A Man for This Season: Robert F. Kennedy, From Conservative to Revolutionary
A Book Review
Bobby Kennedy, A Raging Spirit
Simon & Schuster, 2017, 352 pp.
by Angela Vullo
Jan. 29, 2018—My purpose in this review, like that of author Matthews, is to address the question of Robert F. Kennedy’s true identity in American politics. I believe that Matthews, proceeding chronologically, provides an accurate and passionate account of Bobby’s life for this purpose, showing RFK’s transformation from a fighter for his brother Jack’s political career and against corruption, into an anti-war activist and relentless fighter for economic and social justice. Matthews interweaves his own story as a college student engaging in the political struggle of the 1960s. He conveys Kennedy’s development with beautiful quotations that characterize his struggle for change, both personally and socially. Bobby Kennedy professed that “America needed to be good, not just great.” He sought to achieve that goal in a life that was truly Shakespearian, from the tragedy of his brother’s death, to his becoming a political leader, and ending with his own assassination.
Matthews divides Bobby’s life into two parts, before Dallas and after Dallas, the site of the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. I add a third section, the 82 days of Bobby Kennedy’s run for president, where he makes another qualitative shift in his life’s direction.
His Presidential campaign marked a sharp transformation in Robert Kennedy’s life, where he rose to assume the mantle of leadership of the severely wounded, but still very strong, movement associated previously with Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the equally martyred Martin Luther King. In his campaign announcement, Bobby threw down the gauntlet against the forces of evil that were destroying the nation:
I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done—and I feel that I’m obliged to do all that I can.” “I run to seek new policies—policies to end the bloodshed in Vietnam and in our cities, policies to close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country, and around the rest of the world. I run for the presidency because I want the Democratic Party and the United States of America to stand for hope instead of despair, for reconciliation of men instead of the growing risk of world war.
Matthews, who has written two books on John Kennedy, believes that “Jack had the charm,” “Bobby the conscience.” Bobby Kennedy was often called “the most Irish of the Kennedy clan” and was also described as religious, yet ruthless. His moral fiber was rooted in his Catholic upbringing and his feistiness due to his being almost the runt of the litter; he was the seventh child and the third son. He always saw himself as the underdog, seeking his father’s approval, although usually at odds with him. According to his father, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., Bobby was “the most generous little boy.” The inveterate Wall Street swindler continued, “I don’t know where he got that from.”
Other family members and associates testify to Bobby’s sense of morality from a very young age. His mother Rose said he had an “ability to make difficult decisions,” although she feared that he might be too open and vulnerable. His friend from Milton Academy, a New England boy’s prep school, David Hackett, described his friend’s “impulsive fearlessness.” “It was this readiness to do what others would be afraid to do. From the moment I met him I knew he would embarrass his friends,” Hackett said. “I think what he did have was always compassion for other people who had problems. I think what he never had compassion for was . . . wealth that was not used properly by the privileged.” Bobby had a natural gift for human charity, or what is known as agapé. He loved people, especially children. (He had 11 himself!)
But let us review how these characteristics came to the fore in his political career.
I. Before Dallas
Bobby prided himself on being a tough guy, beginning with his crucial political fight to get Jack elected to the U.S. Senate in 1952. When Jack asked him to be his campaign manager, it meant Bobby would have to leave Washington for Massachusetts. His wife Ethel commented that he did it for one reason; “He loved his brother. It was a very tough thing for him to do because he felt like he was on his way to making a name for himself (as a prominent lawyer in the U.S. Senate.) He went up, and it was a big sacrifice.”
In December 1952, Bobby was appointed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, as assistant to general counsel. As the Catholic Church at the time was leading a campaign against Soviet aggression, Bobby mistakenly saw McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade as a righteous cause. He and Jack both liked McCarthy’s rebellious spirit and believed that he was fighting the establishment.
Bobby made many enemies during his work with McCarthy; as his sister Eunice commented, he had a “gift for estrangement.” Just before his death, Senator Ted Kennedy commented on Bobby’s loyalty to McCarthy: “He was castigated repeatedly for this, but he probably could not have made himself behave otherwise. Loyalty was one of my brother’s greatest virtues, and he would not toss over a friend just because he had fallen out of favor with the world.”
