It’s nearly fifty years since Robert Kennedy was shot as he walked through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The date was 5 June 1968; and he had just won a narrow victory in the California Democratic primary. The gunman, Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant angry about Kennedy’s support for Israel, fired three shots at close range. Kennedy died the next day. For millions of Americans of a certain age the trauma has never quite gone away. For them Kennedy was a secular saint, a liberal icon who, had he lived, would have ended the war in Vietnam, and brought racial healing and social justice to America.
It’s a powerful idea, even if it depends on a surviving RFK winning the Democratic nomination and then the presidential election, and it animates Larry Tye’s absorbing new biography. In the current American political moment, with its corrosive polarisation and its deep and pervasive cynicism about politics and politicians, even normally sober-minded observers are pining for a political superhero, someone who will rise up from the muck to summon Americans’ better angels and cause them to reunite in common purpose. Someone, that is to say, like Robert Kennedy, onto whom we can project our hopes for something better than we have at present.
That Kennedy was a complex, at times contradictory individual only adds to his allure, as does the fact that he was a Zelig figure who was at the centre of many of the major developments of the postwar era – from McCarthyism to the civil rights movement, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Vietnam War. We want to know this man, who was his brother’s right hand and alter ego, who fell into depression following Jack’s assassination in November 1963 only to pick himself up and carry on, and who was himself cut down just as he was reaching for the ultimate political prize.
Biographers often speak of his having a split personality. There was ‘Good Bobby’, who was introspective and passionate and cared deeply about others and about righting injustice; and there was ‘Bad Bobby’, devious and ferocious and hyper-ambitious, who went after his opponents ruthlessly whether they were real or imagined, first on behalf of Joe McCarthy and then in the service of JFK’s campaigns for the Senate and the presidency, and who to the end was a self-interested and calculating figure, fearful of failure and of his father’s disapproval. Tye rejects this Manichean interpretation. Acknowledging what he calls the ‘duelling aspects of Bobby’s political soul’, he describes a man who matured, not merely in the wake of his brother’s death but over the course of his adult life, developing a taste for irony and complexity and an intense sympathy for other people’s suffering. This, for Tye, is what gives such power to the question of what might have been. The ‘liberal icon’ of the book’s subtitle was in actuality not confined by liberalism; on the contrary, Tye argues, Kennedy’s extraordinary appeal in his final years lay precisely in his ability to bridge gaps, between urban workers and suburban professionals, between rich and poor, between white and black and Latino. By his willingness to change and to transcend the standard political categories, Tye’s Kennedy could have become America’s ‘high priest of reconciliation’.
The seventh of the nine children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, he grew up in an environment in which winning was the thing that mattered. Second place, Joe constantly preached to his children, was for losers. Like many of those who have written about the Kennedy clan, Tye gives insufficient due to Rose’s role in her children’s development, even as he acknowledges that the undersized, buck-toothed Bobby was her favourite, ‘in part because he needed her the most’. Tye believes it was his father’s approval that Bobby pined for. He worked indefatigably to get noticed, to stand out, to be more than the ‘runt of the litter’, as Joe called him. ‘I wish, dad, that you would write me a letter as you used to Joe’ – his eldest brother – ‘and Jack about what you think about the different political events and the war as I’d like to understand what’s going on better than I do now,’ a teenage Kennedy wrote to his father. It was more a plea for recognition than for news, Tye observes, and the boy was delighted when Joe responded with a two-and-a-half page letter.
In 1951, fresh out of law school, Kennedy landed his first job – thanks to a phone call from his father – with the US Justice Department. More consequential for his future was an extended trip to Asia he took that fall with Jack and their sister Patricia to burnish JFK’s foreign-policy credentials in advance of a run for the Senate the following year. The brothers had not been particularly close – the eight-year age gap was just too great – but the seven-week tour, which included stops in French Indochina, Thailand, Singapore, Korea and Japan, created a bond that would be unbreakable.
When a year later Jack launched his seemingly quixotic challenge to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr, RFK ran the campaign and, Tye suggests, was crucial to its success: although the Democrats’ presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, lost Massachusetts by a wide margin, JFK beat Lodge by 71,000 votes, ‘thanks’, as Tye puts it, ‘to Bobby’s unrelenting and nearly flawless campaign to identify his brother’s supporters and get them to the polls’. That seems a stretch. Tye sometimes overreaches in crediting RFK with his brother’s political successes; in the first instance these had to do with JFK’s own capacity for hard work, his personal magnetism, and his underappreciated ability to speak directly to voters’ aspirations.
