The Lives of Robert Kennedy

“I went to bed thinking, ‘By God, he’ll be President!’ and woke up next morning to learn he was dead.”Many an American spoke or thought words to that effect after the sickening June night ten years ago when an assassin’s bullet ended the vibrant life and remarkable political rise of Robert F. Kennedy.

To assess a life interrupted at midpassage is no easy task. Fifteen years after John F. Kennedy’s death, there is little agreement as to what if any were the lasting accomplishments or legacies of his presidency. To assess the life of Robert Kennedy is an especially complicated enterprise, for there were, in a sense, three Robert Kennedys. One was Bobby the Bad, ruthless, ambitious son of the ruthless, ambitious Founding Father: a young man who, as an eventual confidant, Theodore Sorensen, described him in 1953, struck people as “militant, aggressive, intolerant, opinionated, somewhat shallow in his convictions . . . more like his father than his brother.” Another was Robert the Good, a young man who grew enormously in character and ability and became “the tribune of the underclass.” And there was the Robert Kennedy who might have been—if only.

With his customary lucidity and high style, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., having chronicled the times of Andrew Jackson and FDR, and the thousand days of John Kennedy’s presidency, takes on the challenge of Robert. In ROBERT KENNEDY AND HIS TIMES (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95), he endeavors to explain the first Bobby, celebrates the second, and invites us to speculate, with him, that had Robert Kennedy lived, “he might have changed history.” As Schlesinger correctly perceives, the fact that we don’t know what he might have become, what he might have achieved if he had completed his express-train run to power, is “why his memory haunts so many of us now.”

The book abounds in anecdotes, confidences, personal insights into the lives of the Kennedys and those around them, and it is rich in articulate descriptions of the most complex and sinuous workings of politics, power, and bureaucracy. It is inevitably controversial, because Robert Kennedy, while he inspired much love and loyalty, especially in his later years, also provoked much contempt and hatred. This admiring combination of memoir and biography will cause some less-than-admiring observers of the Kennedy performance to suggest that Mr. Schlesinger, under the requirements of Roman Catholic canon law, has volunteered to be Postulator of the Cause to promote the beatification. We shall no doubt see—if not in the person of Gore Vidal, then in any one of a number of other non-admirers—the appearance of the Promoter of the Faith to play the required devil’s advocate role.

Mr. Schlesinger surely anticipated this likelihood, for there are those who think of Robert Kennedy not as valorous, heroic, but as vengeful, arrogant, power-hungry, ruthless (how often the word “ruthless” appears in these pages, as if to exorcise it from memory). He writes: “It is necessary to declare an interest. I was a great admirer and devoted friend of Robert Kennedy’s. . . . if it is necessary for a biographer of [him] to regard him as evil, then I am not qualified to be his biographer.” “The last thing Robert Kennedy would have wished,” he adds, “was hagiography.”

Semantics aside, this is an adoring book, a labor of love, written in the belief that its subject had grown into “the most creative man in American public life.” A work so detailed in its sweep through Kennedy’s forty-two years could not have been written by someone who was not an insider, a devoted one, and there is no insider who could possibly equal Schlesinger’s talents as a chronicler. It is best read, though, with buttressing from other books about the Kennedy clan, particularly Victor Navasky’s Kennedy Justice for the period of Kennedy’s attorney generalship (a book that Schlesinger generously acknowledges).

The younger Robert appears to have deserved most of the unfavorable adjectives that dogged him through much of his life. He was rude, brash, very rich, and oblivious to the needs of others—the kind of fellow we used to call “a twerp.” He was, like his father, a “hater” and just as conservative in his politics (and that was conservative indeed), a mediocre student who preferred to hang out with the football jocks at Harvard, a fierce competitor on the field but not when it came to achieving grades at college or at the University of Virginia Law School. Joseph Sr. saw to it that, like Jack, Bobby traveled extensively; right up into his days in government his mother peppered him with homilies and advice (e.g., Remember that the Balfour Declaration offered the Jews a “home” but not a “state” in Palestine); and it becomes apparent that in spite of poor classroom showings, he had reason to be better prepared for public life and responsibilities than the bulk of young Americans. Still, in his first thirty-five years he was little aware of the problems plaguing millions of Americans, and may not have known personally more than one or two blacks. As late as 1960, when he managed his brother’s campaign for the presidency, he asked Harris Wofford to guide him on the approach to civil rights. “We really don’t know much about this whole thing. ... I haven’t known many Negroes in my life.”

Schlesinger of course does not overlook Robert Kennedy’s enlistment in Joe McCarthy’s red-hunting Night Riders, but argues that he came to realize that he was traveling in bad company, and puts the case that a man who turned on the likes of Roy Cohn, a break that almost led to fisticuffs in a Senate chamber and culminated in his break with McCarthy as well, couldn’t have been all bad.

