• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

On Robert Kennedy

The emotions have had their day. We have witnessed a funeral which for most of us must have been the most moving ever seen, quite different in its monumental privacy from the somber pomp and circumstance of John F. Kennedy’s state funeral. The grief of a family was made visible to millions. We went with the widow to St. Patrick’s at five o’clock in the morning, watched her at solitary prayer, and followed her to the coffin, averting our gaze when she embraced that part of it where the shattered head of her husband lay.

Yet even in those moments of private grief which the nation shared, it was impossible not to think of politics. The President of the United States paid his respects three times to the dead man—at St. Patrick’s, at the Washington rail-road station, and at the graveside—but he had hated that man as that man had hated him. Robert Kennedy regarded Lyndon Johnson as an usurper. He had become Vice President by a fluke, by accepting an offer which he was not expected to accept and which was seriously intended for Stuart Symington. He had been elevated to the Presidency through an assassin’s bullet. It was by virtue of both these accidents that Lyndon Johnson held supreme power. Thus Robert Kennedy considered not attending the first Cabinet meeting of President Johnson, and then made it a point to be late; the symbolic significance of that late entry was not lost upon the President. And in the early morning of the day of President Johnson’s inauguration, Robert Kennedy went to his brother’s graveside, and he went there again in the afternoon with the photographers. He held a grudge against his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver for continuing to work for Lyndon Johnson.

What Robert Kennedy expected and worked for, Johnson feared and tried to prevent: that his tenure of office would be an interregnum between the Presidencies of two Kennedys. Thus Johnson said in 1963 that he would never have a Kennedy on his ticket, and in 1967, in a face-to-face confrontation, he threatened Robert Kennedy with political extinction within six months. To prevent Robert Kennedy from becoming President of the United States had become one of his major political goals, and now, for the second time, not his efforts but an assassin’s bullet settled the issue. How galling it must be for a proud man to contemplate that he owes his elevation to supreme power and the elimination of a hated rival to the accident of two assassinations!

ROBERT KENNEDY, like Lyndon Johnson, was a beneficiary of his brother’s assassination. The most precious inheritance John F. Kennedy left him was the myth of his unfinished stewardship. Nobody can say what John F. Kennedy would have accomplished had he lived. But it is certainly fair to say, as I did at the time, that while he lived as President he achieved little of substance. His domestic program was hopelessly stymied in Congress. In foreign policy, he was responsible for the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs; the Alliance for Progress never got off the ground; he achieved a tactical success and suffered a strategic defeat in the Cuban missile crisis; he started our serious involvement in Vietnam by increasing the number of military advisers from 500 to 10,000; he endeavored to counter the disintegration of the Atlantic Alliance with the stillborn multilateral seaborne nuclear force. Only the limited test-ban treaty and the development of mobile conventional military forces can be counted real successes. The rest was rhetoric—well-chosen, knowing, forward-looking words, political literature of a high order, from which no action followed.

Nevertheless, those words raised the great issues of the day, of which the preceding Administration was not even aware, and proposed action to meet them. They engendered the expectation of great deeds, and were for a time taken as a substitute for them. Thus when John F. Kennedy died without having performed these deeds, it was easy to hold the accident of premature death rather than intrinsic disability responsible for that deficiency. It was likewise easy to expect from the living brother the achievement of the deeds which the dead President’s rhetoric had promised. The public mind, as well as his own, identified Robert Kennedy with his dead brother: what John F. Kennedy would have done had he lived, Robert Kennedy was called upon to do in his stead. This was his mission ordained by fate. For him to aspire to the Presidency, then, was not a matter of choice but an ineluctable duty, dictated not so much by personal ambition and love of kin as by the natural order of things. As a king’s oldest son becomes king on his father’s death, so Robert had to succeed John as a matter of course. So he saw himself, and so he was seen by untold millions at home and throughout the world.

THIS IDENTIFICATION of the living with the dead brother was in an unintended and ironic sense to the point. For while Robert was lacking in the literary and rhetorical gifts, and the intellectual sophistication, of his brother, both had in common the inability to mold political forces, which they could not control, in support of their aims. In other words, both were lacking in that quality which distinguishes the statesman from the politician. For this reason, both were adept at organizing election campaigns where they were in control of their workers as a general is in control of his army. And for the same reason, both were indifferent members of the Senate—and Robert was a bored and unhappy one to boot—because neither knew how to deal with Senators who are not to be ordered about but must be induced by a peculiar Senatorial diplomacy to support a measure advocated by one of them. They must be approached, very much like sovereign nations, on the basis of equality. They must be flattered, argued with, threatened, promised and given advantages. And all this has to be done on a strictly pragmatic basis. Senators like nations, to paraphrase Palmerston, have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, but only permanent interests.

