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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.1 Jack Newfield, writing as a hard guy with a broken heart and some third-hand vogue of Bobby as an “existential” hero, indulges himself in his last chapter to a degree reminiscent of William Manchester and concludes with an expropriation of Albert Camus that curls the toes. 2 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, as in the old days, merely to Kennedys. Halberstam is the most cerebral—anyway, the most astute—of the three; he says the Family “inhaled people,” as surely they did and do, but he won’t bring himself to ask why, then, can’t they just as easily inhale “issues.” Aren’t they just as useful and disposable as people?

That is a nasty question, and except from Gore Vidal and William Buckley we’re not likely to have a straight answer for a long time Maybe we will never have it, not in all the literature written by, for, and about the Kennedys which bids fair to appear right up to the Last Judgment, unless a new Plutarch should arrive to give us the lives of these twentieth-century Caesars. Until then this lack of an interesting perspective will be a shame and a disappointment to those harsh antagonists who came to Bobby’s campaign to scorn and remained to grieve without truly understanding why, even yet.

Last year, from the day he announced his candidacy to the night he was gunned down, a week didn’t pass without some sonorous press commentary on Robert F. Kennedy and his propensity to “polarize the emotions” of the electorate. Polarizing Bobby was second only to Ruthless Bobby. His crowds were adulatory or they were contemptuous; with the “silent middle” that was taken to be McCarthy’s gold mine before it turned out to be Nixon’s he had absolutely no rapport. Little black children who ran beside his car screaming “Kendy, Kendy, Kendy the Second!” boasted to reporters that when McCarthy rode through the ghetto “we throwed our shoes!” But they despised Bobby on the Peace and Freedom campus left for a “Fascist pig” and in the bosom of the corporate elite for “a subversive and single-minded opportunist.” In three months Bobby had evoked intense feelings of love and hate that it took Franklin D. Roosevelt eight years to achieve.

The process was at its most gruelling, Mr. Witcover is at pains to show, during the last days of the Oregon and California primaries. Bobby became the first Kennedy ever to lose an election,3 but if that was a blotch on the escutcheon, Bobby quickly expunged it by being more graceful in defeat than McCarthy had been in Indiana and Nebraska and far more so than he was himself, having learned the imperatives of winning when he was “about two,” in victory. Oregon was a severe chastisement nonetheless. Months before, in a sanguine mood, McCarthy had assessed his enemy: “He’s in a tough spot…I feel kind of sorry for him. When Jack Kennedy ran for President, he figured if he didn’t make it, life would go on somehow….” Toward the end of the Oregon campaign, when he’d read the writing upon the wall, Bobby’s public façade betrayed an inner devastation; his grins were wan, often desolate.

After the trouncings in Indiana and Nebraska, which Pierre Salinger said had eliminated McCarthy, the scenario called for a mass defection to begin at once from that coveted Children’s Crusade (“the A students,” Bobby said), but nothing of the sort had happened. Some of the sharpest political writers in the country, whose allegiance he took for granted with his brother’s legacy (like Mary McGrory and Murray Kempton, who once confessed to an unreasoning devotion: “like being for Bonnie Prince Charlie; it has to do with…a divine right.”), had turned on him scathingly.

In Oregon he was contending against the same reflexive distemper of the Stevensonian and/or Jewish liberals that had been so vexing when he rode into New York on LBJ’s coattails in 1964. Besides, there was something curmudgeonly about Oregon. The old stock was a bit tedious about their ancestors’ trekking all the way from New England in those covered wagons. Portland was named after Portland, Maine, and the Republican governor spoke in a well-preserved accent uncomfortably close to ex-Senator Leverett Saltonstall’s. The Boston Yankees had received Bobby’s Irish forefathers with a similar austerity.

Blarney got you nowhere in this rainy Pacific mountain landscape, especially in May at Rose Festival time. “How do you get a handle on a state like this?” Larry O’Brien had wondered. O’Brien and the old Frontiersmen blamed white middle-class complacency; the people just didn’t want to be shook up; the place had “no ethnics,” no ghettos; it was one big suburb.

