They were, to be sure, spectacularly flawed—of an ore much mixed with brazen, base elements. But if nothing else, it can be said that the Kennedys afforded this society of the common man and the commonplace with something very close to its first national mythic saga—a line of jaunty and audacious, but strangely star-crossed princes in an American house of Atreus. “I guess the only reason we’ve survived,” the third dryly quipped, with his two older brothers already gone and his younger brother having just capsized in a small plane, “is that there are more of us than there is trouble.” Talking about them in romantic terms is finally inescapable because they constituted, whatever else, a singularly romantic event in this nation’s experience. They became part of the dream life of America in the mid-century: it seems peculiarly appropriate that, toward the close of the Democratic convention in Los Angeles in 1960, the old briny Irish-Borgian patriarch of the line, Joe Kennedy, would have emerged from the front portal of Marion Davies’s Beverly Hills palace and stood there in a lambent Hollywood sundown to receive his son Jack just after his nomination for president.
It also seems impossible, in any appraisal of them now, to avoid that somewhat tattered term, “existential.” Most of all, coming out of the bland comas of the Eisenhower years, they instantly acted to quicken somehow the nation’s sensation of life—which may be among the greatest of gifts of a leader to a people. Even their famously implacable calculus of political accession was never so tightly calibrated that it was not left open to the exhilarations and creativeness of surprise: they retained the zest to understand, as Jack Kennedy allowed once, that “the finest strategies are usually the result of accidents.” At the same time, although only moderately intellectual themselves, they still seemed to have a compulsion to involve themselves and the power they carried with the brisker minds and more interesting imaginations about them, out of some instinct for what was most alive in the society in their age.
At the least, their effect on the style of political theater forever after them has proven to be, it’s not too much to say, epochal. Robert Kennedy himself as early as 1956 was in despair as a campaign orderly to Adlai Stevenson who, it seemed, delivering professorial recitations with an elegant deliberation from texts even at whistle stops, “could never get it clear that it was not so much what he said as how he said it.” Kennedy had sensed that politics lay as much in manner as matter now, indeed that manner carried cargoes of meaning as real. And after the Kennedys, American politics was permanently altered from largely a pedagogic commerce among principals who tended to evoke at the best sententious, vest-suited school superintendents—Taft, Eisenhower, Stevenson—to an age, for better or worse, of sentiment and flourish, of matinee cavaliers. The current generation of politicians—Nixon and Ford having been the atavisms of the old—are surely all the children of the Kennedys, all striving to simulate some part of their look and casual flair, some hint of their glamor of urgency, their shirt-sleeved brio.
Ever since Dallas, there has lingered between this country and the Kennedys a certain feeling of interruption, deferral—a tristesse, a memory that has continued to languish like a dim fever in the nation’s nerves: the great Kennedy nostalgia. It has endured as a nostalgia so politically formidable, in fact, that even after Chappaquiddick it continued to hover as raptly over Ted Kennedy, the blandest and most indefinite of them all, industrious and rigorously efficient and charming enough, but more a sturdily handsome mannequin who never seemed to awesome responsibility born. In fact he already had a rather tatty mistake in his past with a Spanish exam once at Harvard, and he somehow had always given off an impression, however game, of having been accidentally and a bit uncomfortably burdened with his last name. He had appeared much more suited to the Senate, that comfortable and genteel chamber of more modulated ambitions and circumscribed attentions—indeed, was soon quite diligently and decently prospering there.
And then all of it, that dynastic mystique that had been borne by his older brothers, the magic and glory of that high inevitability, had suddenly—in the space of two quick shatters of gunfire—devolved onto him. Having always seemed the farthest removed from his family’s aura of destiny, ironically he was the one to whom destiny, that grand expectation and suspense, in time tortuously found its way—the last and least likely of them all, perhaps the least prepared and least inclined. More than a few who have known him have attributed the curious falterings and lurches to which he has since been given to some mute, guttering desperation to contrive to escape somehow that fearsome burden which perversely fell on him in the end.
As it happens, though, at this current lively juncture in Ted Kennedy’s fortunes, the Kennedy nostalgia still lurking over the land could well be regalvanized, and with it Kennedy’s own moment at this period of ennui with Carter, by the appearance of Arthur Schlesinger’s monumental elegy on the second, and most complexly intriguing, of the brothers: Robert Kennedy and His Times. It is an account written much in the Kennedy spirit and humor—that is, tendentiously and romantically, yet with a crisp whimsy and its own vigorous political didacticism. Schlesinger readily professes in his preface, “It is necessary to declare an interest. I was a great admirer and devoted friend of Robert Kennedy’s….” For that matter, this reviewer should also, perhaps, declare an interest, even an open sentimentalism, as part of that generation which was born into its first political awareness and excitements during the Kennedy years, and tends to regard everything that has happened since the experience of that bright, bracing dawn as rather dwindled and stale, flat and pettifogging.