RFK’s subsequent stint as assistant counsel on McCarthy’s investigative subcommittee is widely considered a black mark on his career. Tye is at pains to show that he did valuable work for the committee that had nothing to do with hunting down communists (notably in the report he produced on allied governments’ trade with China), but he leaves no doubt that Kennedy shared McCarthy’s fanatical anti-communism; more than that, he shows with unprecedented clarity that RFK retained his fondness for McCarthy, even after McCarthy went off the rails and was censured by the Senate. Kennedy admired McCarthy’s courage in standing up to communism whatever the cost, and blamed any excesses in the investigations on Roy Cohn, the lead counsel, whom Kennedy had despised from the start. ‘The truth is that the early Bobby Kennedy embraced the overheated anti-communism of the 1950s and openly disdained liberals,’ Tye concludes: ‘His job with the Republican senator from Wisconsin not only launched Bobby’s career but injected into his life passion and direction that had been glaringly absent.’ This seems right, though it’s worth noting that not everyone in official Washington bought into the ‘overheated anti-communism’ of the period. JFK, for example, was too pragmatic, too detached, to see world affairs in the black-and-white way his brother did.
Still, the two grew closer and closer as the decade progressed, and few were surprised when Robert assumed the top job in Jack’s presidential campaign in 1960. The story has been told many times, but Tye handles it well, even if he does understate how much work JFK and his aide Theodore Sorensen had done to secure the Democratic nomination before RFK came onboard, barnstorming across the country giving speeches and making connections. Once he became involved RFK showed his worth, driving the campaign staff relentlessly to work harder, to do more. And he was ruthless. It is said that minutes before the first televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon, an anxious Nixon aide asked RFK how the Republican candidate looked. Seeing Nixon’s five o’clock shadow and pale complexion, Kennedy replied: ‘Terrific! Terrific! I wouldn’t change a thing.’ Then he turned to his brother and whispered: ‘Kick him in the balls.’ Little wonder that he would emerge as first among equals in the president’s advisory system, and as attorney general played a principal role in most of the administration’s key policy decisions.
Thus RFK was the administration’s point man on Operation Mongoose, the clandestine effort to overthrow Castro, one of the largest covert operations in CIA history, and in that capacity precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis by making Khrushchev feel it was necessary to install nuclear missiles on the island to ward off a US invasion. In Thirteen Days, his highly influential book on the crisis, RFK would portray himself as a main player in the deliberations of the so-called ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) and a forceful proponent of the peaceful settlement that resulted. The first claim is correct, the second much less so. Whenever the president left the room during the meetings, RFK assumed the role of stand-in; none of the other principals objected. As Robert McNamara’s top deputy Roswell Gilpatric later recalled, ‘in a passive but clearly recognised sense’ RFK was seen by the ExComm as ‘the president’s alternate’. But as Tye rightly notes, RFK was much more hawkish during the crisis than his own book suggested. His behaviour was of a piece with his leadership of Operation Mongoose and his ardent support for ousting or assassinating Castro. From day one of the crisis to the end, the evidence shows, he maintained a provocative and hawkish stance, arguing early on for a full-scale invasion of Cuba. As for the deal RFK helped negotiate to end the crisis, it gave Khrushchev what he’d sought from the start: a pledge that there would be no invasion and an agreement that in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, the Americans would remove theirs from Turkey.
On civil rights, RFK initially hedged his bets, weighing up what the administration could do without risking the anger of Southern governors or segregationists in Congress. Mistrustful of Martin Luther King and keen to keep the civil rights leader at arm’s length from the president, he lapped up Hoover’s claims that King had ties to the communists. But King, a discerning judge, always suspected that Robert Kennedy could be brought round, and he was right. Slowly, RFK grasped that his and his brother’s wariness about helping the civil rights activists in the South was counterproductive and ultimately futile; only the concerted federal action the brothers had carefully avoided could bring the necessary results. Policy took shape accordingly, helping to set the stage for the Civil Rights Act.
Then came Dallas. Robert ‘was the most shattered man I had ever seen in my life’, Pierre Salinger, the administration’s press secretary, recalled of the period after the funeral. ‘He was virtually non-functioning.’ He couldn’t sleep, struggled to concentrate, and stopped caring about his appearance. ‘Jack’s ambitions had been Bobby’s, and now the hero-brother was gone and any earthly goals seemed ephemeral,’ Tye writes. To make matters worse, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson disliked each other intensely. The animosity had been evident since they first met a decade before, and it only grew more intense during JFK’s thousand days in the Oval Office. RFK hadn’t wanted Johnson on the ticket in 1960, and now he was president. ‘The usurper,’ he privately called Johnson, who returned the favour by referring to Kennedy as ‘that little runt’.
