On the day his brother Jack was shot to death in Dallas, Texas, Robert Kennedy asked the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John McCone, point-blank, if the CIA had been responsible for the murder. It is hard to know which is more remarkable—that Kennedy wasn’t sure of the answer, or that he expected to hear the truth either way. McCone of course said no, and there is no evidence that Kennedy ever doubted him, but that only narrowed the list of suspects in his mind. There were several others: organized crime and crooked labor unions, both hounded by Kennedy as a Senate investigator before his brother’s election, and as attorney general after it; Cubans opposed to Fidel Castro, and especially those Cubans who had gone onto the beach at the Bay of Pigs and been abandoned there; and Castro himself, who had been marked for death by Kennedy’s government, who knew it, and who had warned that two could play at that game.
But behind these suspicions, never resolved, lay a still darker fear in the mind of Robert Kennedy: that he himself, if any of the four had been established as the guilty party, could not have escaped at least some measure of responsibility for arousing and stoking the anger that resulted in his brother’s assassination. Kennedy had learned secrecy at his father’s knee, he was not loquacious in the Irish manner, when he had something big and personal to say he fell back on quoting the greats, and he rarely brooded aloud even with his closest friends about his brother’s death. But any man watched as closely as Kennedy was by rivals, journalists, and obsessive file-keepers like J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI was bound to give himself away on the things that troubled him most, and nobody was paying closer attention than President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who openly detested “that little runt” and was hated in return.
When Kennedy after much agonizing broke ranks with the administration over Vietnam, calling the war a “horror” in a Senate speech in March 1967, Johnson was instantly back at him with a poisonous leak to the Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson, who flatly accused Kennedy of masterminding an effort to assassinate Fidel Castro. Had Kennedy’s plan “backfired against his late brother”? Pearson wondered. Was it possible the senator had been “plagued by the terrible thought that he had helped put into motion terrible forces that indirectly may have brought about his brother’s martyrdom? Some insiders think so.”
The question must have been a painful one. But guilt was only one of the torments which entered Robert Kennedy’s life with Jack’s assassination. With it also came a fatalism hard to distinguish from despair and the onset of a raw spiritual sensitivity as tender as a wound that would not heal. Tough and ruthless by common report; a good hater by his father’s; single-minded and driving according to just about everybody who ever worked for him or joined him in a game of touch football, Robert Kennedy was abruptly changed in the middle of his life from one kind of man into another.
This astonishing transformation, rare in any walk of life and practically unknown among working politicians, forms the dramatic core of Evan Thomas’s fine new biography of the Kennedy who retains the most power to unsettle and surprise. Jack will always have a bigger place in the national memory than he will in its history. Teddy has the longest résumé and may have a lot more useful work in him yet. But the Robert who emerges convincingly from Thomas’s skillful telling of this sad American story is a man interesting entirely in himself—for having learned to see things he had ignored, learned to feel things he had suppressed, and learned to say things he had feared to utter.
The Kennedy who changed so radically was born just late enough, and just far enough down the line, to escape the full attention of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who made the family’s fortune, dreamed of becoming president himself, and drove his two oldest boys to succeed where he had fallen short. Money, the Roman Catholic Church, and the pack of clamoring siblings who gave him little notice and less mercy made Robert a kind of outcast as a child, tentative, withdrawn, even a bit of a mama’s boy. His mother, Rose, worried in the summer of 1940 that he “does not seem to be interested particularly in reading or sailing or his stamps.” As a student at Portsmouth Priory he struggled along with middling grades until his senior year, when a cheating scandal—some student got hold of an exam ahead of time—ended his career there. Exactly what happened is unclear. Kennedy departed but the record would not support a flat claim that he was kicked out. Rose wrote her older boys, off at war, that Robert “did not seem to make much headway in his classes last year; that is, he did not show any particular effort….” In any event, he would now be going to Milton Academy.
