The Kennedys have always been an object of fascination and scrutiny, whether it's JFK’s 1963 assassination, Ted’s bad (and illegal) behavior, or the wrongly forgotten Rosemary. But with a family history marked by such tragedy and scandal, perhaps Robert Kennedy, much like his older brother, was one of its brightest spots. Though he did share some similarities with John—both were liberal-leaning and largely beloved by the public—Bobby was a man and politician all his own. Childhood shyness developed into a sometimes intimidating ferocity in adulthood. As author David Halberstam describes in his biography, this made him different from others of his stature—more emotional, intense, and against the state of American institutions. It was Bobby who understood the need for change in the establishment, and who could channel that understanding into effective action.
Robert Kennedy was many things: the seventh child in a renowned family dynasty, a New York senator, a U.S. attorney general, and a presidential campaign manager. But he was also an advocate for the poor and for civil rights, which earned him the support of the disenfranchised. His promise of a better, more stable future was welcome after the rocky 1960s, and the announcement of his presidential run was received with high hopes.
That promise of a brighter future ultimately went unfulfilled. Following a victory in the California Democratic primary, Bobby was shot and killed by 24-year-old Sirhan Bishara Sirhan on June 5, 1968. At only 42, he left behind a legacy that went beyond his family name—particularly a desire to help the less fortunate, now a pillar of American liberalism.
David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, profiles Robert and his impact on the United States in The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy. The following excerpt offers intimate insight into Robert’s character and more details on what set him apart from so many other politicians.
Read on for an excerpt of The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, and then download the book.
HE WAS AN ODD and beguiling figure. Patrick Anderson had once written that Robert Kennedy was not a simple man, but many simple men; a good description. His reputation was for ruthlessness, yet in 1968, there was no major political figure whose image so contrasted with the reality. Part of it was simply the quality of change. He was a man of constant growth and change, and while journalistic stereotypes are, more often than not, accurate as long as the person involved stands still, they are likely to be several years out of date if he changes as much as Kennedy did. Most politicians seem somewhat attractive from a distance, but under closer examination they fade: the pettiness, the vanities, the little vulgarities come out. This was to hurt McCarthy as the campaign progressed, for some of the young people who worked most directly with him would find some of their enthusiasm dimmed by his lack of generosity, his cool, almost arrogant, introversion. Robert Kennedy was different. Under closer examination he was far more winning than most, with little bitterness or pettiness. For in those days, if one was a Kennedy there was little reason to feel embittered or cheated. There was little false vanity or false modesty because, as a Kennedy, the action swirled around him; he was automatically at the center of things. Even when a Kennedy is out of power his telephone still rings. He seemed like the other Kennedys, still a fresh figure in our politics, which in some measure was a benefit of his wealth. For it is true that having money as a national politician is not so important as not having money. There is a gradual erosion to a politician who lacks wealth—too many years attending too many dinners, asking too many rich men favors, listening to their inanities and then thanking them. Kennedys and Rockefellers are spared that. He was intelligent and knowledgeable about the world; indeed there was now no one in his entourage who knew more of the world. This too was indicative of the change of the past few years; for there were men who had once been major intellectual influences on his brother, who had taught the Kennedys about America and about the world. But Robert Kennedy had passed them by now. There might be people who knew more about one particular country, but none who knew as much about as many things. He had traveled too much, been briefed too often by very able people; he had access again and again to the most powerful and informed people in the world. His was the best education a rich family and a powerful nation could provide. He was quick to admit his own mistakes (the only major figure who had been involved in Vietnam to have done so; a fine index of the intellectual integrity of our times), and curiously fatalistic about himself, for if one is a Kennedy there is a sense that it can all be achieved, but also that it can all be snatched away.
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Thus again and again, during the campaign, reporters would ask him what his long range plans were, and he would answer that you never really knew; you lived day to day; it was all like Russian roulette. He could talk with striking detachment about his own career (though not about John Kennedy’s, that was still emotional. One could easily criticize anything Robert Kennedy had done in his lifetime, but one did not criticize aspects of Jack Kennedy’s career without quickly and sharply changing the tone of the conversation; his voice getting a little icier, the eyes getting a little harder). He could sit one night and talk fatalistically about Indiana, on the eve of the primary, about the people, they had given him at least a fair chance, about the people who hated him in the state, the transplanted Kentuckians, and Tennesseans, out of place, scared for their jobs, scared by the Negroes, scared by Robert Kennedy. Sometimes, he had said that night, you could feel them hate straight at you. “I can understand that.” As for the kids working for McCarthy who hated him, he understood that too. He probably would feel exactly the same if he were one of them; but they were good, weren’t they? What he wouldn’t give to have them on his side. McCarthy had the A lads, the best of them, and that was hard to take. They’ll come back some day, someone said. He answered, Oh, perhaps eventually but it will probably never be the same thing. They may never forgive themselves or me for making it happen.
