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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.