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.
A photographer he knew, from Life, said “Senator, Senator McCarthy is just coming up now” and a reporter said he thought McCarthy wanted to shake hands. Bobby turned on them his frozen blue eyes and all but hissed in muted vitriol, “Well, isn’t that a shame?” A shaymm.
The car started to move, and while several of the Children’s Crusade thought fleetingly of lying in front of the wheels and a young man yelled after it “Chicken! Coward!” the curled-lip viciousness had passed. Bobby’s face recalled what it had been on the television spectacular when he walked in a trance behind his brother’s casket, as if he were stumbling through the dross of their incinerated kingdom. Except then he seemed to be thinking, “Will we put it together?” and today he knew beyond pity or excuse the be all and end all, the Grail of Power had vanished in dust.
Or maybe, maybe it had only receded across the border into California where the vote profile analyses looked bright. “Piss on Oregon! Piss on Oregon!” screamed a blowsy blonde idolator running beside the motorcade as it entered Los Angeles. Mayor Yorty, whose cops slapped the entourage with some two hundred traffic violations, was an enemy, but most of the others stayed out of sight when he first arrived. Bobby had euphoric flashes the day after his defeat. “If I died in Oregon,” he told his workers, “I hope Los Angeles will be my Resurrection City.” Macabre and manic as his quip now sounds, it was justified by his new circumstances. “Ethnics” on every hand and the biggest, craziest “media state” in the nation all blanketed with radio and television spots (a minute’s prime time in L.A. cost almost $3,000), and no “recognition problem” whatsoever. The Indians were committing suicide on the reservations, the Mexican atrasados were picking grapes and topping onions in an endless despair; they would not fail him. These people were “highly motivated”; they belonged to the “Kennedy base,” as Larry O’Brien had been saying all along. A withered old woman in Watts carried a handlettered sign: “KENNEDY IS BRIGHT AND HOLY LIKE THE SUN.”
McCarthy’s organization made a brave effort in Watts by holding a rally and a sparerib barbecue in the park a few blocks removed from the old riot scene of Charcoal Alley. There was scant enthusiasm for the Senator from Minnesota (“I’ll eat Gene’s ribs,” a resident said, “but I’m voting for Bobby.”) and some trenchant heckling (“What did you ever do when you was Governor up there in North Dakota? Not one damn thing. Go back to North Dakota, you’re a bum.”). McCarthy had impaled himself upon a peak of lofty principle that forebade him to pander to the grievances of minorities as distinct from the general electorate. Although he was attempting to climb down a little with some kind words for Black Power and Adam Clayton Powell, he couldn’t break through the apathy his presence caused in Bobby’s Godgiven constituencies. McCarthy had the middle-class liberals in California too, though, and they were hailing him now as Gene the Giant Killer and threatening to believe, as McCarthy never did,5 that he had “eliminated” the Kennedys. His reluctance to attack Hubert Humphrey, taken with his several careless intimations that if he were to be defeated in this head-on collision with Bobby he might not be averse to supporting Humphrey, had caused some apprehension to his advisers.
Bobby had been obliged to recognize McCarthy at last: he conceded that Oregon had changed his situation; he was willing to meet McCarthy in public, and if after that he lost California in an ultimate defeat, he’d quit. So McCarthy was going up and down the state, predicting with a distressing accuracy that there wasn’t really going to be a debate at all, but a sort of discussion period for the benefit of ABC. “We’ll just sit around on chairs for an hour and be nice to each other,” McCarthy said. “Why does he say that?” Pierre Salinger asked me, as if he didn’t know why. He professed a surprised disappointment to learn that McCarthy, who had been asking for a debate since Indiana, was bitching about arrangements that were only slightly different from the Nixon-Kennedy stand up debates of 1960. “He’s only trying to fool you, because he knows he’s going to lose,” said Pierre Salinger.
McCarthy was being cynical too about Bobby’s “if I lose, I quit” statement, which he likened to a child’s threat to hold his breath until he gets his lollipop. For his admirers, McCarthy’s scorn was growing wondrous to behold, but there were forebodings. This time it was the Kennedys’ turn to be roiled by McCarthy’s ads, some insinuating they intended to buy the White House with Joe’s millions and one from a New York agency and quickly cancelled by McCarthy which badly distorted Bobby’s responsibility for the invasion of the Dominican Republic. To mock a Kennedy before the populace is a fool’s politics, as Edward J. McCormack, once the Attorney General of Massachusetts, discovered when, opposing Teddy as a candidate for the United States Senate in 1962, he hounded Teddy into a debate and declared that if his name weren’t Kennedy his candidacy would be a joke. This charge was irrefutable but its aggressive nature gave Teddy a triumphant martyrdom and removed Eddie McCormack from the scene.