It would be hard to imagine a clearer example of Rose’s way of sliding past the hard parts. She conspicuously failed to notice her husband’s many mistresses, not even the actual arrival in the family’s Cape Cod summer house of the movie star Gloria Swanson on Joe’s arm in the summer of 1929. More astonishing was her failure to protest the abrupt removal from the family circle a dozen years later of her second-eldest daughter, Rosemary, a kind of problem child, slow, difficult, and given to explosive outbursts of anger and frustration. In the category of family secrets this dark episode resides in a class that might be called Irish gothic. Precisely what afflicted Rosemary Thomas does not tell us, but it reached a critical stage in mid-1941 and Joe’s remedy was drastic. Without telling anyone else in the family—and especially not the girl’s mother—Joe subjected the physically blooming, twenty-three-year-old Rosemary to a prefrontal lobotomy—surgical removal of part of the brain—which all but killed her. Barely able to speak, almost catatonic, Rosemary was summarily deposited in an institution. Rose was given no explanation for her daughter’s disappearance, or for Joe’s flat refusal to permit visits, and she did not even press for an answer until many years later. The operation itself, Rosemary’s condition, and even her existence were obscured in silence.
But tender as the subject of Rosemary was—“A mystery so strange and awful can haunt a family for generations,” Thomas writes—there was one more painful still: Joseph Kennedy’s failure of nerve as FDR’s ambassador to Great Britain between 1938 and 1941. Long worried that a new war in Europe would be bad for American business, and fearful that his own fortune would be destroyed in the process, Kennedy wholeheartedly backed Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler. On a trip to Germany in the summer of 1938 Hitler’s air marshall Hermann Goering persuaded Kennedy that the German air fleet was the world’s strongest. A friendly encounter in September with the isolationist airman Charles Lindbergh further convinced him that resistance to Hitler was hopeless. The practical thought that American power, added to the balance, might help avert the war Kennedy feared somehow never crossed his mind.
In a letter to his friend Arthur Krock during the tense countdown toward war over Hitler’s demands for a big piece of Czechoslovakia, Kennedy moaned that he would have to send his family home to escape the inevitable bombing, and “stay here alone for how long God only knows. Maybe,” he added, thinking of his own demise, “never see them again.” Chamberlain’s surrender at Munich a few days later thrilled and relieved Joe, who grabbed Rose and “kissed me and twirled me around in his arms, repeating over and over what a great day this was and what a great man Chamberlain was.” But the euphoria of “peace in our time”—Chamberlain’s giddy claim on his return to London—did not last long.
When war broke out in September 1939, Kennedy immediately sent his family back to America and then failed to sense the increasingly chilly British response to his repeated warnings about German might and the futility of war. Kennedy began to think of getting out. In the fall of 1940, just as German air raids on London were getting under way, Kennedy departed for America, formally resigned his post the day after FDR’s reelection to a third term, and two days later gave an ill-advised, rambling, ninety-minute interview to newsmen in which he ridiculed the British cabinet and talked openly of the futility of resisting Hitler:
I’m willing to spend all I’ve got left to keep us out of the war. There’s no sense in our getting in. We’d just be holding the bag…. People call me a pessimist. I say, What is there to be gay about? Democracy is all done…. Democracy is finished in England. It may be here…. [England] isn’t fighting for democracy. That’s the bunk. She’s fighting for self-preservation, just as we will if it comes to us.
The elder Kennedy tried to repudiate the interview but it was too late. The British did not conceal that they were glad to see the last of him, his relationship with FDR was permanently poisoned, and his hope of a political career was over. Worse, and more lingering, was the impression that Joe’s antiwar views weren’t simply foolish and naive in the manner of Chamberlain’s, but had their root in funk pure and simple—a lack of the courage, principles, and resolution asked of anyone who hopes to lead.
It is hard not to conclude that his own family worried about this most, going to reckless extremes to prove they had no streak of yellow of their own. John F. Kennedy’s bravery in the South Pacific, where he rescued crewmates from his destroyed PT boat, was reported within days on the front page of The New York Times. A year later his older brother, Joseph Jr., was killed during an almost suicidal volunteer mission to fly a planeload of explosives directly into German rocket sites on the French coast. The plan was to parachute to safety at the last moment but Joe Jr.’s plane blew up on its way across the channel. The entire family was shattered by grief, but the elder Kennedy’s friend Arthur Krock thought the old man’s sorrow was tinged with an extra bitter intensity by his fear that Joe died trying to prove Kennedys weren’t yellow. More than once Robert went after people who hinted his father was a coward, and his visceral dislike of Lyndon Johnson was born in Los Angeles in 1960 the moment he learned that Johnson, angling for the Democratic nomination which went to Jack, was ridiculing Joe to newsmen as a “Chamberlain umbrella man”—a reference to Chamberlain’s trademark umbrella, which had come to symbolize Munich and appeasement.
