85 DAYS: THE LAST CAMPAIGN OF ROBERT KENNEDY by Jules Witcover Putnam, $6.95
THE UNFINISHED ODYSSEY OF ROBERT KENNEDY by David Halberstam Random House, $4.95
ROBERT KENNEDY: A MEMOIR by Jack Newfield Dutton, $6.95
It was only a matter of time before the shelves would begin to fill with books about Robert Kennedy. Kennedys, as everyone in the communications business knows, are a hot item; the reader interest, unquenchable. See any magazine stand in any given month. In the case of books, the only tiling that stands in the way of the deluge is the possible sense of proportion and decency on the part of the publishers or those who knew a Kennedy.
Thus far, the memory of Robert is being better served than was that of his brother. As far as can be determined now, we are to be spared the memoirs of nannies, secretaries, or drinking companions. Someone, somewhere, may well be setting down for history the story of Bobby and Brum us, the most famous of his dogs. After all, we had John F. Kennedy: Man of the Sea, so anything is possible.
Since Robert Kennedy died, three books by writer-journalists have already appeared. There are at least five other books about him on the way: by Theodore Sorensen (the Kennedy legacy); Milton Gwirtzman and William VandenHeuvel (the Senate years); Peter Edelman (the legislative process, with emphasis on the view from Kennedy’s office); Frank Mankiewicz (Robert Kennedy and the press); Ed Guthman (Robert Kennedy). There will be two others, not in the category of biography, both of them begun well before 1968, and one of them only by tragic circumstances relevant to last year’s events: Fred Dutton, Kennedy’s wise political adviser, on the new politics; Victor Navasky on the Justice Department when Kennedy was Attorney General. There are also the books that were written about Kennedy before 1968, but things, and he, changed too much for them to be of much long-range value. The office of Senator Edward Kennedy is wisely turning down applicants now for the role of the youngest brother’s Boswell.
Of the three books about Robert Kennedy which have been published thus far, the first two, by Jules Witcover and David Halberstam, grew out of the campaign and their coverage of it, and are largely limited to that period. Witcover‘s is a thorough account of the Kennedy campaign by one of the most competent political reporters in the country. (As is usual with political reporting, there is little about the campaign except as seen from the trail. What was Kenny O’Donnell up to? What overtures were being made to labor, to Mayor Daley? What was in those delegate counts that were so carefully compiled in the L Street headquarters in Washington, and how were they put together?)
Halberstam’s is a thinner book about Kennedy and the campaign, but highly perceptive about the Kennedys and the sixties. He captures the “arrogance” of the New Frontier, and the fact that after Robert Kennedy turned to politics:
In a sense there were not just two political parties in America in the sixties, but really three—the Democrats headed by Johnson, the Republicans, and the Kennedys. . . . With their power and their ability to attract intellectuals the Kennedys so dominated the young leadership of the party that anyone else virtually had to fall into their orbit. . . . But that slot which Robert Kennedy held as the youthful, attractive figure challenging the old order was one which would exist without him, it was a natural vacancy. . . .
The third and most recent book, by Jack Newfiekl, was begun in 1966 as a more reflective inquiry into the makeup of the man and his ideas. While it would be nice to be able to anoint one of the three as the only one worth reading, this can’t be done. Robert Kennedy was a complicated man, one who was still changing at an age when most men had long since defined themselves, introverted and gregarious, private and startlingly open, tough and vulnerable, sad and gay, arrogant and unassuming. It will be difficult for history to get him straight. Even his contemporaries, including those closest to him, saw in him different things. All of these books will help the Bobby phenomenon to be understood, at least from the point of view of those who were moved by it.
In Jack Newfield’s Robert Kennedy: A Memoir there is more than has yet been written, and perhaps will be. about the evolving Kennedy, the one who could begin as an enthusiastic (Joe) McCarthyite and end as the most insistent voice in politics that we could be better; the only one, in the view of very many, who might have put this shambles of a country back together again. Newfield spent a good deal of time with Kennedy and was on to him, and his description of what was happening to him in the last years, the most important ones, is sensitive, original, and on point.
These books will probably not be, to use a too appropriate word, acceptable to the legions of Bobbyhaters, for they are not neutral. They convey, in fact, why to so many Robert Kennedy up close was so different from Robert Kennedy the public politician. All three of these men are serious professionals, yet all three suffered the same objectivity loss that did most people who spent a great deal of time around Kennedy, including most of the press corps on the last campaign. This in itself is an important clue to the man. As Jules Witcover put it, “He was a political figure, a candidate for the Presidency, but also for many of them, particularly those in the Washington press corps, he was a contemporary coming of age in comprehension of the nation’s political experiences they had shared with him.” Halberstam, an honest man, is explicit about the danger of intimacy with Kennedys. The Kennedys, he writes, “inhaled people; thoughtful journalists and intellectuals who could not be bought in the real sense were taken over by the Kennedys and the glamor. They became too close, they went regularly to Hickory Hill, saw only what they wanted to see.” There was a feeling among journalists that “one had to go all the way with them.”