If McCarthy weren’t careful, if he let go at Bobby in their television show and matched his Shavian undertones against Bobby’s Joey Bishop style, he would be the corrupt don savaging the student prince. As it turned out, of course, most of the anxiety was wasted on the innocuous confrontation in San Francisco. Consistent with the man’s psychogenic refusal to strike a hot iron or press to his advantage any of the extraordinary consequences of his campaign, McCarthy withdrew from contention behind his familiar bored mask, which Witcover graciously describes as “benign.”
“They tell me,” he said during batting practice at Dodger Stadium the evening before the debate, “that Bobby is reading my books.” Somehow, after all the weariness he’d seen in Congress and on the lecture circuit, he felt no urge to read Bobby’s. But Kennedys are forever boning up; from their college days they have been our top-ranking tutees. It has been remarked how, like the Medici, they could summon to their banquets flattered scholars, minifaculties of high distinction to instruct in philosophy, economics, geopolitics, whatever was expedient to the hour. Witcover describes Bobby’s last skull sessions when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Theodore Sorenson came to the suite in the Fairmount Hotel on top of Nob Hill to drill the candidate with filing card “facts on the McCarthy record.”
McCarthy also had a suite at the Fairmount and when the spoiled monk arrived the next day he remained in a state of willed sloth.6 (None of the writers of these books was with McCarthy then, but a member of his own staff has given an account of what took place.7 ) He shuffled through the eager papers his briefing staff urged upon him and once they were out of the room, he resumed his running colloquy with Robert Lowell. Lowell, who was Bobby’s friend also, had visited the Kennedy quarters, saying he felt “like Rudolph Hess parachuted into Scotland.” Bobby hadn’t laughed, but McCarthy did. “He’s been sitting around for an hour,” an aide revealed to Witcover, “making funnies and singing Irish songs.” A priest came and celebrated a private mass.
It was not so much that Bobby won the match as that McCarthy defaulted. Maybe he realized this and cast on himself a silent malediction; he departed the studio quietly with a doomsday countenance. “Well, what do you think?” McCarthy’s men were asking the reporters. Thomas Finney, Clark Clifford’s law partner and the recently acquired sparkplug to the campaign, didn’t need to ask. “He flubbed it!…Blew it! Threw it away! How can you get him elected?” Finney pounded the seat of his taxi on the way back to the hotel.
But Bobby had merely stuck to the homework, “softening the ruthless image” with boyish but firm appeals to the camera, pretending not to understand when McCarthy spoke of dirty ads and radio testimonials by Robert McNamara, the apolitical Chairman of the World Bank, scoring with the requisite mentions of President Kennedy and his service as Attorney General, the rote lines for the “ethnics,” the Phantom jets for Israel pitch, until, toward the end, the foe of racism without warning hit the groin of his listless adversary with a pure play for the white backlash vote in Orange County. An ugly stunt. The primary ended with the mood in both camps fast shifting from acrimony to odium, and now among the alienated Democrats the polarization was nearly complete.
Walking down Wilshire Boulevard, a bibulous, thirtyish man in a Nehru jacket spied some members of McCarthy’s staff going to their headquarters in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. He shouted several times, “McCarthy is an honest man. That Kennedy’s a vulture!” and offered to buy them a drink. The paranoia which is epidemic among the opponents of the Kennedys in any campaign had reached its peak. The travelers were edgy, depressed and weary of being accosted as “Clean Genes” and “Mousequeteers.” The young people hurried away from the hearty Angeleno because they believed him to be a Kennedy agent planted on their doorstep by the enemy’s notorious advance man, Jerry Bruno. They did not believe the friendly drunk when he insisted that he was a realtor and a Goldwater Republican so acutely polarized from Bobby that he’d given a wad to McCarthy’s campaign. (There were thousands such anomalous donors; McCarthy was the only candidate who looked like a Republican.)