The life of Robert Kennedy breaks down roughly into three periods—his childhood as an overlooked kid, his years as his brother Jack’s extra arm, and the last years on his own. The stretch that engages Americans now and forms the heart of Thomas’s book is astonishingly brief—barely eight years, from Jack’s election in 1960 to the night of the California primary in 1968. The White House stories are all interesting but mostly familiar—the pursuit of Kennedy’s long campaign to destroy Jimmy Hoffa, boss of the Teamsters Union, begun when he had been chief investigator for the Senate Rackets Committee; the courtship dance with Hoover, director of the FBI, who informed the attorney general from time to time as he acquired secrets of sexual liaisons and CIA plots that could destroy the President; the back-channel negotiating with posturing segregationists like George Wallace of Alabama and Ross Barnett of Mississippi; Jack’s taste for women who were trouble, like Judith Campbell Exner and Marilyn Monroe; the on-again, off-again FBI wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr., who drove the just-tell-me-what-you-want, deal-making Robert crazy with his mountaintop orations.
Jack had casually issued a vast promissory note to the black population of America in October 1960 with a single telephone call to King’s wife to commiserate about the jailing of her husband. At the time, worried about the vote in wobbly Southern states, Robert was furious. “Do you know that this election may be razor close,” he shouted at the campaign aides who had suggested the call, “and you have probably just lost it for us?” Three Southern governors had promised to deliver their states—but only if Jack stood up to Jimmy Hoffa, Nikita Khrushchev, and the Reverend King.
Robert was running Jack’s campaign and there wasn’t an ounce of mercy in him for anybody who didn’t put winning ahead of everything else. Administration was not Robert’s gift; during his brother’s 1952 Senate campaign, Thomas writes, there was no hiding “his failings as an organizer—his impatience, his amateurism, his predilection for going outside channels.” But he was tireless, selfless, and above all single-minded, and he knew Southerners put King at the top of the hate list, above even Communists and labor organizers. But one of Kennedy’s aides, Louis Martin, got around Kennedy’s pragmatic objections. King was jailed, Martin said, because the judge had refused to allow bail for what came down to a misdemeanor traffic violation. “You can’t deny bail on a misdemeanor,” objected Kennedy. “Well they just did it,” Martin said.
That night, after assuring other aides he was not going to get involved in the King mess, Kennedy changed his mind and telephoned the Georgia judge who had put King in prison. “I called him,” Robert told an aide, Harris Wofford, “because it made me so damn angry to think of that bastard sentencing a citizen to four months of hard labor for a minor traffic offense.” Maybe, and maybe not. Thomas writes that the call, long portrayed as an impulsive act of conscience, in fact came at the tail end of covert talks with the Georgia governor. But even so it was Robert who made the call that got King out of jail, and in the end it proved to be a brilliant political stroke—some analysts even suggest it decided the election. So what was it—pure political calculation, solving a problem that was embarrassing Southern Democrats, or the act of a man peeved at injustice? There is no clear answer; Kennedy seems to have been pulled both ways at once.
Race and civil rights took up a lot of Kennedy’s time as attorney general, a job his father pressed his brother to give him and flatly insisted Robert take; but Kennedy’s instinct was for compromise, the deal, working things out behind the scenes, not for the kind of moral confrontation whipped up by King in his prophetic mode. Kennedy urged patience, progress one step at a time, giving a little to get a little—not enough to satisfy King, who demanded equality, justice, and redemption. Suspicious of King, and urged on by Hoover, Kennedy authorized wiretaps on King’s phone and may have okayed bugs in his hotel rooms as well. The frail justification was concern about a King adviser who had once been a member of the American Communist Party. But in truth Kennedy wanted King, the freedom riders, and the whole civil rights movement to cut a deal and go away to leave him free to concentrate on the things which preoccupied his brother—table-pounding by Khrushchev over Berlin, the worldwide challenge presented by Soviet-backed wars of national liberation, and the Communist leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, who mocked the power of the United States and promised a domino chain of revolutions throughout Latin America.
