More than 48 years since his death, Robert F. Kennedy’s unfinished legacy still inspires our national debate with his words and ideas. Larry Tye has written a balanced biography that examines him and his transformation from 1950s conservative to 1960s liberal icon. Exploiting tireless research and access to new archival material, the author explains with texture and perceptiveness Kennedy’s evolution and why his message still matters.
Readers of prior Robert Kennedy biographies will find the book worthwhile because of Tye’s deft use of 58 boxes of RFK’s papers that were previously unavailable, probing interviews, refusal to airbrush his subject’s flaws, and masterful storytelling. Impressively, the author’s endnotes and bibliography cover 111 pages.
Prior books such as Victor Navasky’s “Kennedy Justice” (which examined RFK’s 1961-64 tenure as Attorney General) and Thurston Clarke’s “The Last Campaign” (which chronicled his 1968 presidential campaign) remain the definitive accounts of those portions of his life. Supplemented by the new material and mature insights, however, Tye’s book is on par with prior full-scale biographies written by Arthur Schlesinger and Evan Thomas.
To those who are unfamiliar with Robert Kennedy, the book will serve as an excellent introduction to one of the Democratic Party’s most inspirational politicians. Prior to Barack Obama, he was the quintessential Democratic “hope and change” presidential candidate, surpassed only by Franklin Roosevelt.
The seventh child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, he was a “second-rate student” who attended ten schools and repeated the third grade. Overshadowed by his older siblings, he was “neither a natural athlete nor a natural student nor a natural success with girls and had no natural gift for popularity.”
Following an undistinguished undergraduate record at Harvard, he matriculated from the University of Virginia Law School. In 1950, he married Ethel Skakel, with whom he had 11 children. Tye devotes much space in the book exploring RFK as son, brother, husband, and father.
Prior to the fall of 1951, he was not close with his older brother, Jack, then a Boston congressman. The book explains well how he helped repair a rift that fall between Jack and their domineering father, who later arranged a 25,000-mile trip for the brothers to the Mideast and Asia. The trip constituted the first extended time that John and Robert spent together, deepening their relationship. By the spring of 1952, Robert was managing his brother’s successful campaign for the Senate.
One of Robert Kennedy’s paradoxes was his relationship with Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the virulent anticommunist, who was a favorite of Joseph Kennedy. In 1953, McCarthy employed RFK on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. In this post, he did his first important work as a lawyer, preparing a detailed report on allied shipping to Red China during the Korean War. His report pleased McCarthy, who promised a promotion.
Kennedy later whitewashed this portion of his career by stating that he left McCarthy because he disagreed with the senator’s disgraceful tactics. The book reveals that he actually enjoyed his tenure with and looked up to McCarthy, but left because he did not get promoted and disdained the subcommittee’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn.
Tye devotes 35 pages to Kennedy’s first substantial legal position, as chief counsel to the Senate Labor Rackets Committee (1957-59). He was given broad authority by the committee over the subjects of investigation and the interrogation of witnesses at hearings. In his debut on the national scene, he aggressively questioned Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa, beginning their epic rivalry.
In 1960, Kennedy published his first book, “The Enemy Within”, a best-seller which described the corrupt union practices that he had investigated. At 34, he could have launched his own political career, but instead acceded to his father’s wishes to manage his brother’s 1960 presidential campaign.
Much has previously been written on the 1960 campaign, and Tye does a creditable job in his 46-page treatment of it. As the manager of a successful presidential campaign, Kennedy proved ruthless and effective in undercutting his brother’s rivals and covering up his Addison’s Disease.
A strong part of the book covers Robert Kennedy’s years as attorney general. From this post, he juggled an extensive domestic and foreign portfolio, serving as his brother’s most influential cabinet member. At the Justice Department, whose building now bears his name, Robert Kennedy prioritized the prosecution of organized crime, brought 57 voting rights suits, won landmark reapportionment cases, and enforced court orders integrating the Universities of Mississippi and Alabama.
The assassination in November 1963 devastated RFK, both personally and professionally. The book captures the depression and anger that he experienced in the months which followed the tragedy. Although not treated in Robert Caro-like depth, his rivalry with Lyndon Johnson is on full display, particularly in Tye’s discussion of the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where the paranoid Johnson, in his moment of triumph, feared that Kennedy would steal his thunder. Kennedy emerged from his gloom during his 1964 campaign for the U.S. Senate, unseating Kenneth Keating (R-NY).
As senator, Kennedy built his brand in contemplation of a future run for president. Shrewdly using the media, he hit his stride in 1966-67 by delivering a triumphant speech in South Africa about racial justice, supporting Cesar Chavez in California, investigating black poverty in Mississippi, decrying police brutality, and opposing the Vietnam War.
The most unconvincing part of the book is Tye’s attempt to excuse Kennedy’s tardy entrance into the 1968 presidential race. But he makes up for it in his description of his electrifying 85-day campaign, which tragically ended with his shooting on the night he won the California primary.
In describing Robert Kennedy’s legacy, President Ronald Reagan perhaps said it best when he remarked that he aroused the comfortable, exposed the corrupt, remembered the forgotten, inspired his countrymen, and renewed and enriched the American conscience. To borrow the words of Obama, this book “points us down the road that Bobby Kennedy never finished traveling.”