In other lost primaries and other hotels they’d learned to turn their backs on Senator Kennedy himself, when he’d gone at them, very much the vulture with his V fingers and victory grin that only said to them: now will you come over? now do you say uncle? Rebuffed by a defiant press aide in Indianapolis, Bobby confided to Newfield (an indiscretion he committed far too frequently) his admiration of the “spirit in the girl’s eyes.” Too many of the workers, he thought and rightly, were more interested in careers than ideals. It grieved him that he had no rapport with “those associated with Senator McCarthy.” Once he made fun of his image by literally growling at a McCarthy girl and the result had been embarrassing to them both.
The problem, I always thought, lay in Bobby’s insensitivity to the pride of youth and the emotions of defeat. In one with so many antennae turned to the young and the beaten this was an astonishing deficiency. He could not get it through his head that it hurt others to lose as much as it hurt him. Time and again as the election returns came in and he came on television for his victory statement, he would fix his Bugs Bunny look on the McCarthy volunteers on the other side of the cameras and invite them to give up. He never really understood that to rub salt in the raw wound is a mean form of statesmanship. Listening to Bobby on election night in Los Angeles, a dour veteran of the original New Hampshire cadre, a brainy, driving young man Bobby would have given a lot to have, and who was indeed thinking of going over after this decisive beating, turned away in disgust. “If Kennedy thinks he can get to us by coming on like that, then he doesn’t know the first thing that’s happening with us and he never will.” Newfield detects “a fanaticism at the core of McCarthy’s campaign that was impervious to compromise or recognition of defeat,” which is ridiculous. There was recognition of defeat, and it was made all the more bitter by an obdurate distrust of Bobby.
There is a painful necessity to cast back behind the clouds of myth and nostalgia that have settled over the hideousness of his death and, with no dishonor to the martyr or the ancient code of nil nisi bonum, to examine the antagonisms Bobby aroused. He considered McCarthy to be a “lazy cynic,” but what of the cynicism he brought forth in others, especially when they wanted to believe in him most of all? It does not matter, as Witcover implies and Newfield states flatly, that Bobby really decided to run a week before he knew the results of the New Hampshire primary. What sticks in the mind is how he moved in on the New Politics like a Panzer division scarcely twelve hours after the Revelation of New Hampshire. Now do you say uncle? “Robert Kennedy wasn’t there when we needed him and we don’t need him now,” a young man said on the Huntley-Brinkley program.
The old phantoms that were assumed to have been exorcised in 1966 were loose again: frantic evangelist, two bit Savanorola, neurotic Boy Scout, conniver, equivocator, obsessive dynast. It was not fair, of course, that when Martin Luther King was killed and Bobby evoked his own white-murdered brother and quoted Aeschylus (“Oh, they have a big file of Bartlett quotes in that outfit,” McCarthy was to say) before a weeping crowd of Negroes, some of the “kids” cursed him for a hypocrite. When Bobby sent his plane to Mrs. King to bring back the body from Memphis to Atlanta, this became another grandstand play. They observed Bobby everywhere in Life’s superphotographs of the King funeral. Their judgment was affected; they were for the first time breathing in cynicism like a gas and it took another death to dispel it.
Intermittently through the campaign I would remember some old movies I’d watched six years before in the house of a man who went to Harvard with Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Jones, my host, was a proficient amateur even in those days when Kodachrome home movies were a novelty; he used to visit the Kennedys on college holidays and bring his camera along. Out of the whole of history it’s hard to think of a family that has exposed itself, in life and death, to the lens as recklessly as this one. (Jones reported that in the family’s sanctuaries, along with the athletics and the parlor games, the Kennedys divert themselves by taking snapshots of each other.) They would never have thrived in another society—among fundamentalist Moslems, for instance, who believe the camera threatens the immortal soul; it’s a wonder that after all the years in the klieglight nightmare of their own, largely self-created culture (think of the list of public names that would mean nothing to us if the Kennedys hadn’t produced them) they haven’t been consumed by photography or even seriously overexposed. That destiny’s tots, born to the politics of television and having adopted their style so efficiently to the remorseless medium, should die under it too, and not be free of its glare until their coffins have been shown to the world sinking beneath the sod at Arlington, is not shocking. It is the wage they pay to the unheralded drudges from the networks, the combative technicians disdainful newsmen have called “the electronic rabble,” “the Visigoths of journalism,” whose existence depends on their own.