His sense of humor was very good in small groups and he could be very funny. Yet he often seemed ill at ease in his public appearances, and he performed worst in a sterile television studio without any audience. He performed best under intense critical, indeed emotional, circumstances and under heckling. In public he would be cool toward a business group, unless they were so smug that he was angered, and he would spend long hours with a young people’s group or with Negroes. (Nevertheless, he could, on occasion, flash moments of almost absent-minded rudeness for such a normally sensitive man. A reporter traveling in upstate New York in early 1968 would come across a pleasant congenial Democratic functionary who hated Robert Kennedy with a very special passion. The reason was simple. In 1964 he had driven Kennedy around his section of the state in his own car. Kennedy had sat in the front seat and said to him snappishly, “It’s a little warm in here, would you like the heater turned down, Mister Kennedy?” Kennedy had answered, “Yes, please.”) Conversation with him was never particularly easy, and he was often abrupt. A reporter did not really interview him; at best he talked his way through with him, not so much asking questions as proffering ideas and judging his reactions. “You have to learn to read the pauses,” his former press secretary Ed Guthman once said of him. Young radicals uneasy and distrusting of him would find him interested in their ideas and willing to listen at great length. High ranking labor leaders expecting to tell him about their demands on minimum wage might find themselves questioned sharply, even rudely, on what they were doing to end discrimination in their unions. He lacked Jack Kennedy’s absolute confidence in himself and his charm, and most important, his confidence that he could project that charm. “More than any man I ever knew,” John Kenneth Galbraith once said of Jack Kennedy, he “liked being himself and was at ease with himself.” The people around Robert Kennedy were regularly telling him to loosen up, but it did not come easily: his knuckles would be cracking away, his hands wrestling with each other—he was not a loose man. He was less graceful and more committed than his brother.
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Kennedy had the dual advantage of being rich, which gave him one kind of asset, and of coming from a home where the Anglo-Saxon prejudice against the Irish had generated a rage to succeed and to excel, and which would prevent the squandering of money. The Kennedys would not let their money distort or soften them. They would dominate the money; the money would not dominate them. They understood, as few wealthy families in this country understood, its advantages and its liabilities. Joe Kennedy, said a contemporary, “is sort of like a caterpillar. He couldn’t quite become a butterfly, but his boys were going to fly, no matter what.” Robert came from way down the list of children, the seventh of nine (“When you come from that far down you have to struggle to survive,” he later said). He was by far the smallest of the boys and in a family in which there was a relentless success cult, his lack of size drove him even harder. That, and the fact that he came along at the tail end of World War II, and always felt a strong sense of disappointment at not having seen combat, were frustrations which drove him even harder in the postwar years. He did not learn much at college but he learned from his personal experience. As his life touched things in the outside world, he would become interested in them. He had had, as a young man, a special quality which would later set him apart from most men in public life: that indignation, an almost primitive and innocent anger—that things were not what they should be or were supposed to be. Had he not had the wealth and family position which springboarded him into immediate public service, he might either have lost this indignation through the erosion of a thousand smaller deals and battles at a lower level, or his very intensity might have blocked out a public career, for men that intense are not always trusted by their peers; they are often considered extremist, in the American vernacular. But because of his family he was able both to enter public life at a very high level and retain that intensity.
In his public career, that outrage was turned at first to relatively minor issues, indeed sometimes to the wrong issues. But as he became a full-fledged public servant, he turned it to the great and dark questions of American life. This quality took him to stands and causes far beyond those accepted by more traditional liberals who accepted the society at face value. At dinner late one night in Indiana, Kennedy and Bill Haddad, an ex-newspaperman who had also served in the Peace Corps and the poverty program, and I were talking about the campaign. It seemed to me, I said, that as the campaign developed it was taking Kennedy further and further outside the establishment; that the more he saw of the country, the more he was turned off by the establishment and the existing representatives of existing institutions, and the more he was involved with the poor. (Indeed, Dick Harwood of The Washington Post would a month later write an incisive story pointing out that Kennedy had earlier said McCarthy faced the danger of being a one-issue man on Vietnam, but now Kennedy himself, tied to the poor, was sounding like a one-issue man.) Yes, Kennedy said, it was pointless to talk about the problem in America being black and white, it was really rich and poor, which was a much more complex subject. But if you keep going this way, I asked, won’t you finally have to take on the establishment. Kennedy nodded. And what if you take over and find that the very institutions of government and the society are strangling the country and perpetuating the imbalance? Haddad asked him. “Then we will have to change the institutions,” he answered quietly. Then he began to talk about the problems that would be involved in changing the institutions in this country non-violently. Haddad looked over at me as if this were a signal victory. Many months afterward he said that this was the first moment when he was convinced that Kennedy was different from other politicians and that he was the one major political figure who understood where everything was going and how serious it was. “He was willing to change the institutions. Even John Kennedy didn’t go that far. John Kennedy’s instinct, when he ran up against the institutions, was to try and challenge them, to elevate them. Which worked a little, but really didn’t work. Before, when I was in the Peace Corps and things would go wrong, I’d go running over to the White House and scream at Kenny O’Donnell. ‘You think you run the country! You don’t even run it from here to across the street!’ and he would answer ‘The trouble with you Haddad is that you think we don’t know it.’ And now here was Bob, seeing how deep it went, and how bad it was, and then suddenly breaking through—it was like finally seeing the blue sky. You had a sense he could go all the way and do something about it.”
Want to keep reading? Download The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy by David Halberstam today.
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Featured photo of Robert Kennedy: Wikipedia