Although he never became president, Bobby Kennedy spearheaded a great deal of change in America with his work in civil rights, crime fighting and by combatting corruption. Our guest remembers this icon and talks about his more personal side, how he helped his brother John become president, and how his legacy inspires liberals and conservatives to this day.
- Larry Tye, author of Bobby Kennedy: The making of a liberal icon
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Robert Kennedy: Remember a fallen icon
Gary Price: There have been families in modern times who have reached the highest offices in the land — the Roosevelts, Bushes, and the Clintons – but the one family that captures the public’s imagination like no other are the Kennedys. They’ve spawned congressmen, senators, ambassadors, an attorney general and a president along with more than one candidate for that job. Although the entire Kennedy clan has been the subject of news stories, documentaries, films and rumors, perhaps the most beloved individual of all is Bobby. Who was Bobby Kennedy, and how did he grow to become the admired civil rights crusader that he was? Larry Tye has delved into the life of that late Kennedy son in his new book, Bobby Kennedy: The making of a liberal icon. Tye says that although Bobby grew up to accomplish great things, it wasn’t easy. As a child his father didn’t have much faith in him.
Larry Tye: In the Kennedy household there was one person who mattered more than anybody and that was father, Joe Kennedy. And Joe Kennedy thought of his older children as “benighted.” There was Joe Jr. that he wanted to be president. There was Jack who was in line in case anything happened to Joe Jr. There were the older girls. Then there were the younger kids like Ted Kennedy who went on to become an extraordinary senator, who were the babies and those were the ones who were benighted in a different sense. Expectations were not as high, but they were always spoiled. In the middle was Bobby. Bobby was the smallest of the kids. He was the one his dad was convinced was least likely to make anything of himself. So he described him as “the runt of the litter” in a classically candid Joe Kennedy way, but in a way that Bobby understood and spent, not just his early years, but I think spent all of his years trying to live up to his father’s expectations.
Price: In school it seemed that Bobby did live up to his dad’s low expectations. He was no scholar, and in law school graduated in the middle of the pack. He did, however, end up with a job in government with the Senator Joe McCarthy during his hunt for communists in the military and in American society. It seems like a strange alliance, considering Kennedy’s reputation for upholding civil rights and the redbaiting and blacklisting tactics McCarthy used to intimidate witnesses during the hearings.
Tye: Bobby Kennedy believed back in the 1950s that there was only one guy in America who was standing up against the communists the way he thought ought to happen, and that was Joe McCarthy. It also so happened that Joe McCarthy was a great buddy of Bobby Kennedy’s dad, Joe Kennedy, and so the combination of those two — the fact that Bobby Kennedy would do anything his dad asked and his dad suggested that he go to work for Joe McCarthy, and the fact that Bobby believed in that kind of aggressive stand against communism if not in the red-baiting, civil liberties trampling style of Joe McCarthy, led him to accept the job when it was offered.
Price: Bobby was paired up with a stellar lawyer and a man who would go on to become the attorney for a number of prominent pubic figures and institutions including Donald Trump and the Catholic Archdiocese of New York – Roy Cohn.
Tye: Roy Cohn had a photographic memory; Roy Cohn was a brilliant lawyer and law student. Bobby Kennedy was solidly in the middle of his law school class and never made it much beyond that. So, A, it wasn’t surprising that Roy Cohn got the senior position in the office and, B, it wasn’t surprising given how the two of them despised one another that Bobby Kennedy would eventually leave, blaming it on Roy Cohn and not on Joe McCarthy.
Price: After leaving McCarthy, Bobby’s next job in government was on the Senate Labor Rackets Committee where he came up against Teamster president, Jimmy Hoffa.
Tye: Bobby Kennedy saw the fact that Hoffa was in many ways corrupt, that he was doing things that Bobby thought of as selling out his members. But what he couldn’t see is the upside of Hoffa. Hoffa had built the Teamsters into the biggest union with 1.3 million members into the most powerful piece of the American labor movement and that’s the reason why Teamsters members would reelect Hoffa by enormous margins even as Bobby Kennedy – first as a senate investigator and later as the Attorney General – was conducting a vendetta against Hoffa.