Bobby did, however, always hate McCarthy’s chief counsel Roy Cohn. He resigned his Subcommittee position on July 31, 1953 (after 6 months), and was later hired by Senator John McClellan as Democratic counsel to the Subcommittee. Cohn thought Bobby took the job to go after him.
Bobby Finds His Moral Compass
In May 1960 the Kennedy brothers realized they had to start paying attention to civil rights. Bobby was now his brother’s presidential campaign manager. He proclaimed, “We’re in trouble with Negroes. We really don’t know much about the whole thing. We’ve been dealing outside the field of the main Negro leadership and have to start from scratch.”
An opportunity for action came in October 1960, when Rev. Martin Luther King and a group of student protestors were arrested in Atlanta. While the protestors were released, King was sentenced to six months at hard labor. Presidential candidate John Kennedy reached out to Coretta Scott King, who was pregnant at the time, to express his concern and offer to help. John and Bobby realized that this would cause consternation among the conservative Democratic establishment and voters in the Deep South, but King’s courageous plight moved John F. Kennedy to support the embattled family. Kennedy’s call to Mrs. King has been considered a “game changer” in his presidential campaign. Bobby, who was slow to respond to the “legal” railroad of the civil rights fighters, became incensed with the judge’s action. “The more I thought about the injustice of it all, the more I thought what a son of a bitch that judge was.”
As Bobby began to change, civil rights leader Harry Belafonte acknowledged: “At last Bobby’s moral center seemed to stir.”
In January 1961, when James Meredith applied to integrate the University of Mississippi, Bobby issued a ringing endorsement of Meredith’s stand, calling it “the mightiest struggle of our time.”
A New Spirit to Government
When John Kennedy was elected President in one of the closest and highly contested races ever, chief campaign manager Bobby felt vindicated. He declared: “We’re going to do what we thought Eisenhower was going to do in 1952 and never did – bring a new spirit to the government.”
He proposed to bring in “not necessarily young men, but new men, who believe in a cause, who believe their jobs go on forever, not just from 9-5,” those “who believe they have a responsibility to the United States, not just to an administration, and who can really get things done.” This theme was echoed in his brother’s inaugural address, where President Kennedy issued the challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”
President Kennedy appointed Bobby Attorney General. Bobby was known for his ruthlessness in going after villains and enemies, and a take-no-prisoners policy. Not sure where else he would fit in, Bobby accepted the position. Once asked “What would you have been if not born a Kennedy?,” he answered: “Perhaps a juvenile delinquent, or a revolutionary.”
As the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Bobby continued to fight for civil rights. He sent letters to law schools saying that the Department of Justice was open to hiring black graduates. He intervened into many tough fights. In April 1963 when Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham, Bobby as Attorney General got him released from prison. Both Kennedy brothers intervened into the Alabama school conflict with Governor George Wallace, attempting to get him to integrate the schools.
Recognizing the urgency of the Administration playing a greater role in civil rights, Bobby solicited the black author, James Baldwin, to call a meeting in New York City for an open discussion. In May Bobby spoke with the group of prominent civil rights leaders Baldwin had assembled. “We have a party in revolt,” he said, referring to Southern White Democrats. “And we have to be somewhat considerate about how to keep them aboard if the Democratic Party is going to prevail in the next election.” He appealed for unity among blacks and whites to defend the country.
His appeal was not endorsed, due to the rage of young black leaders, including over being asked to fight in Vietnam. Jerome Smith, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) member and Freedom Rider, attacked the Department of Justice. “What you’re asking us young black people to do is pick up guns against people in Asia while you have continued to deny us our rights. When Smith was asked if he would defend his country, he said, “Never, Never, Never!! These are poor people who did nothing to us. They’re more my brothers than you are.”
Bobby was stunned: “You won’t fight for your country. How can you say that?”
But the meeting had a strong impact on the Attorney General. Days after, Kennedy even admitted: “If I’d gone through what he’s gone through, I might feel differently about this country.”
On June 1963, as he forced Alabama Governor George Wallace to permit blacks to enter the University of Alabama or face Federal military action, President Kennedy, at Bobby’s insistence, gave a fourteen minute speech on nationwide TV entitled “A Report to the American People on Civil Rights.” The president’s historic presentation, which included his announcing of his Civil Rights Act banning discrimination, centered on the principle of “All men are created equal.” He placed it in the context of Lincoln freeing the slaves.