And there was something else: a guilt that his actions as attorney general might have been responsible for arousing and stoking the anger that resulted in the killing. After all, what happened in Dallas roughly corresponded to what he had tried to make happen in Havana. RFK didn’t doubt that Oswald pulled the trigger, but then what? Did someone put Oswald up to it? Was it retaliation on Castro’s part? Or by Cubans who loathed the Kennedys for not doing more to oust Castro? Could it have been one of the mobsters whom RFK’s Justice Department had gone after? Or Jimmy Hoffa, the corrupt union boss whom Kennedy had targeted with fanatical zeal and who had promised to get even? Just how much RFK agonised over these possibilities is unknowable, but they must at least have been at the back of his mind. ‘It should have been me,’ he told people close to him.
After his brother’s death, Tye maintains, Kennedy was a changed man: more fatalistic, more tender, more empathetic, more willing to display a raw sensitivity he had previously shown only at home. He became more introspective, he read more, he even contemplated going away to study for six months or a year. I can’t help wondering if the transformation was as complete as Tye wants us to believe. Do people on the cusp of middle age ever change so fundamentally? A different reading of the evidence would say that the RFK who won election to the Senate in 1964 and then plotted to take the White House displays many of the same attributes as the old Bobby: intense personal ambition, cold political calculation, and a fear of failure born of his father’s ‘winning is everything’ parenting philosophy.
On Vietnam, for example, he moved with studious caution. Well aware that his brother had deepened America’s predicament when he stepped up military involvement in 1961-63, he supported the war through 1964 and 1965, even as many senior Senate Democrats privately warned Johnson against large-scale escalation. When in early 1966 he bowed to the urgings of his aides and issued a statement calling for communist forces to be given a share of power and responsibility in South Vietnam, he immediately regretted it and backpedalled, stung by the backlash from administration allies and not wanting to jeopardise his political future. For the remainder of that year Kennedy said nothing about the war; only in March 1967 did he come out in strong opposition, attacking not only American tactics but also the morality of the effort. In an address to the Senate he called on Americans to accept their role in ‘this horror’ and singled out the barbarity of the US bombing campaign: ‘We are not in Vietnam to play the part of an avenging angel pouring death and destruction on the roads and factories and homes of a guilty land.’
By now Kennedy was thinking hard about seeking the presidency the following year. Yet he temporised. Close allies told him the timing was wrong, that he would divide the Democratic Party and hand the election to the Republicans, that he should bide his time until 1972. Tye refers here to Kennedy’s ‘duelling natures’, not as in good Bobby versus bad, but old versus new. ‘Was he the cautious political pro who had stayed in the background on civil rights and vacillated on Vietnam? … Or was he the hot-blooded insurgent he’d become once he recognised the failures of Jim Crow and counterinsurgency?’ The answer was never clear, but when Eugene McCarthy proved in the New Hampshire primary in March that the Democrats were already divided and that Johnson was beatable, RFK jumped in with both feet, late in the game though it was. He was running, he said, to end the struggle in Vietnam, to bring racial harmony in the United States, and to step up the war on poverty.
Could he have won? Tye is too smart a historian to give a definite answer to a counterfactual, but he implies that Kennedy would have been well placed to win the battle for the nomination and then against Nixon in the autumn. Colour me sceptical, at least with respect to the nomination. Kennedy would have needed McCarthy to drop out after his narrow loss to Kennedy in the California primary, but there’s little reason to believe he would have done so. Even if he had, Hubert Humphrey – the vice president – would still have had the inside track to the nomination. I find it difficult to imagine delegates at the Democratic Convention in Chicago rallying to Kennedy – for one thing, the unions and the Southern Democrats mistrusted him; for another, LBJ’s allies would surely have fought hard to keep him from securing the nomination.
Ironically, as Michael Cohen suggested in his recent book American Maelstrom, had Kennedy lived and fought all the way to Chicago, he would in all likelihood have put Humphrey, the eventual nominee, in a better position for the general election. With both McCarthy and Kennedy still in the race, Cohen argues, the pressure on Humphrey to break with Johnson on Vietnam would have been much greater. Johnson of course was deeply opposed to the idea of Kennedy as his successor and would probably have granted Humphrey more leeway to move closer to the anti-war position in order to neutralise Kennedy’s advantage on the issue. Instead, without the competition Kennedy would have provided, Humphrey felt himself tied – until the final weeks of the campaign when it was too late – to Johnson’s position on the war.
Then again, had Kennedy lost in 1968, that wouldn’t necessarily have been the end. Humphrey might have made him his running mate, a shrewd choice that would have posed a formidable challenge to Nixon. And there was always 1972. Kennedy would have been 46 at the start of that campaign, more seasoned, and with no Lyndon Johnson in the picture to cloud his calculations and his judgment. He would have prepared better, entered the race sooner, been a stronger candidate. Perhaps, just perhaps, he would have won and would have realised the vision for his country he had begun to articulate at the time of his death.
As he put it from the back of a pickup truck in Indianapolis on 4 April 1968 – after telling his audience that Martin Luther King had been killed – in words that have lost none of their urgency, half a century later: ‘What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.’