Even so, after Schlesinger presents that confession of sympathies, his narrative proceeds as a kind of sedulously unflagging apologia that, after a while, begins to bankrupt even so sporting an acknowledgment—it becomes not quite enough to have said it. It is a work, assuredly, not without dimensions of majesty, not only prodigious in its research, but with a mounting, tidal dramatic movement. But all the second-thought misgivings about the Kennedys that have emerged since 1968, and particularly those most troubling misgivings about Robert Kennedy, Schlesinger has answered in a vast rehabilitationist effort that, as he systematically takes up each complaint, begins to resemble someone lobbying badminton shuttlecocks into the air and mightily whacking them, one by one, into an empty court on the other side of the net.
It is an indiscriminate defensiveness, the strenuous deferentiality of an infatuation which, given the harsher aspects of Robert Kennedy’s nature, is somehow oddly unbecoming and embarrassing in so distinguished and magisterially endowed a historian. It would even intimate something of that special susceptibility in scholars to being mesmerized by power when they have drifted too near to its tremendous workings—more often than not, something peculiar seems to happen to them. In Schlesinger’s case, this would be truly disconcerting. He has been, without doubt, one of the most civilized and generous spirits among that particular curia of intellectual ministers to the Republic over the years. But his chronicle of memorial to Robert Kennedy induces a question about the degree one is compromised as a historian after having engaged in an exercise something like a 916-page promotional pamphlet of exculpation and eulogy.
Schlesinger, having himself enjoyed virtually total access to all Robert Kennedy’s papers, at one point protests, in his recounting of the inelegant brouhaha that developed over William Manchester’s book about Jack Kennedy’s death, “Manchester had no right to use material from his interviews with Mrs. Kennedy that she did not wish him to use.” The point is not to what extent that scruple might have applied in the making of his book. It is, rather, that there are reasons to ask, for the sake of defining and illuminating the important truths and meanings of the man or the experience—and the material in the case of the Kennedys is close to Shakespearean—how much less should biography answer to that principle of Faulkner’s: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one.” Schlesinger’s mammoth narrative is admirable, indeed heroic, as an act of loyalty and homage. But it’s doubtful that any biography written out of those estimable urges can ever render the protagonist near to a truth as large and mixed and many-dimensioned as life itself. Avidly interested accounts—whether they serve the interests of rehabilitation or arraignment, whether they commend or indict—do not finally serve the fullest understanding.
The result, with Schlesinger’s imposing work, will be to make it unhappily too easy for those congenital cynics about Robert Kennedy to dismiss the whole effort, and thus what is also valuable and convincing in it for a last authentic appreciation of the man. The effect of Schlesinger’s unremitting serial of absolutions—for Kennedy’s Hoffa inquisitions, his consanguinity with Joe McCarthy, his agreeableness to wire-tapping—is finally to muzzy, almost to miss, the true critical line of the great drama in Robert Kennedy’s life: his striking translation during his anguish over his brother’s murder from a some-what fierce and simplistic and decidedly dubious figure into, it seems indisputable now, a spiritually deepened moral adventurer, actually carried out of himself into a far region of possibilities, “a perceiver of the terror of life,” as Schlesinger paraphrases Emerson, who “manned himself nobly to face it,” and who out of that became, for a brief time, “the most creative man,” Schlesinger rightly says, “in American public life.” That this transformation took place at all has always been energetically discounted by those who came most to detest him. But to invoke Faulkner once more, it was like a personal and political instance of what takes place when the artist creates “out of the materials of the human spirit…the old verities and truths of the heart…something which did not exist before.”
Could it be,” Schlesinger quotes John Kenneth Galbraith, “that he was the least known public figure of our time?” If anything, it is from this suggestion that Schlesinger’s book takes its real drama. Robert Kennedy was undoubtedly the most elusively enigmatic of the brothers, perceived with equal vehemence as an avidly relentless mongoose of ambition, cold as formaldehyde, and as a kind of diffident, gentle-souled, rumple-haired young Gawain—a variable mutability of effect that seemed even peculiarly visual, palpable: George McGovern reflects, “Sometimes he seemed like a large man…. At other times, he seemed very slight, very small,” and Schlesinger adds, “I had similar optical illusions about him.”
He inspired in Gore Vidal, for one, about the cordial warmness of a viper stirred with a stick on a wet winter morning: “His obvious characteristics are energy, vindictiveness and a simplemindedness about human motives…, really a child of Joe McCarthy, a little Torquemada.” In some instances, the resentment of certain liberals toward his calculated compromises with pure purpose may have arisen from the fact that he was always disinclined to partake of their instinct for self-immolation, that affection for immaculate failure. But the animus toward him, from those finer and more febrile liberal communions, amounted almost to an elemental conflict of natures, an antipathy of personality—he somehow impossibly affronted them, that hickory-nut of a face, a raw and knotty and rather stingily pinched version of his brothers’, ungenerous and almost undernourished looking in its tight clench, much like his handwriting, a “strange little cramped” scrawl.