The depth and intensity of the Kennedy brothers’ obsession with Cuba are still hard to grasp. Its origin was the humiliating failure of the CIA-backed invasion by Cuban exiles in April 1961, inherited from the Eisenhower administration, which left the President looking weak and confused. Initial fury at the agency, justified but futile, soon gave way to a redoubled national commitment to get rid of Castro—but quietly this time, with a clandestine finesse notably lacking at the Bay of Pigs. The President put his brother on a blue-ribbon panel to study the causes of the failure, and come up with a surer way to do it next time. After a decent interval the discredited parties at the CIA—director Allen Dulles and deputy director for plans Richard Bissell—were quietly removed. Replacing them were John McCone, a Republican businessman, and the career intelligence officer Richard Helms. But in the shadows, pressing hard for an aggressive new effort to get rid of Castro, was Robert Kennedy. “My idea is to stir things up,” Kennedy noted to himself after a White House meeting on Cuba in November 1961; “we have nothing to lose….” In his efforts to make it happen Robert reached deeper into the heart of the American intelligence community than any other outsider, before or since.
No international issue got more attention from the Kennedys than Cuba, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the missile crisis that followed eighteen months later, have been minutely scrutinized by historians. Robert had little to do with the invasion, but he was deeply involved in the deliberations in September and October 1963 that finally decided on a blockade of Cuba to force the Soviet Union to remove nuclear missiles which threatened two thirds of the mainland United States. Thomas accepts previously published claims that Robert was a leader of the faction that urged caution and argued against a “surgical strike,” favored by the Air Force and elder statesmen like Dean Acheson, comparing it to Pearl Harbor. “My brother is not going to be the Tojo of the ’60s,” he insisted, referring to the Japanese general who brought the United States into World War II with the sneak attack on the American naval base.
But this restraint came to Kennedy only slowly, over the course of days of argument. “If we go in,” he scribbled in a note to himself on the first day of the crisis, “we go in hard.” Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense and by this time a close friend of Robert’s, told Thomas that “RFK was a hawk in his head and his heart…. But he changed.” Others noted the change as well. One of Robert’s aides entered his office in the Justice Department in the middle of the crisis and, knowing nothing of the imminent showdown with the Soviet navy, said, “Something is different in here.”
“I’m older,” said Kennedy.
Kennedy’s role throughout the crisis, and the subtle day-by-day shifts in his thinking, are documented in the transcripts of the Executive Committee meetings which argued the pros and cons of military versus political action. In addition, the release of both American and Soviet documents and the publication of numerous memoirs make this tense encounter, arguably the most dangerous of the entire cold war, one of the best-documented international confrontations in history. But Robert’s leadership of the secret American effort to get rid of Castro between the Bay of Pigs and the missile crisis is a very different matter, poorly documented and only sketchily described by those with firsthand knowledge of Kennedy’s insistent prodding and poking as he tried to whip the agency to attempt what it basically knew to be impossible—overthrow a well-established police-state regime with pin-prick guerrilla attacks and cockamamie schemes to spark a popular revolt. In particular there is no smoking-gun evidence to flesh out Drew Pearson’s charges published in 1967—that it was Robert Kennedy who played the most direct role in urging the post-Bay of Pigs efforts to get rid of Castro in the one way that would really and truly get rid of him.
But the lack of a smoking gun does not mean the evidence provided by Thomas is thin. It is not. It includes several explicit reports and a pattern of events which together strongly support claims that Robert Kennedy knew about and pressed plans for the assassination of Castro. In October and November 1963, for example, when Robert was the driving force on the secret committees overseeing anti-Castro efforts, the CIA’s Desmond Fitzgerald managed to recruit a highly placed Cuban agent named Rolando Cubela who had agreed to “eliminate” Castro. On October 11, the day the CIA first met with the Cuban, Fitzgerald telephoned the attorney general—about what the record does not say. Another CIA official—unnamed—told Thomas that Kennedy knew what Fitzgerald was doing and approved a delivery of arms to Cubela. A Kennedy aide named David Ellis, who helped come up with a plan to attach a bomb to Castro’s car, told Thomas he hand-delivered the car-bomb plans to Kennedy’s secretary, Angie Novello. The lawyer Joseph Califano, counsel to the secretary of the army, Cyrus Vance, during the height of the anti-Castro plotting in 1963, told Thomas he personally heard Robert discuss “knocking off Castro.” Richard Helms, who had nominal control over CIA efforts to overthrow the Communist regime in Cuba, told investigators in the mid-1970s only that he was pushed hard by Robert Kennedy to “get rid” of Castro.
Later, talking with Henry Kissinger in the privacy of the White House, Helms went further. Called back from his post as ambassador to Iran to help quiet a growing CIA scandal in early 1975, Helms warned Kissinger that any serious investigation was going to dig up real dirt. “Helms said all these stories are just the tip of the iceberg,” Kissinger reported later that day to President Gerald Ford. “If they come out blood will flow. For example, Robert Kennedy personally managed the operation on the assassination of Castro.”