If the surfeit of film expended on their death agonies and funerals is to be stored in the Kennedy archives, I hope that a print of Jones’s old movie has found a place there too. It would be an invaluable document. Raw, awkward, heavy with a roseate A.E. Housman mourning for athletes dying young, in retrospect it becomes a premature threnody to the legendary dead. Joe Jr., several seasons before his plane blew up over the English channel, is horsing around with a tennis racket, a strapping, straightforward lad hauntingly like Teddy as he would look at thirty when he was appointed to the Massachusetts seat vacated by Jack. Teddy was very much the chunky, cheerfully Herculean family baby when Jones filmed him romping with his big brothers. Then Jack, Jack in the long ago, Jack playing around with Teddy on a broad green lawn, Jack with a dinner jacket, a straw boater, and a big cigar fetchingly mugging into Jones’s camera in the fresh dawn light after a nightlong celebration known as the Baltimore Hunt Club Ball. Photographed thus the once and future JFK, lately graduated from preparatory school, was yet skinnier and more tender than he would look when skipper of PT-109. These shots might well have transfixed Housman:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
The spell is reversed next with a sudden switch to Jones himself, as he was in his salad days, posed in bathing trunks at the end of the diving board at Joseph P. Kennedy’s swimming pool in Palm Beach. Jones wasn’t sure which Kennedy filmed this scene, where the photographer becomes the subject; but it was certainly not the Attorney General-to-be, for he appears in a moment and shifts our mood to J.D. Salinger. There is a hint of pathos to Jones’s stance—an incipient corpulence, colorless skin, no freckles, no burn, not even a smudge of suncream on his nose, and they have him trapped at the tip of the plank with his glasses on and I think I remember a wristwatch. As he looks tentatively into the blue-green water and grins a trifle effusively at the camera, it is hard to understand what brought this photography enthusiast (“camera nut” was a phrase in those days) to the bosom of this ebullient household. Whatever did he say when they ragged him? When they asked “Say Jonesy, what spahts do you play?” Another sudden switch to the foot of the diving board where the twelve or so years old RFK is seen advancing in an intense frolicking manner toward the head, snapping a wet bathtowel. Several snaps on Jones’s skin and the reluctant swimmer flops into the pool, glasses and all. It is the last thing I remember of Jones’s home movies.
Newfield gives hints and glimpses of the grown up Bobby snapping the wet towel on Roy Cohn and James Hoffa, and longing to do the same to Lyndon Johnson. “In one of those ugly, but human lapses” Bobby, during a game of touch football, jammed his palm into the face of Richard Harwood of the Washington Post, a big ex-Marine, who told him “You’re a dirty player, and a lousy one too.” A chagrined Bobby made amends and Harwood was soon to respect him so greatly that he requested another assignment in order to break the spell. The reader is easily swept along in a flow of details so vividly selected. This is a romantic’s book; it should find a large audience in those who share the author’s view of Robert Kennedy as a “pop icon” with a secret inner life, and who don’t object to its being described to them in this vein: “Filled with the brooding melancholy of the Black Irish, he prized the logic of the Greeks, the courage of the Romans. He once told his friend Arthur Schlesinger, ‘Sometimes I wish I never was born.”‘ Or, less egregiously, this: “He once said to me, ‘…I’m very gloomy about things…. But you have to make yourself keep trying anyway…mostly I expect the worst.’ “
He once said this, he once said that. Maybe Newfield scatters around these dire presentiments to achieve that “distinctive extra dimension of myth and symbolism” he finds to be absent in all the other books on Robert Kennedy which he is out to top. He does not spare Bobby a harsh word when Bobby strays from the course of his best instincts. Newfield’s Bobby is a creature of instinct, a practitioner of “sensual politics,” but as a conventional politician he was “unsure.” That is because Bobby “allowed himself to be trapped in the venal and compromising snakepit of American politics.” (As who isn’t?) An inherent condition of Sell-Out, like Original Sin, placed Bobby in perpetual conflict with his nobler self and drove him to do “things he must have been ashamed of.”