He had about him the wiry, quick tautness of a squirrel, with a kind of English boarding-school fanaticism for bristling hardihood and exertion, a physical intrepidness, while being vaguely indifferent in the manner of the very rich in his apparel. He was glimpsed on one of his first appearances in Washington around 1952 with his shirtsleeves hastily and clumsily twisted above his elbows and his tie snatched askew from an opened collar with bulky white woolen sweatsocks bagging beneath his trouser cuffs. Also in that way of the very rich, he and his older brother had a kind of blithe insouciance which accosted a number of more diligently earnest souls as somehow not always appropriately serious. They had too much of an element of play about them in matters of gravity—as when Jack Kennedy, between phone conversations with Ross Barnett in the midst of the Ole Miss crisis, could not resist the fey notation, “You know what that fellow said? He said, ‘I want to thank you for your help on the poultry problem,”‘ and then turned to twit Robert, “You’ve been fighting with a sofa pillow all week.”
During one of Robert’s spirited tours with Ethel through the Far East, a diplomat finally fumed, after Ethel left her hotel bathtub filling to overflow, “Some day they will learn that this is a real world with real people in it.” But along with that playful hauteur, he was also possessed of a certain easy, spontaneous imperiousness, a metallic curtness, not only in the tinny clattering of his voice but in his bearing. He would often evidence a shyness constricting to the point of torment, once as attorney general answering questions during a luncheon with Supreme Court clerks while “his hands were shaking under the table and were knotted up with one another.” But one State Department official during that time, emerging from a confrontation with Kennedy, spluttered to newsmen, “If you guys write one more time about his looking like a choirboy…. Take a look at that bony little face, those hard opaque eyes, and then listen to him bawl somebody out.”
Yet what emerges from Schlesinger’s book, for all its ponderous determination to vindicate, is that Robert Kennedy became the most romantic figure to appear in American politics in a generation—more passionate and brooding than his brother, with “an experiencing nature,” as Schlesinger uses T.S. Eliot’s term for it, who became something like the climactic avatar of the troubled and restless and lyric Sixties. And though such conjectural possibilities are really unmeasurable, the tragedy of the loss of Jack Kennedy in the nation’s life may have only been exceeded by the loss of his brother.
The bluff and gristled dynastic sire of what would become a legendary American political pride in this century, Joe Kennedy, was himself a creature steeped in the vinegars of pessimism, more winter-Irish than summer-Irish, who showed throughout his own life a remarkable proclivity for being wallopingly wrong-headed, curiously awry in his appreciations of larger political realities—despairing of England’s fortitude to resist Hitler, then deploring the Marshall Plan as a futile illusion, then direly warning Jack against any vice-presidential fancies at the 1956 Stevenson convention. With a deep contempt as well for the whole theater of business in which he had created his fortune, he seemed to live totally, ferociously, for his sons—“What are you doing these days, Joe?” he was asked by a department-store tycoon once on a golf course, and he replied, “My work is my boys.” Jack Kennedy himself would later declare, “My father would be for me if I were running as head of the Communist Party.” But of them all, he seemed to become most fascinated with Robert. Even as Jack, with a fine, dry, self-contained detachment, was making his way on toward his presidential campaign, Joe Kennedy allowed, “Bobby is like me…. Bobby’s hard as nails.”
Yet, during his boyhood, Robert appeared to be by far the most negligible of the brood—scrubby, the least athletically graced, reticent, and halting of articulation. Perhaps for that reason, he turned out to be the most fiercely, raptly religious of them all, consumed for a while with a vision of being an altar boy, heard murmurously reciting his Latin alone in his room for long hours. More than anything else, it was out of this first fervency of his that all his later political impulses seemed to derive. For one thing, Schlesinger notes, he was bred to that perspective “in an Irish Catholic family, where salvation was culturally mediated through institutions.” But perhaps more significantly, it left in him a simple ardor for the proposition of salvation itself. From a private Boston academy, he was soon writing his mother, “Am now leading an underground movement to convert the school, and am taking a lot of the boys to church on Sunday.”
But he passed through those earliest years obscurely, almost unnoticeably, with what recollections of him that have lasted from then mostly vapory and vague, and even in most of those, he is seen as a chap not much lovable—“a kind of nasty, brutal, humorless little fellow when he got going.” It was an unpleasantness, when he got going, only further energized by a certain grim tenaciousness in him, dogged to the point of abandon—he once broke his leg during football practice at Harvard, but kept at the scrimmaging, uttering nothing, until he collapsed on the field. He maintained the same demeanor at the beginnings of his public career.