This approach to politics was alien to both John and Robert Kennedy. They were imperial characters who found it difficult to relate themselves to others on the basis of equality. They wanted victory for themselves and defeat for the enemy, but not compromise, which by definition is less than victory. They could give orders, rewarding those who obeyed and punishing those who did not. They had permanent friends and permanent enemies, and they never forgot which was which. Robert Kennedy accepted the courtiers of John F. Kennedy as a matter of course. He never repudiated Joe McCarthy, and never forgave Eugene McCarthy for his nomination of Stevenson in 1960.

Thus Robert Kennedy was an efficient campaign manager, campaigner, and Attorney General; for in all those capacities he was in control. Yet when he had to deal with the uncontrollable warring factions of the Democratic Party in New York State he was helpless; his intervention in the gubernatorial campaign of 1966 was a fiasco. And he made a mess of things when he tried to come to terms with William Manchester, who also could not be controlled.

This disability common to both brothers was aggravated in Robert’s case by his moralistic approach to life in general and to politics in particular. His moral revulsion against evil, manifesting itself in the persecution of wrong-doers and sympathy for the victims of wrong-doing, was one of the two determinants of his being. Thus he prosecuted Hoffa with single-minded ferocity, and he opened his heart to the poor throughout the world. These simple and clear-cut positions, emotionally attractive in themselves, require in the actor an absolute certainty of what is right and what is wrong. Nobody who has deeply reflected upon the issues of morality can have such certainty. But, then, Robert Kennedy was not reflective but emotional. He saw wrong-doing and suffering and was revolted by it. He had to do something about it. But since he was unaware of the ambiguity of moral judgments, he was also unaware of the moral and pragmatic ambiguity of the political act performed in emotional response to a moral judgment. His approach was morally fundamentalist and politically simplistic: put Hoffa behind bars, and stamp out poverty throughout the world. Yet it never occurred to him that such remedial action would call forth new problems and new evils which a statesman must take into account before embarking upon it.

The other genuine determinant of Robert Kennedy’s character was dedication to personal success. He was not a crusader for a cause nor the spokesman for a political philosophy. He wanted to win the election he contested. He might, in the process of that contest, pick up a cause which could be used for increasing his electoral chances, and drop it as soon as it had done its work. But he would not allow a cause, or even an emotion, to stand in the way of his personal success. Thus in 1964 his hatred of Johnson did not prevent him from actively seeking the Vice-Presidential nomination, and, after being rebuffed, the ambassadorship to Vietnam. He would be cautious, calculating, and ambiguous rather than indignant if such a posture appeared to enhance his chances for personal success. His attitude toward the Vietnam War and his entry into the Presidential primaries are cases in point.

SOME SENATORS, such as Church, Fulbright, Gruening, and Morse, opposed our militant military involvement in the Vietnam War from the outset. Kennedy was not among them. When the first wave of protest struck the country in 1965 in the form of the teach-ins, Kennedy did not join it. He did not go on record as opposing the war as such, but only raised doubts about its tactics. One of his most prestigious advisers, Arthur Schlesinger, took the side of the Johnson Administration. Another of his principal advisers, Richard Goodwin, published in 1966 a book advocating the continuation of the war in South Vietnam. When in 1966 sixteen Senators addressed a letter to the President asking for the continuation of the bombing pause, Kennedy’s name was not among them. He spoke out clearly against Administration policies for the first time in February, 1966. He dismissed military victory and withdrawal and advocated a negotiated settlement which would allow the Viet Cong “participation” in the government and would exclude “domination or internal conquest.” For more than a year following this speech, Kennedy kept silent on Vietnam. When he spoke again in March, 1967, he reiterated his previous proposal, amplified by the suspension of the bombing of North Vietnam and the commitment of both sides not to escalate the war. We are here not concerned with the intrinsic merits of these proposals but only with their relation to the position of the Administration. They appear as modifications of that position rather than as clear-cut alternatives to it. Their motivation has been formulated by William V. Shannon:1

  1. 1

    In The Heir Apparent: Robert Kennedy and the Struggle for Power, Macmillan (1967).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print