By the age of thirty-five, when, to an uproar of indignation, his brother appointed him attorney general, Robert Kennedy had served a stint at the Justice Department, played roles in three major Senate investigations, managed Jack Kennedy’s senatorial and presidential campaigns, and fathered the first eight of his and Ethel Kennedy’s eleven children. He and Schlesinger had become friends (somewhat to Schlesinger’s surprise), and the biographer-to-be, installed as a White House adviser to the new President, frolicked with the Kennedy crowd at Hickory Hill, and observed at close hand the workings of the New Frontier and the intense relationship between the two brothers, different in mood and in the sense of life, but fiercely alike in their determination to make the most of the Kennedy presidency. The book then becomes more personal, and Schlesinger’s second Bobby Kennedy begins to emerge.

The Attorney General surrounded himself with bright and knowledgeable men such as Burke Marshall, Nicholas Katzenbach, and John Seigenthaler, and plunged into a turbulent sea of troubles and challenges. Not the least of his troubles was J. Edgar Hoover, who glowers in this narrative as a spiteful, malicious man given to spying on both brothers and dispatching to the Attorney General innuendo-filled memoranda about the President’s alleged off-hours activities. Persuading Hoover to transfer the energy of his FBI fiefdom from a bankrupt preoccupation with antisubversion to the cause of civil rights and the machinations of organized crime required monumental zeal, and, ironically, it left the FBI’s power and the secrecy of its operations greater than before Kennedy became attorney general. The struggles with Governors Wallace of Alabama and Barnett of Mississippi to bring about integration of southern universities; the effort, within the confines of the Constitution, to put the force of the federal government behind the protection of blacks and white Freedom Marchers; the fight for civil rights legislation (Robert thought it might prove to be his brother’s “political swan song,” but he commanded the fight); the infamous wiretapping of Martin Luther King, which, Schlesinger maintains, Robert Kennedy authorized “in order to protect King, to protect the civil rights bill”—these were among the matters that tested Robert Kennedy’s ability to lead and to grow. Schlesinger makes such tangled events clear and accessible—and awards Kennedy almost all A’s. “Nothing in Robert Kennedy’s attorney generalship received more valid criticism than his early recommendations for the southern bench,” he concedes, but he goes on to maintain that it was a price the Kennedys were willing to pay to secure Mississippi Senator James Eastland’s assent to more progressive efforts, such as the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the first black Supreme Court justice. Hoover’s FBI embarrassed the Kennedys and made their work more difficult, Schlesinger argues, by foot-dragging in the efforts to help blacks gain their rights, or overzealousness in carrying out in the dark of night Kennedy’s order to question reporters in the matter of the U.S. Steel price rise crisis.

Beyond all the preoccupations at Justice, the no. 2 brother was intensely involved in a broad range of other matters.

In the first year of the Kennedy Administration I watched these manifold activities of the Attorney General from the outside, for the purpose of writing a profile of him for the New York Times Magazine. It was not an altogether admiring portrait (that word “ruthless” again, among other reservations), and some of Bobby’s associates made known their dislike of it. But if the Attorney General was displeased, he apparently carried no grudge. Several months later I found myself appointed by his brother to a post in the State Department, and for a couple of years thereafter I enjoyed amiable though limited relations with Robert Kennedy. This period began after the Bay of Pigs disaster had welded the brotherly bond even tighter, if that was possible, and Robert made it his business to protect the President from bad advice, from rivalries within the government and the self-serving interests of various sectors of the bureaucracy. The protective and demanding Bobby was at work behind the scenes all over the capital. On those occasions when I saw him in action, in Cabinet or ad hoc meetings at the White House or the State Department, he usually sat and listened quietly, rarely speaking, and if so, softly and to the point. He gave the appearance even of shyness. In any event, in those infrequent instances, I saw no sign of the brashness or arrogance of legend. There were, though, many manifestations of his activities.

One that is brought more clearly into focus in this book was the hostility of some, though not all, of President Kennedy’s advisers toward the Department of State in general and its chief, Dean Rusk, in particular. Mr. Schlesinger, as he has done in earlier writings, here makes clear his own low opinion of Dean Rusk’s role in the New Frontier. By his telling, Robert Kennedy shared it to a considerable degree. This could not have made the conduct of foreign policy any easier, and it may help to explain why so much of what grew into the Vietnam involvement emanated from the much-admired Robert McNamara’s Pentagon rather than from Dean Rusk’s State.

The Attorney General was principal apostle of the Administration’s “counter-insurgency” program, under which many of us at State and Defense were supposed to take consciousness-raising training in the techniques of helping other governments resist subversion. It seemed to some of us a silly exercise (few of us had time to attend the lectures). Fostered not by military men but by gung-ho civilians such as Roger Hilsman and Walt Rostow, it represented a kind of thinking that fertilized the notion that the United States could help the South Vietnamese run the Communists out of their country.

Another of Robert Kennedy’s undertakings remained unbeknown to most of us until the recent Church Committee hearings into government intelligence activities. It grew out of the Administration’s fixation on ridding the Western Hemisphere of Fidel Castro’s baleful influence, if not of Castro himself. It was code-named Operation Mongoose. Before it collapsed in the looming of the Cuban missile crisis, it had developed into a loathsome marriage of the CIA and some Mafiosa for the purpose of assassinating the Cuban leader. Schlesinger relates the shoddy story and Robert Kennedy’s involvement in it and labels it his “most conspicuous folly.”