None of this evidence is ambiguous, but it still falls short of the “smoking gun” standard demanded by Kennedy’s family and friends. “As my father always told me,” Kennedy wrote John McCone in mid-1962, “‘never write it down.”‘ The paper record at the CIA is mainly concerned with housekeeping details, and the minutes of the Cuba committee meetings were selective and incomplete about the assassination of Castro. Robert Kennedy never confessed himself to anyone willing to speak clearly now, and the many keepers of the flame insist he would never have contemplated such a thing. On some questions in this world certainty is denied. Evan Thomas provides a fair summary of the evidence and concludes with a Scotch verdict—not proven. But Thomas also believes that Kennedy suffered something more than a kind of survivor’s guilt following his brother’s murder. “Without question,” Thomas writes, “he worried that his own aggressive pursuit of evil men had brought evil upon his own house.”
The great fault-line in the life of Robert Kennedy was the assassination of his brother. Any man’s life would be jolted by an event so violent, sudden, and final, but the effect on Robert was more than one of grief and loss, profound as both clearly were. The person he had been—right arm, door-opener, detail-man, enforcer, adviser, devoted and loyal brother—died in Dallas and was eventually replaced by a different sort of person.
The great strength of Thomas’s book is the clear and unsentimental way in which he records this exchange of one way of living and thinking for another, in some ways almost the mirror image of the discarded self. An editor at Newsweek magazine and author or coauthor of several accounts of cold war history and institutions, Thomas has a deep knowledge of the cast of characters during the Kennedy years, and especially of the CIA officials who tried to give the Kennedys what they wanted. His group portrait of Frank Wisner, Desmond Fitzgerald, Richard Bissell, and Tracy Barnes in The Very Best Men is probably the best single account of the kind of men who went into the intelligence business in the agency’s glory days. That kind of detailed knowledge is one of the two things required for writing the life of a man like Kennedy, whose life is simultaneously public and hidden. The other is a confident sense of the narrative line—what matters most about the life, and how it grows from personality and circumstance.
The depth and intensity of Robert Kennedy’s emotional appeal for the people who wrote about him, worked for him, and lined the streets to see him is no secret. But the early books about Robert Kennedy tended to see him as a kind of secular saint, and often shrank from the darker episodes in his history. Later accounts, when more was known, were harsher, less forgiving, and tended to see him as shallow, illiberal, and opportunistic. Thomas is frank about Kennedy’s failings—wiretapping King and then lying about it, the unjustified bitterness of his hatred for Lyndon Johnson, and the like—but at the same time he accepts as genuine Kennedy’s identification with the ignored and the excluded. The awful wound of Jack’s murder, the unraveling of Robert’s persona as the devoted brother, and his search for a renewed sense of purpose and emotional commitment are the central thread of Thomas’s book and give it the power to touch even readers who imagine they are long beyond any twitch of feeling for a Kennedy.
But first came the grief, expressed in all the usual ways—tears, anger, confusion, and a feeling of tremendous loss. The night of his brother’s murder a friend heard him cry out, “Why, God?” Before Jack’s coffin was closed for good, Robert and the dead president’s wife, Jacqueline, both placed mementos inside—letters and a piece of scrimshaw from Jackie; a silver rosary and a lock of hair from Robert. For months thereafter Robert was deeply attentive to Jackie, often visiting Jack’s grave with her at night in Arlington National Cemetery.
This grief did not surrender easily; he had trouble sleeping, lost weight, was listless about work, quit thinking about Jimmy Hoffa and the mob, sometimes had difficulty holding his head up or looking a dinner partner in the eye. With Jackie he discussed fate, God, and the meaning of life. On a trip to the Caribbean with her, Robert read for the first time Edith Hamilton’s study of history and tragedy, The Greek Way. From that he progressed to the ancient Greek playwrights like Aeschylus, marking passages like “God calls men to a heavy reckoning/For overweening pride.” A lifelong reader, Robert had always been interested in the muscular part of history—the deeds of great men, battles, political struggles. Now he turned to its meaning. Along with the Greeks he read Albert Camus and other writers with more questions than answers. He was not an intellectual in the usual sense; he did not discuss, analyze, and argue with the books he was reading, but instead visited them, hunted solace in them, let them speak for him when he was overwhelmed by the imponderables of life.