Ethel, after their marriage, lent a lighter tempering to his nature with her carbonated ebullience. But finding himself rather incidentally bumping about in responsibilities that had come to him through his father’s intercessions—assistant counsel to McCarthy’s Investigations Subcommittee, then assistant to his father on the Hoover Commission—he continued to be possessed of a certain crackly, repellent tenseness, “really a very cross, unhappy, angry young man,” as someone recalled to Schlesinger, initially impressing Ted Sorensen as “militant, aggressive, intolerant, opinionated, somewhat shallow in his convictions.” Still, even during that time from which the first public sense of him formed as a fractious and briary gremlin of ruthlessness, he was capable of such private, solitary impulses as when, after having run over a dog once on his way back from the Washington airport, he occupied himself for about three hours knocking at houses for some ten miles up and down the road to find the owner.
His attendance to Joe McCarthy, actually, consisted of little more than investigating the matter of American allies then conducting trade with communist governments in strategic materials. Schlesinger, in his exorcisms of all specters of uncertainly about Kennedy throughout his book, repairs frequently to peculiar sources for a serious historian: polite bureaucratic communiqués of approbation and congratulation are cited as indicative judgment on Kennedy’s actions, along with testimonial letters of commendation from other politicians, the stuff of scrapbook entries, which carry about the relevance to reality of laudatory certificates on the walls of a chiropractor’s office.
By way of pronouncing on Kennedy’s consort with McCarthy, Schlesinger submits dutiful letters, sent after Kennedy’s service, from Senators Symington and Jackson: “I was particularly impressed with the thorough, impartial and fair way in which you handled all matters coming to your attention…one of the two outstanding jobs I have seen in committee work.” He even resorts to an avowal in the Boston Post, “Kennedy, contrary to general belief, apparently, has not taken part in any of the McCarthy committee’s probes into subversives in the State Department, the Voice of America, and other government agencies.” While that seems actually to have been the case, one now might still wonder how, even in that marginal collaboration, Kennedy could have remained insensate of that dank, dingy, buffoonish brutishness in McCarthy.
The answer may be that throughout his life—not only before his brother’s assassination but also afterward, though in a transformed way—Robert Kennedy was nothing if not a Believer, with all the liabilities of a perfervid myopia, particularly in his beginning years, that such a nature carries. It was in his later rabid pursuit of Jimmy Hoffa that this disposition took on a more sobering and unsettling aspect. Jack Kennedy once explained to Ben Bradlee, “He’s a puritan, absolutely incorruptible,” and he was also notably alien to the conventional liberal respectability in that, as Schlesinger observes, “not many liberals believed in original sin.”
Kennedy and Hoffa were, in almost a Conradian sense, perfect and ultimate counter-protagonists, representing a pure polarity of values and assumptions. Kennedy came to regard him as the stumpy, pluggy, knuckly figure of a furious corruption of the trust of those less privileged, whom he represented. He saw in Hoffa a brassy, unthinking, almost passionless rapacity that was beginning to encroach even upon the vital tissues of American society, verily divining in him “the devil,” as Murray Kempton commented, “a general fanaticism for evil that could be thought of as the opposite side of his own fanaticism for good.” In time, through the Senate Rackets Committee hearings and then on into Kennedy’s term as attorney general, it began to seem that Hoffa was actually becoming a kind of fatal obsession with him, a kind of madness.
One result, at least, was that Kennedy proceeded after Hoffa with such a blank fierceness that, from his interrogations of him before the Rackets Committee, Alexander Bickel was finally prompted to protest, “No one since the late Joseph R. McCarthy has done more than Mr. Kennedy to foster the impression that the plea of self-incrimination is tantamount to a confession of guilt…. He sees the public interest in terms of ends, with little, appreciation of the significance of means.” Indeed, it was part of Kennedy’s sensibility as a partisan that he was never so enamored of the principles of the processes themselves as he was by effects. This was never so clear as in his application of extraordinary attentions and devices, improvisations of peripheral legal technicalities, in order to corner Hoffa. However authentically offensive Hoffa may have been, it yet indicated a certain defect in Kennedy’s understanding about the far more crucial value of those elemental processes of a democracy under law which had seemed to frustrate him in this instance.
Somewhat startlingly, Schlesinger seems to make a case for that deviation: in “the new world of the syndicates,” he posits, “because top racketeers were remote from overt acts, they were vulnerable only on the margin, as in their tax returns. Nor were they forlorn individuals, outmatched by the massed power of the federal government. As Nathan Lewis said of Hoffa, ‘They had limitless funds and used them, and didn’t play by the rules.’… The methods that sent Capone and Hoffa to prison achieved useful social results that might not have been achieved otherwise.” The treacherousness of indulging in such exceptions for “useful social results,” however, is that those methods themselves can be a vandalism on the integrity of the law, and the beginning of a process that would ultimately, through such considerations of relative worth, debilitate it altogether.
But in the course of his Hoffa prosecutions with their accompanying galaxy of witnesses, Schlesinger contends, Kennedy had already unsuspectingly begun what would become his lifetime’s pilgrimage into ever-amplifying regions of vision and spirit: “He saw men lie, run terrible risks, display great cowardice and great courage. He learned…that he could quite like people of whom he morally disapproved.” Such discoveries were to work a steady permutation on his zealotry. “Most people acquire certainties as they grow older,” Anthony Lewis declared to Schlesinger; “he lost his. He changed—he grew—more than anyone I have known.” By the time he had assumed the office of attorney general, he had already begun to weary of that cold Catholic burning for judgment and retribution: “He was tired,” Schlesinger reports him as allowing once, “of chasing people.”