One hundred and fifty years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves. Yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
Reports are that MLK rejoiced at the speech. Yet, as the murder of Medgar Evers the next day showed, the fight had a long way to go.
Besides Bobby Kennedy’s involvement in civil rights, his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis was probably his most heroic and ingenious contribution to his brother’s presidency. This was the height of the Kennedy brothers’ collaboration. Both Kennedys knew that any nuclear missile launched at the United States from Cuba would undoubtedly trigger a nuclear war with Russia—nuclear World War III. Jack had read Barbara Tuchman’s book “The Guns of August”, and they were both aware of the danger. They were not about to make the same mistake as Japan did in attacking Pearl Harbor. However, they were caught in a paradox. They were sandwiched between two enemies, Soviet anti-U.S. hardliners on one side, and the U.S. hardliners on the other. Global conflict seemed inevitable.
Resolving this dilemma required the highest level of creative reason. Bobby’s analysis, as recounted in his book on the topic Thirteen Days, stressed “the importance of placing ourselves in the other country’s shoes.” “Weigh each step, think ahead, never back the adversary into a corner that could prove ultimately dangerous to both sides,” he wrote. In Raging Spirit, Matthews portrays Bobby’s fundamental insights into this most horrific of situations.
In Thirteen Days, Bobby further elaborated the President’s intentions “not to humiliate the Soviet Union, not to have them feel they would have to escalate their response because their security or national interest so committed them.”
Jack tasked Bobby with coming up with a solution to the crisis which would avoid military action. Bobby proposed to “quarantine”/blockade Cuba from further escalation, and open the door for dismantling the provocative missiles. It was ingenious. With the threat of quarantine in his back pocket, Jack made the offer to his counterpart Nikita Khrushchov to dismantle the missiles. Through a backchannel, Jack offered to dismantle the U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey, Russia’s backyard, in exchange. Over two consecutive days, the Soviets sent two differing responses. In another stroke of genius, Bobby advised his brother to accept the first agreement to the proposal, and disregard the second, highly provocative refusal of the U.S. entreaty. That night Bobby was sent by his brother to meet with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to consolidate the agreement. The United States would remove its missiles from Turkey within five months, but none of this was to be made public. These bold actions stopped the crisis, and cemented the reputation of the brothers as among the greatest peacemakers in history.
Both John and Bobby had every intention to carry on their legacy. The plan was to run Bobby for President in 1972, after John won his second term in 1968.
However, their enemies in the Anglo-American establishment never forgave them. They would both pay with their lives.
II. After Dallas
A Tragedy within a Tragedy
On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. Everything changed–for the nation, the world, and certainly for Robert F. Kennedy. Bobby thought it would be him. As he had devoted his entire life to his brother up to that point, in effect, he died too on that day. According to The Seattle Times reporter Ed Guthman, “His eyes were haunted, his complexion ashen and his mood desolate and stoic. The center of his life had been shot away; the brother he had idolized, to whom he had given so much and with whom he had worked so hard. For a dozen years he had been immersed in advancing his brother’s career and the causes for which his brother stood, with no thought about what he would be doing at 35, 45, or 50.”
“He looked to me like a man who is just intense pain,” reporter John Seigenthaler recalled. “Hurt, I mean, you know—just physically hurt.” Lem Billings, a close family friend, referred to Bobby’s near-paralyzing grief: “Everything was pulled out from under him.” His brother Ted said, “It veered close to being a tragedy within a tragedy.” He feared for his brother’s survival.
Jackie Kennedy came to Bobby’s aid by recommending that he immerse himself in the Greek Classics. Aeschylus, the ancient Greek tragedian, soon became his favorite. Kennedy found solace in the words, “He who learns must suffer.”
Turning point: Into the U.S. Senate
By January 1964, Kennedy’s outlook began to turn around. He found himself in Tokyo giving a speech quoting Dante “that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis maintain their neutrality . . .”It’s not sufficient to say, “Well, I don’t think I like the way things are going. We have a responsibility to offer alternatives.”
In a major decision he announced his campaign for U.S. Senate. Although he had been extensively involved in politics, he had never run for office himself. He was elected as Senator from New York that year.