The attempt to make sense of the inexplicable was one of Robert Kennedy’s responses to his brother’s death; a second, just as important, was a kind of compulsive courting of danger and even of death. In his copy of Emerson’s Essays Kennedy underlined the sentence: “Always do what you are afraid to do.” He had a deep contempt for anyone who in his view failed the basic test of bravery: President Johnson he thought a “coward,” Nelson Rockefeller had “no guts,” Chester Bowles was a “weeper.” All the Kennedys played sports aggressively, skied like daredevils, but Robert after Dallas took the refusal to admit fear to a new extreme.
When Canada honored his brother by giving his name to the highest un-climbed peak in North America, Robert agreed to join a National Geographic Society expedition to climb the 13,900-foot Mount Kennedy despite a lifelong fear of heights. After scaling a stretch of nearly vertical ridge, with a six-thousand-foot drop below him if he fell, Robert told the guide he didn’t want to pause for a picture—“Just get me the hell up the mountain.” He later confessed he enjoyed no part of the venture. Testing himself against his own fears, ignoring danger, and taking chances were a running theme of his last years. On a white-water rafting trip in Utah he alarmed the guides when he insisted on jumping into the water and swimming through the rapids. On a cruise through the fifty-degree waters off the coast of Maine he dove overboard without hesitation when a gust of wind blew his brother’s old leather bomber jacket into the water. “The captain… worried that Kennedy would drown in the icy water,” Thomas writes. “He estimated that Kennedy could last no more than twelve minutes. That was about how long it took to fish RFK, blue and shaking but holding the sacred garment, from the sea.”
Kennedy often wore the bomber jacket and he soon determined to take his brother’s place in politics as well, going all the way to the White House; he began with a close but successful race for a Senate seat in New York. But the friends and advisers who shared his dream of a restoration all assumed that Robert’s year would be 1972, after LBJ’s second term. His willingness to wait had nothing to do with a sense of deference; Kennedy loathed Johnson, whom he thought of as a usurper. But challenging an incumbent of one’s own party threatened disaster in November and violated all the conventional rules of presidential politics, beginning with party loyalty. So Robert Kennedy determined to stick by the rules, put aside his own rising alarm about the course of the war, and wait his turn.
The old Robert Kennedy probably would have done it, but by 1968 he had become a different person, open to different concerns, quicker to listen, less patient, more impulsive, no longer quite convinced that winning was everything. What happened next is what separates Kennedy from the host of other inspirational American politicians, from William Jennings Bryan to Adlai Stevenson, who never made it to the White House. That Kennedy was assassinated, not beaten at the polls, only partly explains the power of the story. In some sense Kennedy almost seems to have invited his fate—ignoring the cautions of family and friends, plunging into crowds, riding in open cars, challenging hostile groups. He knew he might encounter a man with a gun almost anywhere as he stumped the country, but he refused to shrink from the danger. But perhaps most extraordinary of all is the way Kennedy quit thinking in practical political terms and became an advocate of precisely those populations with the least money or power—migrant farm workers, blacks in rural and urban ghettoes, American Indians living on reservations, the poor in Appalachia, and the young with no chance in life. Vietnam was the big issue of 1968, but what animated Kennedy was his emotional identification with the excluded, the oppressed, the impoverished.
As a senator Kennedy had been erratic. He often missed votes, was bored by the mechanics of writing laws, didn’t like the politicking required to get them passed, was impatient with the endless requests of constituents for the little favors that win support and gradually make incumbents unbeatable. But something in Kennedy after his brother’s death was sensitive to questions of justice. “It is a reach,” Thomas writes, “to compare Kennedy’s travails as the neglected little brother to the despair of ghetto dwellers, but Kennedy seemed to feel a direct kinship with the troubled youth of any time and place.” In the fall of 1965 he made a tour of Latin America and was startled and then touched by the fervor of the crowds. None shouted louder than the poor and he made a point of visiting slums. In Chile he was warned to avoid a university dominated by Communists who would shout him down and might even injure him; he went, ducked the garbage and eggs thrown at him, ignored a student who spat at him, went on shaking hands. On the second anniversary of his brother’s murder he drove through a Brazilian slum crying out, “Every child an education! Every family adequate housing! Every man a job!”
