“Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit” by Chris Matthews; Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $17.
There once was a presidential candidate who demonstrated compassion, attempted to bridge the social and racial divide in America and sought peace not war. This was Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Chris Matthews paints a powerful portrait of the attorney general, senator and presidential candidate in his glowing biography. Reading it, one is overwhelmed with nostalgia for a time when our leaders inspired admiration and service.
The author attributes Kennedy’s compassion for the underdog to his age order in a family of nine. The seventh child, third among sons, he followed two spectacular brothers. The runt of the litter was shy and dogmatic. Life’s lessons would transform him into a charismatic and realistic leader.
While at the University of Virginia Law School, Bobby showed sensitivity to race issues in America. As president of the UVA Legal Forum, he had invited Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, to speak on campus. When segregationists objected, Bobby petitioned the university president and won. Bunche appeared and the audience was integrated. This was unheard of in the South in 1951.
After law school, Bobby became an assistant to Senator Joe McCarthy, the country’s most celebrated hunter of Communists and head of the Committee on Government Operations. From this experience, he learned the hard way to go for the facts not the headlines. Never call a witness until his testimony had been investigated. Second, show respect for all those being investigated. He applied these rules when he became chief counsel for the “Rackets Committee” and began his lifelong pursuit of Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters.
Kennedy’s greatest contribution as Attorney General to his brother, President Kennedy, was in the area of civil rights. During the 1960 campaign, Bobby was against the idea of his brother the candidate phoning Coretta Scott King in support of Dr. King who was in prison. After reflection, Bobby’s opinion changed, as it would again in the future, to a more liberal position. This phone call was pivotal in influencing African-American voters to vote for candidate Kennedy. Racial injustice became intolerable to Bobby.
Bobby’s turning point in the civil rights movement occurred during the Freedom Riders arrival in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1961. As Attorney General, he sent his administrative assistant John Seigenthaler to prevent violence. When Seigenthaler was beaten, the struggle became personal to Bobby. Harry Belafonte observed, “At last, Bobby’s moral center seemed to stir.”
Kennedy’s other goals as Attorney General were to take on organized crime in America and avenge the national sense of humiliation over the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Fighting the mob and Communism became an obsession with the Attorney General.
The assassination of his brother shattered Bobby Kennedy to the point that his family feared for his mental health. Suddenly, the focus of his personal battle against his foes: Castro and Jimmy Hoffa shifted. The focus became instead a battle for the oppressed. A meeting with Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers, was instant chemistry. His feelings for the poor intensified and he grew and was changed by the experience.
His tour of Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant in 1966 led him to speak out on the issues of poverty and race. It was on his trip to the Mississippi Delta after viewing the grinding poverty in its residents that he exclaimed, “My God, I didn’t know this kind of thing existed!” Impoverished whites in Appalachia, Indians on reservations all became his focus now, not Communism or organized crime.
He asked a child psychiatrist to testify before a Senate subcommittee about the brutal and long-lasting effects of extreme poverty on young children. That psychiatrist described him as follows: “He had a willingness to put himself in the shoes of others, as well as walk in his own.”
If addressing poverty in America became his passion, ending the Vietnam War became his impetuous for entering the presidential race of 1968. In 1968, De Gaulle had told him, “I am an old man and I have lived through many battles and wear many scars. So listen to me closely…Do not become embroiled in the difficulty in Vietnam.”
This book helped me to understand why the young people who supported antiwar candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy resented the sudden entry of Bobby into the race after McCarthy’s strong showing against President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. McCarthy was the first adult who gave a voice to the young people fighting the draft for a foreign war, a draft that disproportionately affected the poor, the uneducated and minorities. Bobby’s ego refused to allow him to support McCarthy. He entered the race despite the objections and warnings of his family and advisers.
Nonetheless, Bobby’s campaign spread like wildfire through the primary states. Indiana fell, followed by Nebraska. A strong showing in Oregon began the road to California. In the words of civil rights leader John Lewis, people treated him “like he was some rock star.” A hysteria and excitement overtook crowds who greeted him. “Frightening” one historian observed. The crowds were comprised of blacks, whites, Hispanics,young people, blue collar and blue bloods. It was a coalition of political support not seen since in America.
After winning the California primary of June 5, 1968, Bobby’s journey came to a violent halt.
This book makes the reader yearn for candidates of both parties who are willing to leave their studio debate forums and venture out into our inner cities, hollows and reservations to witness hardship and be moved. Bobby Kennedy’s raging spirit was.
Andrea M. Alonso is a partner in the law firm of Morris Duffy Alonso & Faley.