Newfield’s standards of judgment, he freely admits, are absolute and abstract, as he believes Bobby’s instincts were. Consequently he had much ambivalence about his friend. Just as he was beginning to dig Bobby’s ardor and his empathy for the suffering, Bobby would let him down by cutting the guts out of a dissenting Senate speech or by hanging around with old hawks like his brother’s friends McNamara and Maxwell Taylor or—there is no pardon for it—rushing to buddy up with his arch foe the President as soon as the abdication was announced. That was what the snakepit of politics did to a man.
A boychild’s view of personalities and the games of power sustains Newfield, nevertheless, through the best parts of his book. There is a good, long account of Bobby’s setting torches to the past, which meant the ghost of Jack, and of his agony of vacillation before he could declare his candidacy. Two early chapters on Bobby’s character and his “beyond Liberalism” politics (a fortuitous product of the tensions between his conservative and his radical impulses) are cogent and ambitious. They give us the celebrated Existential Bobby forever in the process of “becoming,” and Bobby the born hater transmuting his violent emotions into a gentleness equally intense, overcompensating his “ruthlessness” into a paralysis of will.
The conception, however, is not new and it falls apart under a sober second reading. Newfield suggests that his protagonist belongs in a mighty novel of expiation (he rings in Nostromo, calls the McCarthy campaign Bobby’s “white whale”), but his terms are too pat, even for a novelist. E.P. Dutton’s copyreaders might have niggled more over the galley proofs. It doesn’t take a literary critic to query (p. 23) Camus’s “comment that every man over forty is responsible for his own face” in view of George Orwell’s “comment” that after fifty a man gets the face he deserves. Or to doubt (p. 128) that the author of The Adventures of Augie March would claim credit for writing that “a man’s character is his fate.” Joseph Conrad: “A man’s character is his fate and his fate is his character,” a conclusion which Camus also drew and which in its Homeric tone derives from the beginnings of literature. And as to factual detail, the hastiest acquaintance with the history of the Family’s rise will demonstrate that to write, in justification of Bobby’s inability to control the Democratic Party in New York, that “John Kennedy never interfered decisively in Massachusetts politics” is sloppy.8
After a while the reader wonders how far he can trust Newfield’s breezy punditry on New York politics. He hardly knows what to make of the rickytick, ingroup details sprinkled through the text: Bobby “spent time talking to Tom Hayden and Allen Ginsberg”; “read The New York Review of Books and The Village Voice regularly”; “spent election night at Steve Smith’s apartment with the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko….” Slowly it dawns that the Identity Crisis affectionately recounted here is in fact the author’s, and that the radicalization of Robert Kennedy is not so absorbing as the embourgeoisement of Jack Newfield.
In 1963 Newfield laid furious eyes on Bobby when he was picketing the Department of Justice and Bobby was the Attorney General. Having twice been jailed as a civil rights demonstrator and having known directly the hypocrisies and delinquencies of the Federal government in the South, Newfield booed Kennedy. The “hard, Irish face” put him in mind of faces that used to dog him on the way home from Hebrew school, calling him “Christ Killer.” When Newfield saw him again three and a half years later, President Kennedy was in his grave and the traumatized Senator Kennedy was deep in his sea change leftward. Newfield had written a sanguine piece on him for Cavalier magazine. Bobby asked, “Do you still like me, Jack?” and their story began, a deceptively simple tale, like a theme of Theodore Dreiser’s turned inside out. Bobby shy and ambivalent, Newfield, a chip on his shoulder, assertive and suspicious; drifting from opposite poles, they had a lot to learn.
Bobby was obsessed with the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn which, before it was an entirely black neighborhood, had been the scene of Newfield’s boyhood. Bobby was jealous of Newfield’s having grown up in a ghetto; he said that if he hadn’t been born a Kennedy he might have grown up “a juvenile delinquent or a revolutionary.” Such insouciant remarks from a millionaire are thickly romantic; from anyone but Bobby they would have been either patronizing or laughable. (Imagine Huntington Hartford talking like that.) Not only Kennedys but intelligent sons of the upper middle class, whether from freefloating guilt or fear or an angry sense of stagnation in the deadening blandness of their background, are prone to the same sentiments, an embarrassed surreptitious envy of the Dead End Kid crossed with the desire to prove oneself against the dread of being hated.