Still, as attorney general Kennedy evinced a certain abstract remoteness from the urgent realities of the civil rights movement—perhaps the most stirring popular moral adventure in the nation’s history—and, obversely, a devout deference to the processes of the system of federalism which, to black leaders pleading for United States intervention to protect demonstrators, was a delicate restraint that seemed merely a gentlemanly Harvard inflection on Wallace’s dogma of states’ rights. It produced what Schlesinger styles an “anguishing dilemma” in Kennedy’s department councils between “keeping the federal balance at the cost of terrible injustice to civil rights workers; or seeking justice for civil rights workers with unforeseen consequences for the federal balance.” But in the end, it amounted to a failure of moral vision. With some truth, Schlesinger avers that, in the shifting weathers of the country at that time, “no white leader seemed to understand what was going on in the consciousness of black America.”
Hardly as defensible, though, were Kennedy’s clearances of appointments to the federal judiciary, perhaps the most garish of which was that of William Harold Cox of Mississippi, who was wont to bray of blacks from the bench, “a bunch of niggers…a bunch of chimpanzees.” Schlesinger extenuates that count by saying it was all for the sake of obliging Southern committee chairmen who were critical in the far more momentous matter of passage of civil rights legislation. But in the end, Schlesinger says, once again the whole experience became for Kennedy a further enlarging of his perceptions, from personal and particular reflexes of decency to a recognition of a general condition of duress. During the last campaign of his life, in California in 1968, riding from a session he had quietly endured with a stridently acrimonious deputation of blacks, Kennedy mused to a companion. “After all the abuse the blacks have taken through the centuries, whites are just going to have to let them get some of these feelings out if we are all really ever going to settle down to a…relationship.”
There seemed as much a faltering of moral vision, however, in Kennedy’s rather expansive indulgence of J. Edgar Hoover’s persistent importunings for wiretapping and bugging. Between Kennedy and Hoover, that very compaction of the common American rectitude, there took place, curiously enough, almost the same glandular antagonism as between Kennedy and Hoffa. Kennedy’s complaisance may have been owing—with his much-deplored callowness as an attorney general, about which Kennedy himself was appropriately modest—to a somewhat naïve and floundering uncertainty before the machinations of the FBI. Schlesinger even ventures the whimsical disclaimer that “the electronic world was a mystery to the Attorney General,” and quotes one source, “He had a very bad, poor, mechanical, technical, scientific background.” But Schlesinger’s main mitigation in the most gamy instance, the tapping of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his aides, is that “the Kennedys had committed themselves to King…. Anything which discredited Dr. King, or his movement, would have been a disaster to the Kennedy administration…. The Kennedys authorized the taps on King for defensive purposes—in order to protect King, to protect the civil rights bill, to protect themselves.” Somehow it is a rationale that leaves a tinge of brackishness lingering after it.
Despite his own pronounced disinclination, Robert had finally accepted his consignment to the attorney general’s office, “not so much to become Attorney General,” he later explained, “as to be around during that time…to be with Jack.” In truth, he soon came to act as something like the alter-president of the administration, ranging beyond the Justice Department to mediate in ambassadorial matters, difficulties in the State Department. Maxwell Taylor described it to Schlesinger as “a reversal of the normal fraternal relationship of a big brother looking after a younger one. In this case, Bobby, the younger brother, seemed to take a protective view of the President.” It was a uniquely intimate symbiosis in the conduct of presidential power, in any event, that was never more evident than in the administration’s negotiation of its Cuban confoundments.
It tended to be the aspiration of both Kennedys, but particularly Robert, to reconstitute the entire edifice of American foreign policy into a kind of magnified and exalted Peace Corps—out of that robust earnestness of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American which eventually engendered Vietnam: “that officious solicitude,” as Schlesinger terms it, somehow endemic to the American innocence, which produced with the Kennedys a somewhat indiscriminate zest for “action diplomacy,” including the fantasy of a counterinsurgency of activist ministry to a nation’s dispossessed as an answer to communist incursion. It was an aspiration that happened to hold in it, however, the rather serious flaw, as Schlesinger points out, that “very few governments under guerrilla attack cared much about their own dispossessed. That was precisely why they were vulnerable.”
Nevertheless, Schlesinger establishes fairly extensively and persuasively the unlikelihood that Vietnam would have metastasized under the Kennedys to the monstrous magnitude it reached under Johnson. As he reports, when George Ball assured Jack Kennedy the war would finally call for 300,000 American troops, Kennedy retorted, “You’re crazy as hell”; so long as he was president, “it can’t happen.” Robert McNamara also purportedly advised one of his assistant secretaries that he had “an understanding with President Kennedy that they would close out Vietnam by ’65, whether it was in good shape or bad”—but as Kennedy told Lester Pearson of Canada, “I can’t do it until 1965—after I’m reelected.” Nevertheless, Kennedy had already notified some, says Schlesinger, that “I want to start a complete and very profound review of how we got into this country, what we thought we were doing and what we now think we can do…whether or not we should be there.”
