On the day his brother Jack was shot to death in Dallas, Texas, Robert Kennedy asked the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John McCone, point-blank, if the CIA had been responsible for the murder. It is hard to know which is more remarkable—that Kennedy wasn’t sure of the answer, or that he expected to hear the truth either way. McCone of course said no, and there is no evidence that Kennedy ever doubted him, but that only narrowed the list of suspects in his mind. There were several others: organized crime and crooked labor unions, both hounded by Kennedy as a Senate investigator before his brother’s election, and as attorney general after it; Cubans opposed to Fidel Castro, and especially those Cubans who had gone onto the beach at the Bay of Pigs and been abandoned there; and Castro himself, who had been marked for death by Kennedy’s government, who knew it, and who had warned that two could play at that game.
But behind these suspicions, never resolved, lay a still darker fear in the mind of Robert Kennedy: that he himself, if any of the four had been established as the guilty party, could not have escaped at least some measure of responsibility for arousing and stoking the anger that resulted in his brother’s assassination. Kennedy had learned secrecy at his father’s knee, he was not loquacious in the Irish manner, when he had something big and personal to say he fell back on quoting the greats, and he rarely brooded aloud even with his closest friends about his brother’s death. But any man watched as closely as Kennedy was by rivals, journalists, and obsessive file-keepers like J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI was bound to give himself away on the things that troubled him most, and nobody was paying closer attention than President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who openly detested “that little runt” and was hated in return.
When Kennedy after much agonizing broke ranks with the administration over Vietnam, calling the war a “horror” in a Senate speech in March 1967, Johnson was instantly back at him with a poisonous leak to the Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson, who flatly accused Kennedy of masterminding an effort to assassinate Fidel Castro. Had Kennedy’s plan “backfired against his late brother”? Pearson wondered. Was it possible the senator had been “plagued by the terrible thought that he had helped put into motion terrible forces that indirectly may have brought about his brother’s martyrdom? Some insiders think so.”
The question must have been a painful one. But guilt was only one of the torments which entered Robert Kennedy’s life with Jack’s assassination. With it also came a fatalism hard to distinguish from despair and the onset of a raw spiritual sensitivity as tender as a wound that would not heal. Tough and ruthless by common report; a good hater by his father’s; single-minded and driving according to just about everybody who ever worked for him or joined him in a game of touch football, Robert Kennedy was abruptly changed in the middle of his life from one kind of man into another.
This astonishing transformation, rare in any walk of life and practically unknown among working politicians, forms the dramatic core of Evan Thomas’s fine new biography of the Kennedy who retains the most power to unsettle and surprise. Jack will always have a bigger place in the national memory than he will in its history. Teddy has the longest résumé and may have a lot more useful work in him yet. But the Robert who emerges convincingly from Thomas’s skillful telling of this sad American story is a man interesting entirely in himself—for having learned to see things he had ignored, learned to feel things he had suppressed, and learned to say things he had feared to utter.
The Kennedy who changed so radically was born just late enough, and just far enough down the line, to escape the full attention of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who made the family’s fortune, dreamed of becoming president himself, and drove his two oldest boys to succeed where he had fallen short. Money, the Roman Catholic Church, and the pack of clamoring siblings who gave him little notice and less mercy made Robert a kind of outcast as a child, tentative, withdrawn, even a bit of a mama’s boy. His mother, Rose, worried in the summer of 1940 that he “does not seem to be interested particularly in reading or sailing or his stamps.” As a student at Portsmouth Priory he struggled along with middling grades until his senior year, when a cheating scandal—some student got hold of an exam ahead of time—ended his career there. Exactly what happened is unclear. Kennedy departed but the record would not support a flat claim that he was kicked out. Rose wrote her older boys, off at war, that Robert “did not seem to make much headway in his classes last year; that is, he did not show any particular effort….” In any event, he would now be going to Milton Academy.