It is a very different, far more serious fantasy than the nostalgie de la boue of the flowerchild of a Greenwich, Connecticut stockbroker who is knifed to death on Avenue C. That Newfield records Bobby’s confession with a tender curiosity may only mean that he suspects he has discovered the seed of a real apostasy, but something quite different could be true. Bobby was steeped in the Catholic Christian attitudes of philanthropy, which can be fighting words on the Left. His family must rank among the most munificently charitable Catholics in America, but in the last century Boston’s Irish immigrants were catechised by their priests to believe that if the poor did not respect the rich, the rich would not continue to help them. Possibly Bobby’s “beyond liberalism” was a rebellion along these limited ancestral lines, and no more.
In any case the Bedford-Stuyvesant community project, though it has not flourished and can easily die if Mario Procaccino becomes mayor of New York, was Senator Kennedy’s finest achievement. Because of it Newfield encountered some people “whom”—one of their society womenfolk might say, like the caption of a Peter Arno cartoon—“he would not have met ordinarily.” Bobby dragooned a few big time Republicans—Douglas Dillon, William Paley (CBS), Thomas B. Watson (IBM), Benno Schmidt (J.H. Whitney Co.)—into risking their time and money in an exploding black slum. Interviewing them, Newfield gets down some pure Piping Rock Club talk: “I’ve been saying for twenty-five years that the Federal Government can’t solve all these problems…It sure took those New Dealers a long time to wise up.” In addition, Newfield, once a charter member of SDS, was invited to dine at Hickory Hill. In that neo-New Dealish salon he has been the perfect guest and as always his uninhibited self. The essence of his book is that riding the Kennedy tiger as a resident radical gadfly has been a total experience.
Neither Witcover nor Halberstam earns such hard marks. There is very little self-revelation in Halberstam’s book and not too much “writing from the heart out.” There is none of either in Jules Witcover’s artless, refreshingly unpretentious compiling of events from the Têt offensive of January, 1968, to the second Kennedy funeral extravaganza in June. Witcover, like the doughty Washington reporter that he is, slogs through his material, giving us the whos, whats, wheres, and whens as a newspaperman should. His labors should provide a definitive source for more sophisticated efforts to come.
A failing of David Halberstam, and one common to the subculture of professional journalists who are thrown together for much of their “working lives,” is an inclination to good-fellowship, to a sort of frathouse camaraderie, which gets in the way of his judgment. The good times on the press bus are given an emphasis they don’t deserve; the pranks and quips (“Robert Kennedy is not a textual pervert”) of Dick Tuck, the California public relations man and “jester” of the Kennedy staff, to whom Halberstam dedicates half of his book, make burdensome reportage. A writer as tidy as Halberstam does better with oblique, judicious reporting than with sentimental homage.
The superior passages in his book do not deal with Bobby’s performance but with the sideshows. In several paragraphs he succeeds enviably in describing the McCarthy students in New Hampshire, the best of a Ramparts-reading generation of the affluent middle class, and particularly the third-generation Jewish youth, children of desperately self-Americanized suburban parents. He seems not to like Eugene McCarthy, but he writes about him to better effect than he does Bobby. Propinquity dulls Halberstam’s talent; his cool appraisal in a recent Harper’s of McGeorge Bundy, whom he does not admire, has an excellence which he doesn’t achieve in this earnest book.
I read these books in May. What impressed me was their ephemeral nature: news while it was news and already receded into myth, another face on a postage stamp, one more airport or sports stadium to be renamed. Bobby on his father’s diving board snapping the bathtowel taught me more than anything here. The books didn’t tell me much, really, about our fantastic politics or the mechanics of snatching the Presidency. I could have learned much more in a candid discussion with an ascending Kennedy bossman like Stephen Smith. I had watched Steve Smith manage Teddy’s campaign for the Senate. He wasn’t from Massachusetts but he was the Brother-in-Law, and he moved through the territory with a composure remarkable in a man of his years. Steve Smith was lean and elegant, surveying the stacked odds like a young Monte Carlo croupier who knows that tomorrow the Casino is going to be under his thumb.
I remembered an interesting book about that summer,9 written by Murray Levin, a professor of Government at Boston University, an astringent and scholarly analysis of how the Kennedys put an election together, documented with the anonymous, spell-binding testimony of delegates and strategists on either side of the Kennedy-McCormack “cawntest.” Four publishers that had considered the book mysteriously decided not to take it and there was gossip that Bobby had had his lawyers lean hard on the fifth. When it was published anyway, I heard that he dismissed it as “boring.” If so, he was mistaken.