It was now time for Bobby to find his own identity. So far, he had been walking in his brother’s footsteps. He ran his Senate campaign in a positive way, focusing on civil rights and his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was no longer the “Irish cop.” He even changed his view on capital punishment after reading Camus. He realized that “it harms the survivors of the executed in the same way as a victim’s were.” He now was more concerned with life’s victims rather than bringing down felons. As he read through Jack’s notepads, he saw the word “poverty” scrawled in large letters. He concluded that abolishing poverty was his brother’s unfinished agenda, and it was one he would pursue.
1966 was a critical year for Bobby in both the fight against poverty and the Vietnam War. February saw the outbreak of the Watts race riots, and the Senate Hearings on Vietnam, which, for the first time, gave the American people a picture of the horrors of the Vietnam War.
In March he went to California, and met Cesar Chavez, the activist for migrant farmers. They became fast friends.
Kennedy Addresses Global Discrimination
In June 1966, Kennedy traveled to Cape Town, South Africa and delivered a speech characterized by Matthews as his greatest. Bobby equated South Africa’s quest for freedom from the British and the Dutch with the American colonies’ fight for independence. Before 18,000 people, he spoke on global discrimination as part of “A Day of Affirmation on Academic and Human Freedom.”
Speaking on the different forms of discrimination, he said,
They are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfections of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, the defectiveness of our sensibility toward the suffering of our fellows; they mark the limit of our ability to use knowledge for the well being of our fellow human beings around the world. And, therefore they call upon common qualities of conscience and indignation a shared determination to wipe away the unnecessary sufferings of our fellow human beings at home and around the world.
Bobby called on the world’s youth, which he said was “not a time of life but a state of mind,” to join the cause of greater human fairness.
He further remarked: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
I think it is fair to say, that it was this kind of thinking that defined his short, yet powerful presidential run.
Vietnam: Bobby Takes a Stand
By 1967, 400,000 U.S. troops were in South Vietnam; 6,000 U.S. troops had been killed in 1966. As anti-war protests grew, it was time for RFK to break with Lyndon Baines Johnson. In January, Bobby traveled to France and met with President Charles De Gaulle. De Gaulle advised him, “Do not become embroiled in the difficulty in Vietnam.” De Gaulle urged him to stand aside and help his country to “regain its proper mission.” In line with this advice, Bobby identified himself as leading an anti war movement.
In a parallel move, in April Martin Luther King came out in condemnation of the Vietnam War as an unjust war, in which America’s poor were being forced to fight and die.
During this same spring, Kennedy visited the Mississippi Delta, and was confronted by dimensions of poverty beyond anything he had ever imagined. Upon returning home to his family, he proclaimed, “Everything I have done in my life has been a waste.”
In October 1967, in New York City, there was a pre-meeting on whether or not Kennedy should run for president. Nothing definite was decided. He asked himself: “Will my candidacy accomplish anything? I don’t want to run as a gesture.” But he was being driven to run not just by the war, but by the economic inequality and injustice that confronted him.
III. The Presidential Campaign
To Be or Not To Be
On March 16, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for president. He attempted to work with the other anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy, to defeat LBJ, but McCarthy refused. RFK’s approach was to convince the United States to admit its mistake in Vietnam. “But past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation. All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong and repairs the evil.”
His first campaign event was at the University of Kansas in Topeka. There he announced the overarching theme of his candidacy, which was a quest to repair “the natural soul of the United States.”
Around that same time, Kennedy identified the deadly countercultural paradigm shift already underway in the United States: “Our young people, the best educated and the best comforted in our history turn from the Peace Corps and the public commitment of a few years ago to lives of disengagement and despair – many of them turned on with drugs and turned off on America.” He also observed the economic shift, that personal excellence and community values were being replaced with “accumulation of material things.” He insisted that the conditions of life for the “unknowns”–the children of the Mississippi Delta, the poor whites of Appalachia (see this video), the Native Americans, and the Black Ghettos–were “unacceptable.” However, despite his focus on the economic injustice, his opposition to the war got him the greatest support.
“What a Piece of Work is a Man!”
Bobby was now leading a broad-based revolt; it was against the war, poverty, drugs, violence, and the draft. In the view of Richard Harwood of the Washington Post, “RFK was trying to win the nomination by revolution.”