It would be hard to imagine a clearer example of Rose’s way of sliding past the hard parts. She conspicuously failed to notice her husband’s many mistresses, not even the actual arrival in the family’s Cape Cod summer house of the movie star Gloria Swanson on Joe’s arm in the summer of 1929. More astonishing was her failure to protest the abrupt removal from the family circle a dozen years later of her second-eldest daughter, Rosemary, a kind of problem child, slow, difficult, and given to explosive outbursts of anger and frustration. In the category of family secrets this dark episode resides in a class that might be called Irish gothic. Precisely what afflicted Rosemary Thomas does not tell us, but it reached a critical stage in mid-1941 and Joe’s remedy was drastic. Without telling anyone else in the family—and especially not the girl’s mother—Joe subjected the physically blooming, twenty-three-year-old Rosemary to a prefrontal lobotomy—surgical removal of part of the brain—which all but killed her. Barely able to speak, almost catatonic, Rosemary was summarily deposited in an institution. Rose was given no explanation for her daughter’s disappearance, or for Joe’s flat refusal to permit visits, and she did not even press for an answer until many years later. The operation itself, Rosemary’s condition, and even her existence were obscured in silence.
But tender as the subject of Rosemary was—“A mystery so strange and awful can haunt a family for generations,” Thomas writes—there was one more painful still: Joseph Kennedy’s failure of nerve as FDR’s ambassador to Great Britain between 1938 and 1941. Long worried that a new war in Europe would be bad for American business, and fearful that his own fortune would be destroyed in the process, Kennedy wholeheartedly backed Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler. On a trip to Germany in the summer of 1938 Hitler’s air marshall Hermann Goering persuaded Kennedy that the German air fleet was the world’s strongest. A friendly encounter in September with the isolationist airman Charles Lindbergh further convinced him that resistance to Hitler was hopeless. The practical thought that American power, added to the balance, might help avert the war Kennedy feared somehow never crossed his mind.
In a letter to his friend Arthur Krock during the tense countdown toward war over Hitler’s demands for a big piece of Czechoslovakia, Kennedy moaned that he would have to send his family home to escape the inevitable bombing, and “stay here alone for how long God only knows. Maybe,” he added, thinking of his own demise, “never see them again.” Chamberlain’s surrender at Munich a few days later thrilled and relieved Joe, who grabbed Rose and “kissed me and twirled me around in his arms, repeating over and over what a great day this was and what a great man Chamberlain was.” But the euphoria of “peace in our time”—Chamberlain’s giddy claim on his return to London—did not last long.
When war broke out in September 1939, Kennedy immediately sent his family back to America and then failed to sense the increasingly chilly British response to his repeated warnings about German might and the futility of war. Kennedy began to think of getting out. In the fall of 1940, just as German air raids on London were getting under way, Kennedy departed for America, formally resigned his post the day after FDR’s reelection to a third term, and two days later gave an ill-advised, rambling, ninety-minute interview to newsmen in which he ridiculed the British cabinet and talked openly of the futility of resisting Hitler:
I’m willing to spend all I’ve got left to keep us out of the war. There’s no sense in our getting in. We’d just be holding the bag…. People call me a pessimist. I say, What is there to be gay about? Democracy is all done…. Democracy is finished in England. It may be here…. [England] isn’t fighting for democracy. That’s the bunk. She’s fighting for self-preservation, just as we will if it comes to us.
The elder Kennedy tried to repudiate the interview but it was too late. The British did not conceal that they were glad to see the last of him, his relationship with FDR was permanently poisoned, and his hope of a political career was over. Worse, and more lingering, was the impression that Joe’s antiwar views weren’t simply foolish and naive in the manner of Chamberlain’s, but had their root in funk pure and simple—a lack of the courage, principles, and resolution asked of anyone who hopes to lead.
It is hard not to conclude that his own family worried about this most, going to reckless extremes to prove they had no streak of yellow of their own. John F. Kennedy’s bravery in the South Pacific, where he rescued crewmates from his destroyed PT boat, was reported within days on the front page of The New York Times. A year later his older brother, Joseph Jr., was killed during an almost suicidal volunteer mission to fly a planeload of explosives directly into German rocket sites on the French coast. The plan was to parachute to safety at the last moment but Joe Jr.’s plane blew up on its way across the channel. The entire family was shattered by grief, but the elder Kennedy’s friend Arthur Krock thought the old man’s sorrow was tinged with an extra bitter intensity by his fear that Joe died trying to prove Kennedys weren’t yellow. More than once Robert went after people who hinted his father was a coward, and his visceral dislike of Lyndon Johnson was born in Los Angeles in 1960 the moment he learned that Johnson, angling for the Democratic nomination which went to Jack, was ridiculing Joe to newsmen as a “Chamberlain umbrella man”—a reference to Chamberlain’s trademark umbrella, which had come to symbolize Munich and appeasement.