ-RFK conversations in his narrative and it is clear that their relationship had hit rock bottom, particularly when Bobby went public with his views.  From this point on Tye takes the reader inside Kennedy’s thought process as he enters the 1968 presidential race.   Kennedy’s motivations become clear as the campaign unfolds and the reader will begin to feel that they are a part of a new crusade to alleviate poverty in America and end the war in Vietnam.

(Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson campaigning together in New York in 1964 despite their extreme distaste for each other)

Tye confronts all the major myths and rumors associated with the Kennedys and Bobby in particular in a reasoned and thoughtful manner.  Be it their proclivity toward affairs, getting even with people who opposed them, or just plain everyday matters, he breaks each controversy down into what is real and what is imagined and comes to acceptable conclusions or argues what could be possible, and what never happened.  However, Tye’s evolutionary theme as to how Robert Kennedy grew as a person is clear and accurately portrayed.  For Tye, the “good Bobby,” outweighs the “bad Bobby,” in this important new biography of a man, who had he lived might have greatly altered the world in which we live today.

(Robert Francis Kennedy)

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