But Cuba presents, perhaps, their most puzzlingly consistent and profound failure of historical perception. Whatever else it was, and however authoritarian it turned out to be, the Cuban revolution seemed the most original and dramatic political event to have occurred in this hemisphere in this century, with Castro himself an almost Tolstoyan figure in the profusion of his exuberance and imagination—Shelley, indeed Byron, could have dreamed him up. Among all the premiers and statesmen over the globe, he was at least the one figure who seemed unquestionably, tumultuously alive. But he also, along with his revolution, hugely traumatized the proprietorial interests in the United States, as the weary and meager spirit of constricted self-interest is liable to be critically intimidated by the sudden advent of a larger vitality, and driven to extinguish it. It was a trauma that eventually became a kind of accelerating hysteria, growing out of that sensation of helplessness, of being outside history, of the apparent impossibility of unmaking the historical reality of Castro and Cuba now. That hysteria generated before long covert deployments into Cuba of “nonlethal chemicals to incapacitate sugar workers,” as Schlesinger recites it, schemes for “spreading word that Castro was anti-Christ and that the Second Coming was imminent—an event to be verified by star shells sent up from an American submarine off the Cuban coast.”
What is particularly bizarre, though, is that the Kennedys would have been caught up to such a degree in this mentality—a blind credulousness in full play through the bloody fantasy of the Bay of Pigs, when, as Robert Kennedy recorded, “We kept asking them when the uprisings were going to take place. Dick Bissell [of the CIA] said it was going to take place during the night.” Even after the missile crisis, this oblivious fixation persisted, with Robert Kennedy urging that they “must do something against Castro, even though we do not believe our actions would bring him down.”
Nevertheless, Schlesinger would seem to exempt them convincingly from any complicity in actual initiatives to execute Castro—perhaps most persuasively in his exposition of the staggering extent to which the CIA by then had ramified into a virtually unmanageable and rampant phenomenon of myriad bootleg twilight operations, free-lance arrangements with Cuban exiles, the Mafia. In the course of this account, what is displayed is the true secret phantasmagoria—Mafia contracts with the CIA, government wiretaps on Dan Rowan’s Las Vegas telephone—that decade in America had come to.
It was, in a way, like some climax of America’s passage, after World War II, from the last vestiges of its parochial innocence into a full lusty involvement at last in the complex and possibly Mephistophelean exhilarations of global power. The Sixties then became a kind of decade of judgment, visiting a sudden bedlam on America, a berserkness, an uncontrollability of after-effects. Castro, alluding to “terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders,” warned, “We are prepared to…answer in kind,” and disgruntled Mafia intermediaries vowed, “Mark my words, this man Kennedy is in trouble…. He is going to be hit.” Cuban exiles, after what they regarded as the double betrayals of the Bay of Pigs and then the consolidation of Castro’s reign in the missile crisis resolution, distributed manifestoes that “only one development” would redeem them now, “if an inspired Act of God should place in the White House within weeks a Texan known to be a friend of all Latin Americans.”
Maxwell Taylor recounted to Schlesinger how, when Jack Kennedy was informed of the execution of Diem in Vietnam, he lurched to his feet and “rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before,” and Schlesinger himself adds, “I had not seen Kennedy so depressed since the Bay of Pigs.” Several months later, Schlesinger says, “on the day after Kennedy’s funeral, Johnson, showing Hubert Humphrey the portrait of Diem hanging in the hallway of his house, said, ‘We had a hand in killing him. Now it’s happening here.”‘
In one of his more eloquent passages Schlesinger contrasts the natures of Jack and Robert Kennedy:
John Kennedy remained…the Brahmin; Robert, the Puritan…. John Kennedy was urbane, objective, analytical, controlled, contained, masterful, a man of perspective; Robert, while very bright and increasingly reflective, was more open, exposed, emotional, subjective, intense, a man of commitment. One was a man for whom everything seemed easy; the other a man for whom everything had been difficult. One was always graceful, the other often graceless…. John Kennedy, while taking part in things, seemed, as Tom Wicker observed, almost to watch himself take part and to criticize his own performance; Robert “lost himself in the event.” John Kennedy was a life enhancer. His very presence was exhilarating…. Robert himself was variable, moody…. John Kennedy, one felt, was at bottom a happy man; Robert, a sad man…. John Kennedy was a realist brilliantly disguised as a romantic; Robert Kennedy, a romantic stubbornly disguised as a realist.
Schlesinger quotes an observation by a mutual friend which somehow has a final effect of leaving one still more comfortable about the older than the younger brother: “Jack has traveled in that speculative area where doubt lives. Bobby does not travel there.”