If Mongoose was folly, the missile crisis was a time of courage and glory for Robert Kennedy. Schlesinger’s version of the much-told story is cogent and dramatic. He rejects, altogether properly, in my opinion, two conflicting theories, one that the resolution of the crisis was capitulation to Moscow and Havana (the position of Dean Acheson), and the other (the subsequent left-wing characterization) that a macho President had been determined to force a showdown “at whatever risk to mankind.” As one who participated in a part of the deliberations of those perilous thirteen days, I found Schlesinger’s presentation of the crucial role of Robert Kennedy, in facing down the President’s warrior counselors and sensing the path to a successful culmination, accurate and justified. “Thank God for Bobby,” said the President afterward.

The missile crisis was a test of courage and judgment. The murder of John Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was a test of the younger brother’s spirit. “Robert Kennedy . . . had to come to terms with his brother’s death before he could truly resume his own existence,” says Schlesinger. It was a nightmare period. The fellow who used to gambol with the jocks at Harvard, kick ass on the campaign trail, and coldly stare down, win, or cut down those who seemed to hinder his brother’s exercise of power turned for solace not so much to his Catholic faith as to the GreeksEuripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus. He came out of it, his biographer concludes, an even bolder and a fatalistic man, and it released in him, or induced, a quality of compassion theretofore undiscernible outside the tight Kennedy circle. Schlesinger asks us to believe that in the fourth decade of his life, Robert Kennedy began experiencing a profound transformation. Not, however, at the expense of his opportunistic streak or his competitiveness.

Here, in the final third of the narrative, RFK returns to the fray. Hoover continues to play his villainous role, poisoning the mind of the new President with whispers of Kennedy machinations to depose LBJ in the next election. Johnson himself stands in these pages as more monster than man, hating Robert Kennedy for what he considered to be his slighting treatment of John Kennedy’s Vice President and fearing him as the younger man slowly but surely began to break with Johnson’s policies, particularly his escalation of the Kennedy Administration’s already dangerous venture into the Vietnamese swamp. The hatred was mutual, yet Robert Kennedy and some of his advisers, incredibly, clung to the belief that Johnson might be persuaded or forced to accept RFK as his vice presidential running mate in 1964. Bobby vacillated, sought advice. (“ ‘Take it! Take it!’ General Douglas MacArthur told him. ‘He won’t live. He gambled on your brother and won. You gamble on him and you’ll win.’ ”) Of course that grotesque incongruity was not to be. Shortly before the Democratic convention of 1964, Robert Kennedy made his final break with Lyndon Johnson and embarked on his next adventure, as a U.S. senator for New York and leader of the state’s Democratic party.

What had been apparent to only a few before was beginning now to become clear to growing numbers, especially among the young: the Vietnam War was not only drawing the United States into frightful military commitment; it was tearing apart American society. In contemplating this almost a decade ago, remembering my own experience in government (1962 to mid1964), when JFK increased the complement of American advisers from 600 to 15,000, I wrote: “It is profitless to wonder what might have happened in Vietnam if John Kennedy had lived. I share the instinct of those who believe his temperament would have saved him from the great involvement brought on by Lyndon Johnson.” Mr. Schlesinger expresses certainty of this, but his certainty is based on not much more than my surmise was. I like to think we were right.

In any event, the war went on. It pitted sons and daughters against mothers and fathers. The draft put blacks and poor whites into uniform and kept the well-to-do in college. The Johnson Administration’s determination to finance a war and a businessas-usual budget without raising taxes undermined the economy and shredded the promise of a Great Society. The disinherited seethed with discontent.

With that rent social fabric as his mainsail, the brother of the slain President cast off on his last voyage. He was slow and uncharacteristically indecisive about it. Eugene McCarthy, the Pied Piper of the sixties who was to become the pouting dropout of the seventies, set sail first and, with the help of the Viet Cong’s Tet offensive, made the waves that drove Lyndon Johnson to the shoals.

The reader does not need to accept— and many will not—Arthur Schlesinger’s lyrical assessment of the Robert Kennedy of 1968 in order to realize that he had indeed become a formidable man, a romantic given to musing that, if he had not been born rich, he would have become a revolutionary, like Ché Guevara. Yet he was a practical politician who saw that conventional politics was not working and conventional liberalism was moving toward impotence if not bankruptcy. He had become, by Schlesinger’s rating, “the most original, enigmatic and provocative figure in midcentury American politics.”

Kennedy’s late-in-life affinity with blacks, Chicanos, Indians, the Appalachian poor, and the urban downtrodden became the engine of his last campaign. The realist in him surely knew that this was not a sufficient base on which to build a victory, that he would have to capture the Democratic regulars and win a following in the better-off society from which he was demanding redress for the underclass. Could he have done it? And if so, which of the two Roberts would have dominated? Implicit in Robert Kennedy and His Times is his biographer’s belief that he would have been a great President, probably more effective than Jack. No one will ever know, for the story ends by a simple grave in Arlington cemetery—and the times are no better than they were when Robert Kennedy rode proudly behind his brother on January 20,1961, from the Capitol to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.