Not that Professor Levin wrote anything calumnious, but he did explain how delegates to the state Democratic convention were pursued, with Steve Smith in charge of and constantly revising their dossiers, and how postmasterships and other plums could be dangled, or made to seem to dangle, from the Kennedy White House, and how “issues” can be fabricated out of thin air, and how tremendous expenditures (I remember Steve Smith saying, “Well, it doesn’t hurt to have money.”) do not necessarily have to be accounted for before the state’s laws. (It does hurt to admit you have money.) Borrowing largely from Daniel Boorstin, Professor Levin developed the thesis that the Kennedys in their innovative mastery had perfected the political campaign as a “pseudo event,” using Massachusetts as their pilot plant. The professor recommended that those interested in the new art would do well to “follow the career of Robert Kennedy in the next few years.” Which we did, but look what happened to us, and to him.
Then in early June on the first anniversary of his death a television network replayed an interview of Bobby with the English broadcaster David Frost, which was made during the Oregon primary. This was not a pseudo event. Bobby came back again as he was in the last weeks of his life, a brave young man now gravely mourned. He twitched and twiddled his fingers in that altar boy pose, overcompensating for the Ruthless Image into a sad smile and a gentle voice, the accent mimicked around the world. He was surprisingly inarticulate under the Englishman’s syrupy questions, but he was talking to us once more. He worked straight into camera in the Family technique, scoring when he could against Humphrey from his treasury of campaign slogans. “I don’t think that this is a year you should talk about ‘The Politics of Joy.”‘ Camus was pronounced keh-moo. Men were not made for safe havens. Everyone had the duty to make a “contribution” to someone else who is less well off. Yes, the name was a very great asset—because of the record of President Kennedy. Not just Vietnam, the record of this Administration was unacceptable in domestic areas as well. The (his) children understood they must make some contribution…what they can contribute…what they can do for others…. Here was the last politician who could honestly quote Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The only “beyond Liberalism” Democrat whose heroes were Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Charles A. Lindbergh.
Since he was doing and saying things described in these books, I read them over again, and still they didn’t explain the apparition I had seen. In the absence of Plutarch, videotape remains his biographer. A decent and generous man and to see him on television again you know that except for his Family, his wife, all his children, and his animals, he suffered over everything. God love him, you are sure of him there on the screen.
August 21, 1969
“A terrible beauty was born with the death of Robert Kennedy. It surrounds and suffuses the hard intelligence of this poignant and powerful memoir.” ↩
“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. ↩
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. ↩
“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 ↩
When asked what his future plans would be if he lost the nomination, McCarthy liked to give his own very special prophecy. “I don’t know, but a politician with no further ambitions can be a dangerous man.” ↩
Acedia, a theologian’s term for the condition in which a presidential candidate is able to pitch softball to Walter Cronkite and the press in a roadside meadow while taking on the Kennedys in Indiana. ↩
in McCarthy for President, an enlightening book by Arthur Herzog, to be published September, ’69, New York, the Viking Press. ↩
To consolidate the base he needed for 1960, John Kennedy wrested control of the picturesque and anomic Massachusetts Democratic State Committee from the Speaker of the House of Representatives John W. McCormack, uncle of Teddy’s unlucky rival Eddie McCormack, brother of “Knocko” McCormack and a lifelong soldier in the ranks with “Onions” Burke, “Sonny” McDonough, “Mucker” McGrath, “Iron Duke” Thompson, and dozens more of the old-time party stalwarts. It was one hell of a fight. The concatenations are felt by Teddy today as in this new appalling crisis in his life he maneuvers to keep the power Jack left him. Teddy’s recent televised confession, which seemed devious and mawkish outside Massachusetts where he is esteemed as the surviving Prince of the Church, was a masterly appeal to the silver-haired Irish mother who abides in the core of the Kennedys’ home constituency. Her voice is heard in every party council and if anybody can save him, it will be she. Then, at least in the Commonwealth, happy days may come back and the state will rock again to Teddy’s 1962 campaign song, played to the tune of Lend an Ear by Mitch Miller and the boys: ↩
Kennedy Campaigning: The System and Style as Practiced by Senator Edward Kennedy, by Murray B. Levin, Boston, Beacon Press, 1966. ↩