But it was not long before he made his own journey into that country. In the first hours after those riflecracks in Dallas which had instantly obliterated the purpose and expectations of the long, strenuous years, “he seemed controlled,” narrates Schlesinger, but “Ethel, noticing his eyes rimmed with red, handed him a pair of dark glasses,” and the two of them walked about the autumn grounds of their place, Hickory Hill. For the following weeks, he seemed to more than one friend to be moving always through “a haze of pain.” It took, at times, a peculiarly savage and almost grotesque form. Someone who called on him a few days after Dallas recalled, “He opened the door and said something like this, ‘Come on in, somebody shot my brother, and we’re watching his funeral on television.”‘ When a friend arrived from Boston, “He said to me, ‘Been to any good funerals lately?”‘ and barely a month afterward, attending the funeral of Senator Herbert Lehman in New York, he turned to another friend and snapped, “I don’t like to let too many days go by without a funeral.” But even years later, one of his aides noticed, he still could not quite bring himself to utter with precise exactness the name: “You know that fellow Harvey Lee Oswald, whatever his name is, set something loose in this country.”
In the deepest deposits of his grief were brimstones of bitterness toward Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy would remember that, when he was trying somehow gingerly to nudge Johnson away from accepting the vice-presidential nomination in 1960—offered only as a mollifying gesture—Johnson “burst into tears…. He is one of the greatest sad-looking people in the world—you know, he can turn that on…. But he just shook and tears came into his eyes, and he said, ‘I want to be Vice President, and, if the President will have me, I’ll join with him in making a fight for it.”‘
Barely three years since that moment of lugubrious desperation in a Los Angeles hotel suite, suddenly Johnson was president, and Robert Kennedy’s irreconcilability and repudiation of that unthinkable convulsion of fortune took on a quality of the frantic: to a convocation of Kennedy regulars one December twilight, in his lamplit office in the Justice Department, he hoarsely exhorted, “We must all stay in close touch and not let them pick us off one by one. I haven’t the answer in detail yet, but I am sure that the fundamental principle now is collective action.” There were times, over the following months, when it approached a heedless and startling lese majesty—Kennedy once replying, to Johnson’s explanation in a phone call that he had dispatched Kennedy on a visit to Indonesia “to keep things equal” among the vice-presidential prospects, with a bark, “Don’t ever do a favor for me again!” After hanging up, he promised an aide, “I’ll tell you one thing, this relationship can’t last much longer.”
Taking long walks now through dim and solitary winter afternoons—with a faint look of wasting about him, seeming somehow to have contracted in his loose collar and oversized cuffs—Kennedy found himself arrived at the lip of some abyss. For a temperament of such brisk certitudes, with his confident Catholic pieties, it had become perhaps the most blasting of all experiences: “he was struggling with that fundamental perplexity,” says Schlesinger, “whether there was, after all, any sense to the universe.” He began to read Aeschylus, Camus—and so entered “a world of suffering and exaltation,” says Schlesinger, “a world in which man’s destiny was to set himself against the gods and, even while knowing the futility of the quest, to press on to meet his tragic fate…. He understood with Aeschylus…’men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life.”‘
The result, it seems clear, was that he was left deeply re-created. He seemed to give himself up to, to cast himself off into wider and more reckless winds of spirit. He would later strike Jack Newfield as a man “preoccupied with suffering, who could understand himself only in action.” One friend recollected that he “enjoyed approaching the brink of the impossible.” But it was more an eagerness for the outer limits of the possible—a compulsion now that had transferred into his political nature as well, making him, says Schlesinger, “the most original…and provocative figure in mid-century American politics.”
He had briefly considered forsaking politics altogether, and even after his election to the Senate, still gave one of his aides the sense that “there were things he carried around in his head that were unimaginable, things he just had to live with all by himself.” Some of his colleagues in the Senate, reports Schlesinger, “found too much sudden, isolated attack in his performance,” and one of Ted Kennedy’s aides remembers, “You always had the feeling that Robert was ready to explode. Something was going to happen.”
Nevertheless, he hesitated to challenge Johnson. “I just have to decide now whether my running can accomplish anything,” he told Jack Newfield. “I don’t want to drive Johnson into doing something really crazy. I don’t want to hurt the doves in the Senate who are up for re-election. I don’t want it to be interpreted in the press as just part of a personal vendetta.” Schlesinger proposes that it was not so much Eugene McCarthy as the Tet offensive that “changed everything, for Eugene McCarthy as well as Lyndon Johnson”—and thereby, for Kennedy. But when Schlesinger posed to him the ploy, “Why not come out for McCarthy? Every McCarthy delegated will be a potential Kennedy delegate. He can’t possibly win, so you will be the certain inheritor of his support,” Kennedy, says Schlesinger, “looked at me stonily and said, ‘I can’t do that. It would be too humiliating. Kennedys don’t act that way.”‘ After months of fretful dangling he made his move, Schlesinger writes, “trusting his instincts at last….”