All three writers seem to reach a point every once in a while where they decide it is time to lob a criticism, and then they hurry on. Newfiekl goes particularly soft in his coverage of the campaign. The appeal to law and order in Indiana is glossed over, the blame laid on the staff. When Kennedy, during the “debate” with McCarthy in California, suggested his opponent wanted to “take 10,000 black people and move them into Orange County,” he was conducting a philosophical discussion of the relative merits of integration versus rebuilding the ghettos. Newfiekl is thirty-one, a founder of the SDS, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, a writer for the Village Voice. The first time he met Robert Kennedy, Kennedy was Attorney General and Newfiekl was picketing him. Newfield’s Kennedy read Camus and the New York Review of Books, admired Phil Ochs, and wanted to meet Bob Dylan. That he also accumulated pop singers and athletes and dilettantes and watched television fades from the picture.
There has always been a particular tendency among writers to describe Kennedy in terms of their own relationship with him, and, there is in these books, with the exception of Witcover, more than many of us want to know about what the writer said to Kennedy, what the writer felt about this or that. Yet Kennedy was a peculiarly anecdotal politician, most revealing when he was most natural, and that was usually offstage. That he was one of the funniest men in politics comes through, even though his humor is not easy to describe, and could be misunderstood. He was no storyteller. Kennedy’s was a humor of context, appealing particularly to the writers because he understood the absurdities of politics. There was the time in an Indiana hotel when Kennedy was called from the shower to take a telephone call. Soap in his eyes, towel around his waist, he walked through the room where some aides were working: “Make way for the future leader of the free world,” he said. Or the story famous among the press corps about the line from George Bernard Shaw with which he consistently concluded his campaign speeches, the line also a signal to the press that it was time to close the notebooks and hurry. Standing in a downpour in Omaha, Kennedy raced through his speech and concluded: “As George Bernard Shaw once said—Run for the buses.”
The particular value of Newfield’s book is his tracing of the changes in Robert Kennedy. In perhaps the best chapter in the book, “Kennedy’s Politics: Beyond Liberalism,” he offers the novel thesis, which is none the less plausible because it fits Newfield’s own politics, that it was because Kennedy began as a conservative that he could emerge as such a contemporary politician. He escaped the traps of American liberalism because he had never been a liberal. He had formed no crippling alliances with stultified unions and passe civil rights leaders; he had not Committed himself to the idea that a Washington bureaucracy was the answer to all problems; he hadn’t been there when Hubert Humphrey and the ADA were fighting what was then seen as the worldwide Communist threat. He was an “intuitive” politician, “existential” even, one who learned and changed from what he saw. “More than any other conventional politician—and that’s all he was,” New field writes, I Robert Kennedy “was attuned to [the] convulsive changes” in American life. “He did not approve of them all, he did not understand them all; but he knew they were happening, he was groping for their meaning, and he was open to their potential.”
There are, in Newfield’s book, again because of his access, a number of revealing glimpses of what Kennedy really thought. Of New York State politicians: “You know, there aren’t ten politicians in the whole state I like and trust.” Of liberals: “These New York liberals are sick. They’re not doing any work. They spend their time worrying about not being invited to the important parties, or seeing psychiatrists, or they are bored with all their affluence.” Of his famous meeting with President Johnson after Kennedy had, he thought, received one of those peculiar diplomatic phenomena of the Vietnam War, a “peace feeler”: “He was very abusive. ... He was shouting and seemed very unstable.” On hearing Arthur Levitt, New York State comptroller, suggested as the Democratic candidate for governor: “He’s constipated! He’s an accountant! He puts me to sleep! Is that what the New Frontier means to you? Arthur Levitt?” On hearing that Eugene McCarthy might enter the 1968 presidential race: “I don’t believe it. He’s not that sort of fellow. And if he does run, it wall only be to up his lecture fees.”
All three books document the case that Kennedy had decided to enter the presidential race before the New Hampshire primary. They give us the post-California strategy and suggest that he might well have made it at Chicago (and after). Halberstam is a bit more explicit than the others about the differences over strategy within the Kennedy organization between the younger and the older advisers, the old and the new politicians. It would be good to know more about the changes in the mind of Robert Kennedy, how it happened, for this was the most interesting thing about him, but there might be no one now who could write it completely. Adam Walinsky, who, to the distress of the older associates and Joseph Alsop, may have influenced him more than anyone else in the last years, could tell us something perhaps.
Whether Kennedy might have been, as Newfield believed at the end, the only political leader who could have pulled the country together, or, as was also possible, and minimized in these books, a highly divisive figure, we shall not know, and the historians will only be guessing. But it is well worth understanding, in terms of what is now going on in this country, what Newfield felt as he stood by Robert Kennedy’s casket:
Now I realized what makes our generation unique, what defines us apart from those who came before the hopeful winter of 1961, and those who came after the murderous spring of 1968. We are the first generation that learned from experience, in our innocent twenties, that things were not really getting better, that we shall not overcome. We felt, by the time we reached thirty, that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had all been assassinated. And from this time forward, things would get worse: our best political leaders were part of memory now, not hope.