The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy
by David Halberstam
Random House, 224 pp., $4.95
Robert Kennedy: A Memoir
by Jack Newfield
Dutton, 318 pp., $6.95
85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy
by Jules Witcover
Putnam’s, 352 pp., $6,95
Each of these mournful books is written deep in Bobby’s thrall, and that is as it has to be. Two of them present Eugene McCarthy as pretty much the thoroughgoing baddy Bobby thought he was. All three are sentimental memoirs. David Halberstam often appears to be striving for a stiff-upperlip poignancy that has been suggested in a Yeatsian jacket blurb awarded him by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Clearly it is too soon to expect an “authoritative” study of this passionately enigmatic career. It is too soon to know what parts conviction and what revenge went into the conversion in 1966—or was it an apostasy?—of an innately conservative, power-ridden young man to the godhead of a coalition which was supported by many of the left-liberal intelligentsia he intuitively detested and which ranged from the Princess Radziwill to Cesar Chavez.
Still it is to Mr. Halberstam’s credit that he addresses himself to this problem; he attempts to explain to us what it was Robert Kennedy “let a nation discover in his death (that) it had never understood or believed about him during his life.” And much the same purpose is pursued methodically by Mr. Witcover and by Mr. Newfield in an intermittent frenzy of self-promotion. That none of them makes real headway is not their fault but that of their undertaking. They are in varying styles accomplished reporters (Halberstam’s coverage of the Vietnam War, which didn’t endear him to the Kennedys while they were proudly endorsing the Green Berets, won him a Pulitzer Prize; and he has, like many other Americans, written two novels), but they are, also variously, “friends of Bobby” as well. A niche in The Kennedy Court, alas, has been a dubious blessing for our most prominent historians and journalists.
Some men on the Kennedy press planes steeled themselves against the formidable family charm and refused to banter with the candidate as though to listen to the pipes of Pan would paralyze them forever. These writers take other strategies against the peril: Witcover by scrupulously suppressing any animus he may have felt against McCarthy and gathering a hoard of facts and narrative minutiae which makes his record of Bobby’s last campaign valuable, despite its workaday, occasionally opaque journalese; Newfield by asserting a roughtough young radicalism (“You helped kill him, you fuck,” thought he on watching Mayor Yorty on television the night of the murder) to show that no whore in Establishment Politics is going to con this Guevara fan; Halberstam by telling himself that the trauma of Jack Kennedy’s death caused his brother to be consumed with “issues and human grievances” and to choose new newspaper friends for their loyalty to ideals rather than …