In Kennedy’s earlier expeditions abroad as attorney general, there had occurred certain premonitory glimpses of what would become his own ultimate realization as a candidate in that 1968 campaign—in Japan, the country roads brimming with throngs on both sides, with the embassy there cabling back, “When he went off the beaten track, as he did constantly, it was to mingle with workers, labor union people, students or intellectuals in their environment,” and in Indonesia, whenever he forged out into the streets, the embassy there reported, “people poured out of nearby stalls or buildings, elbowed each other aside.”
Now in Indiana, in Nebraska, in Oregon, there began to take place the same kind of processionals, and he seemed to touch off wherever he went spontaneous and sometimes delirious popular combustions, which became the single activating energy of his campaign, since, wholly unlike his older brother now, he was proceeding with virtually no national organization, no campaign staff. It was a kind of improvisational guerrilla campaign for the presidency, making its way almost exclusively off the land, directly and immediately from the people.
It developed, very soon, into a new sort of politics, almost a tribal and, it could even be said, mystic personal communion—evoked by a ghetto youth when he said, “Kennedy is on our side. We know it. He doesn’t have to say a word.” Kennedy’s identification now with the dispossessed and the uncertain and the young and the desperate had evolved to a degree from his partisanships, however gradually formed and tentative over the years, for blacks and the poor against official and custodial interests, but most of all from the authenticity of his own experience, an identification not academic but intimate and personal with suffering, with estrangement. It arose from the fact that he himself, as someone commented to Schlesinger, “was a tortured guy, and he was moved by the torture of other people,” leaving him “with a compulsion,” Schlesinger says, “to be at one with individuals in extreme situations.” He became, during that 1968 campaign, “the tribune of the underclass,” in Schlesinger’s phrase. It has not been all that infrequently, for that matter, that a protean revolutionary conscience has appeared in the form of a prince of the privileged orders.
Schlesinger calls it Kennedy’s “movement beyond liberalism.” It had become Kennedy’s political recognition that “the old liberalism,…the programs of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, even of the New Frontier…had failed to beat the structure. Conventional politics seemed almost impotent before the structures…. If new institutions of power could be built among the powerless, if the new movements could avoid violence—this was why he so greatly valued Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez—change might come without tearing a fragile society apart.” It was, in its way, a revival of the classic Populist passion. “We have to convince the Negroes and the poor,” Kennedy asserted, “that they have common interests.”
Beyond that, he understood the secret seed of madness in the technological metropolitan age—“the destruction of the sense, and often the fact, of community, of human dialogue, the thousand invisible strands of common experience and purpose, affection and respect which tie men to their fellows.” And it became a theme of his campaign that the history of the human race, “until today,” had been “the history of community.”
Through it all, though, it was as if, in some way, he were still being impelled by the pain of Dallas—that unrelievable anguish somehow driving him into the hovels of blacks in the Mississippi Delta where, one witness recalls, “the odor was so bad you could hardly keep the nausea down…. He went into the dirtiest, filthiest, poorest black homes…and he would sit with a baby who had sores and whose belly was bloated from malnutrition…. Bobby looked down at the child, and then he picked her up and sat down on that dirty bed…. Tears were running down his cheek, and he just sat there and held the little girl. Roaches and rats were all over the floor….”
Eight years now since the end of that bright and feverish decade, Jack Kennedy himself has come to seem more the bridging transitional figure between the old politics and a new. With Jack, it was still largely the same machineries and power equations that had operated for almost three decades. To them he merely brought those gestures and flourishes and excitements which were a premonition—that of its style of what would become the substance of the new politics, of which his brother Robert was the first true protagonist. In Robert Kennedy, however brief his flare, that style was given its inherent embodiment, fulfilled in the new popular dynamics it implied—that more free-form Populist energy of the McGovern campaign after him, and then of Carter’s.
Almost as much, though, Robert Kennedy brought that gift of quickening the nation’s sensation of life, its sense of possibilities, of the unknown. But a singular figure who opens up a nation’s collective experience to such excitements immediately attracts ambush. It is questionable, for one thing, whether the collective life of a people can actually bear for very long much exhilaration and mystery. And always among those excitements loosed in the air is a quick lust to complete the plot, to destroy the hero. Kennedy himself found it almost impossible to believe the virulence of the resentments he incited. When an English journalist reported to him that she had heard two people recently express a devout wish to hit him, “his astonishment on hearing about this was so complete that he thought he must have misunderstood. He said, ‘Hit me? You mean punch me?… No—you’re kidding,’ ” and gave a quick, little uncertain rustle of a laugh.
But perhaps it was simply that when one tries to live as largely as did Kennedy in his last years—tries to experience so much of bravery, of power, of passion, of triumph—one more and more begins to risk death. Perhaps he unknowingly drew to the limits—those mysterious limits for just how much intensity can be apportioned to a man—before, still eager and impatient, he was stopped.
October 12, 1978