To a more parochial squad of stalwarts, veteran operatives for Jack and Teddy, flown in from the City of Boston in the old home state as “friends of the family,” Oregon was like some problem precinct in the Silk Stocking district of the Hub. In a Portland bar, boozily aware the night before the primary that “Bob has booted this,” they solaced themselves with nostalgic election-eve jokes from Mayor James Michael Curley’s day (“Vote early, vote often”) and the traditional explanation for any political debacle—money. McCarthy had bought this election with the money he got from Johnson and Humphrey and the union treasuries. He had Rockefeller money and Nixon money. Those college kids, how much did they get a day? Bob had a mountain climber and a space hero going for him, but they were friends. McCarthy’s astronaut was a poet. Robert Lowell, of the textile mill Lowells that Aunt Tillie used to slave for. A poet. What were they paying him?

Bobby blamed himself. His cute patter,4 keyed almost to baby talk for the wives and kids in a blue collar audience and known to some reporters as “Kennedy camp” or “Kennedy Camp camp,” fell flat in the phlegmatic shopping centers. When his compulsiveness drove him to strip down to his skivvies and take an unseasonable plunged into the cold Pacific, the locals called him a showoff. The locals were laughing at his dog Freckles before McCarthy was. John Glenn, his campaigning astronaut, looked punchy with fatigue. The endearing ingenuousness of his wife—rumple-haired, slightly flustered, smiling, greeting faces on the sidewalks, “Hiya,” as if she were the hostess of a traveling clambake and everyone was supposed to have fun—failed to melt the stony heart of “Orguhn.”

On top of that, McCarthy was needling for a “debate”; McCarthy was angry, because of the blackguarding and widespread slurs on his voting record which were emanating from unacknowledged pro-Kennedy sources in the East, much angrier than was wise to show, though it was difficult to contain the urge to rip into the equivocal history of Bobby’s allegiance to Lyndon Johnson. But on the last Saturday night in Portland the “quiet man with the McLuhan cool” bestirred himself to give quite the most effective speech of this and possibly any other presidential campaign. Before an enormous roaring crowd in the bowels of the new Memorial Coliseum, he diced up Bobby for pretending to ignore him and mocked the Kennedy “old politics” of minority coalition, the old hand-me-down advisers of 1960 (“The Knights of the Round Table”), the nerveless refusal to meet.

The next morning a meeting very nearly did take place. McCarthy’s Oregon manager says rightly that it was “like Achilles fleeing from Ajax.” McCarthy was on a languid ceremonial tour with Mayor Schrunk of the splendid Rose Garden on the terraced green hills of Portland. It was a heady spring morning; McCarthy’s young staff, in an exhilarating swell they hadn’t known since New Hampshire, were preening themselves in the sweet mists and sunshine, when they noticed the Kennedy party returning from its tour of the Zoo. They ran to their candidate, who with a relishing smile stretched his long legs until he was within twenty yards of the Kennedy’s parked motorcade. Bobby had instantly given the order to move out, but his open convertible was hemmed in for some moments by reporters trying to set up a newsworthy confrontation. Bobby was huddled in the back seat with Freckles and Colonel Glenn and Ethel. His strongly muscled frame was arrested in one of those startlingly frail aspects which were never far from him now; he was twitching the limp locked fingers of both hands in that nervous altar boy’s gesture and gazing at nothing, his wrinkled face with a tormented look to pierce the legions of his enemies, whose hatred he experienced with a crueler intimacy than that of those who were dearest to him.

  1. 1

    A terrible beauty was born with the death of Robert Kennedy. It surrounds and suffuses the hard intelligence of this poignant and powerful memoir.”

  2. 2

    The stone was at the bottom of the hill and we were alone.” Such a manhandling of Sisyphus is still more exasperating than the flagrant, unacknowledged expropriation of Murray Kempton’s prose which Kempton blew the whistle on in a recent devastating letter to The Village Voice. But Newfield shows many other writers the courtesy of mentioning their names when he uses their ideas. Among these are Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Nathanael West, Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Halberstam and Jules Witcover.

  3. 3

    To any office, it would seem, except the Harvard Board of Overseers. Jack Kennedy had lost the first time his name was put before the alumni, but he won on a second try. Kennedys are pushy and when Bobby sought to take his brother’s place, the hidebound sons of Harvard voted him down.

  4. 4

    Can you imagine the conversation with my children at home? They’ll say, ‘Daddy…, but how did it go in Oregon?’ If I have to tell them I lost, can’t you see the tears…running down their little cheeks? You wouldn’t want to do that, would you?”…Witcover, p. 204

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