Lyndon Johnson believed that RFK would reclaim the throne in honor of his brother’s memory; he dropped out, and threw his support to Hubert Humphrey.
On April 4, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. Bobby was scheduled to speak at a campaign event in Indianapolis that day. Even before the tragic event occurred, there was serious concern in Indianapolis among law enforcement and the city fathers as to whether Kennedy’s presence would result in violence. Kennedy’s campaign had turned into a kind of moral crusade, and his supporters and opposition were both intense.
Upon hearing of King’s murder, and despite warnings that security could not be guaranteed, he chose to go ahead with the event. He threw out his notes, and spoke from the heart. He addressed the crowd on a very personal and profound level. It was regarded as one of Kennedy’s greatest speeches, and is played over and over in his memory.
Kennedy extemporaneously spoke:
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in service to that cause. In this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.
For those who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed—but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond or go beyond these rather difficult times.
Bobby then recited his favorite Aeschylus poem:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
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, a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country—whether they be white or they be black.
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago; to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.
It was the first and only time, Kennedy referred to what happened on November 22, 1963 from a personal standpoint. Riots broke out in a hundred American cities, not Indianapolis.
Over the next two months Bobby was on a crusade, best captured by one of his favorite songs, “The Impossible Dream”. Although he knew that the odds were against him, he believed he was fighting for the nation, and nothing could stop him. It was almost as if something greater was guiding him. In an environment, highly charged by both the assassination of Dr. King and anti-war protests, he was a man driven by the fight for justice. The most vulnerable parts of the population rallied to the man who they believed was their new savior. Bobby gave himself to the crowds, in a selfless and fearless way, despite believing that he would also be killed. But he knew that he had to put himself among the people, and not just go on television. His campaign was known for the long motorcades, where he plunged himself directly into the outstretched hands of millions of Americans desperate for hope. Despite the energy which drove him, the physical and emotional strain was taking its toll; his hands would constantly shake, he was growing increasingly fatigued, and his face was lined beyond his forty-two years.
Days before his assassination, he called his long-time close confidant Ken O’Donnell, acknowledging, “You know, I feel now for the first time that I’ve shaken off the shadow of my brother. I feel that I made it on my own.”
Exactly two months, after the assassination of Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy was gunned down just after speaking about his primary election victory at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. While lying on his death bed, he asked, “Is everyone else all right?”
My only criticism of Matthew’s book is that I wanted the coverage of Bobby’s presidential campaign to be longer. It was only twenty pages. Perhaps, like most Americans, I just hoped that it would never end. There doesn’t seem to be an abundance of documented campaign speeches, as most were extemporaneous, but the intensity of Kennedy’s actions was heroic, and the response electric.
Despite the extraordinary circumstances of his life, RFK was compelled to act in a way most people would not even aspire to, let alone have the emotional commitment to sustain. Bobby was there not to be liked. His intention was to win the “repair of the soul of America.” He harnessed the ruthless energy he was known for to change himself for the good of mankind as he understood it. The morality that defined him was always at his core. His compassion for the suffering of others merely deepened. He believed that he was the only one who could do what the country needed, despite the fact it was outside of the world of “practical politics.”
Matthews writes, “Bobby was never to get his moment as the country’s leader. There was no Robert Kennedy era. What there was—and what remains vibrant in his legacy—was spirit.” Jackie said, “History made Jack what he was.” In a very different way it also made Bobby. At key existential moments in our nation’s history, whether it was the civil rights movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the dire events of 1968, he made the critical creative breakthroughs to change history’s course. Bobby, unquestionably, made his mark. And suffice it to say, the country has never recovered from the horrendous turn of events of 1968, including his assassination.
Found on RFK’s desk after his death was a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which had the following passage highlighted: “If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of revolution; when the old and new stand side by side and admit of being compared; when the energies of all men are searched by fear and by hope; when the historic glories of the old can be compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era? This time, like all times, is a very good one if we what to do with it.”
Robert F. Kennedy achieved his goal as a revolutionary, not just in words, but in deeds. He was a true warrior-angel. He was of his time, but also beyond his time, already calling for the promise of a new era.
2018 puts our country at a similar crossroads as 1968. After fifty years of death and decadence, we have the hope once again of a new era. We must ask ourselves, as Bobby Kennedy uniquely and courageously did, who will answer the call?