By the time the three-week tour was over Kennedy had established the new pattern of his life—physically plunging into crowds, seeking out those most hostile, and promising in spite of himself what no man, no political party, no program could ever deliver—recognition, change, and justice. From migrant farm workers in California to the black townships of South Africa, from Indian reservations to the urban wasteland of Bedford-Stuyvesant to windowless shacks where children starved in Mississippi, Kennedy during the final years of his life was drawn to exactly those people with the biggest problems and the least to offer any man running for president.
But Kennedy stuck to his plan and stayed out of the 1968 presidential race until Eugene McCarthy proved in the New Hampshire primary that a Democrat could take the nomination away from President Johnson. Cynics said he let McCarthy take the risk of testing the waters, then moved in to grab the prize; Kennedy himself insisted he hung back at first for fear he would make things worse by running—whatever he urged, Johnson would do the opposite. Either way, McCarthy proved the Democratic Party and the country were already divided and Kennedy could sit still no longer.
The campaign which followed was headlong, chaotic, expensive—Ted said it was going to cost the family $4 million—and far from certain of success. After Johnson withdrew at the end of March he threw his support to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the man Jack had defeated for the nomination in 1960. To win Kennedy needed the backing of the party but party leaders by no means shared his passions over Vietnam, poverty, and race. Not even a clean sweep of the primaries would have guaranteed his nomination and the sweep wasn’t clean—he won in Indiana but with less than half the vote, and he lost Oregon to Eugene McCarthy. “There are no ghettoes in Oregon,” observed a congresswoman backing him.
But Kennedy plunged ahead anyway. He accused the Johnson administration of “calling upon the darker impulses of the American spirit”; he attacked audiences for hardheartedness toward the poor; he walked the streets of black ghettoes during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April. The crowds were often wild with excitement, mobbing Kennedy’s car, shouting and grabbing at him, pulling off his cufflinks and even his shoes. Cooler heads warned this was playing all wrong on television; Americans were worried about riots and violence and Robert in his speeches was whipping them up. “You’ve got to turn it down,” a worried reporter told Ted Sorensen when a black crowd in Washington almost tipped over Kennedy’s car. “We can’t,” he responded. “It’s too late.”
But it wasn’t crowds that threatened the life of Robert Kennedy; it was a lone man with a gun. “That could have been me,” he said to a friend the night of the King assassination. Everybody connected to the campaign, everybody who knew Kennedy, everybody who read newspapers or watched television knew that Robert Kennedy was a walking target. But he refused to pull back for fear of being killed. When an aide wanted to close his hotel room blinds one night Kennedy said, “Don’t close them. If they’re going to shoot, they’ll shoot.” In a notebook he wrote down a quote from Camus: “Knowing that you are going to die is nothing.” Every time he stopped his car to shake hands, or moved down onto the floor of a meeting hall, or even stepped outdoors, Kennedy placed himself in harm’s way. Even when police and bodyguards learned of threats in advance Kennedy paid little attention; he knew the lone man with a gun could be anywhere.
As it happened he was standing in a hotel corridor filled with kitchen staff. Kennedy had been on his way to the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to declare victory in the California primary but a crowd of shouting teenagers blocked the direct route. A hotel official took Kennedy and his wife another way, down through the kitchen, into the corridor where the man with the black .22 caliber pistol—he had bought a box of ammunition only that day—suddenly saw his chance. Why did he fire? He was Palestinian; a few days earlier on television he had seen Kennedy wearing a yarmulke outside a synagogue. That may have been the reason, or perhaps the gun itself was the reason.
What would have happened if he had lived, and been nominated and elected? Kennedy himself was far from sure. “If I get to be president, what can I do anyway?” he had asked his friend Richard Goodwin during the Indiana primary. “With congress and the press, what chance do I have to make basic changes?”
None of it would have gone easily, Thomas thinks, but Kennedy would have tried. “He might have been rash, he might have tried to do too much, and he might have blundered,” he writes. “Failure, in a divided country in a confused time, was probably more likely than not. Nonetheless, Kennedy’s life story suggests that had he failed, he would have failed trying his utmost to lift up the poor and the weak.”
Kennedy raised hopes but it stopped there. His ambitions were big but none of it happened. He wasn’t nominated, he wasn’t elected, he passed no important laws, he never tackled the big issues, his speeches are rarely read, and his brothers Jack and Teddy have sounder claims on the sober historian. But all the same, Bobby was the interesting one.
November 2, 2000