Price: When Bobby’s brother, John Kennedy, decided to run for the presidency in 1960, he picked Bobby to be his campaign manager. The younger Kennedy headed up the presidential hopeful’s successful senate bid in 1952, and Tye says JFK knew his younger brother would do a good job because Bobby was a ruthless campaigner.
Tye: He was as tough as campaign managers ever got. Richard Nixon who earned the moniker “Tricky Dick,” said that he learned all of his dirty campaigning tactics from Bobby Kennedy. And Bobby Kennedy was willing to do anything to get Jack elected, if that meant lying about whether he had a serious adrenal condition called Addison’s disease, Bobby Kennedy would lie.
Price: JFK appointed his brother as Attorney General, despite Bobby’s poor showing in law school and despite his meager law experience. He defied the odds and the opinions of his critics by standing up to corruption in the labor unions, facing down the Mafia and fighting for civil rights for African Americans. Tye says that even though Bobby was a bit late to the civil rights party, once he understood the plight of Blacks in the U.S. there was no holding him back.
Tye: He started out as clueless on civil rights as he was on many issues. He had grown up in lily-white Cape Cod and in Palm Beach, Florida and he really didn’t get it in the early days as Attorney General. The people like the segregationist governor of Alabama, and the segregationist governor of Mississippi played Bobby Kennedy perfectly. They basically stood up to him. Bobby was reluctant to bring in federal troops because he thought that would look bad for his brother and there was a stand off. And Bobby was out-gunned with the racial violence in Anniston, Alabama where they burned freedom riders’ buses. In Montgomery, in Birmingham and most famously at the University of Mississippi at Ole Miss where there were race riots there. But by the end of the Kennedy Administration, on that issue like so many others, Bobby Kennedy had learned. He had learned from getting it wrong, he had learned from beginning to empathize with the people who were out there trying to integrate, use their Constitutionally guaranteed rights to integrate schools and buses and other things. And by the end of his Attorney Generalship, it’s not hyperbole to say that Bobby Kennedy was the most trusted White man in Black America.
Price: When President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, Tye says that Bobby was a pillar of strength for his family and the community. Underneath, however, the Attorney General was devastated and about a month after the assassination he sunk into a deep depression.
Tye: When the family started to pull it together, when the country was pulling it together, Bobby Kennedy fell apart. He went through six or seven months of what we would call today serious clinical depression. He would drive around at night in his convertible going nowhere; he would go to work and not be able to focus. What was really happening to him, at Jackie Kennedy’s request he was starting to read Greek tragedy, and he suddenly started to see that the great hubris of the Kennedy families had ended up in tragedy. I think he also worried whether his going after organized crime and Jimmy Hoffa and Fidel Castro could have somehow contributed to his brother’s death. And we are all some balance, I believe, between tough and tender and the dial on Bobby is it started out so far on the direction of “tough” I think started taking on a more empathetic and tender component after Jack’s death. And if there was one epiphany moment that helped transform Bobby from cold warrior to hot-blooded liberal, it was that day, November of 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald shot his brother.
Price: It was partly because of John Kennedy’s death that Bobby decided to run for president himself. He didn’t believe the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination and thought if he became president he could start his own investigation into JFK’s death. Unfortunately, Bobby didn’t have the opportunity to fulfill that dream – on June 5, 1968, Sirhan Sirhan shot him in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen. Tye says Bobby Kennedy feared this would be his fate.
Tye: The one who had the greatest sense of premonition was Bobby himself. He had said when Jack was shot that he thought that it would have been him. He said during he campaign in 1968 he repeatedly had a sense that somebody would want to take a shot at him. And yet, he didn’t have the kind of protection that he ought to have. He had one ex-FBI agent on the scene as his bodyguard along with a couple big football players. That FBI guy was helping a pregnant Ethel Kennedy off the stage when Bobby was in the kitchen and shot and has never forgiven himself for not being there. It wasn’t until the day after Bobby was shot that LBJ, by executive order, required that from then on all presidential candidates would get Secret Service protection.
Price: Tye says that he thinks that Bobby Kennedy was an extraordinarily talented individual who would have won the Democratic nomination for president – and made a better president than his brother — if he had lived. But why, 48 years after his death, are we still fascinated by this man?
Tye: When you look at the picture on the jacket of my book, and you see that 42-year-old Bobby Kennedy who looks more like 25, that’s still the image. We have this sense that he died at this great moment of promise. He never had a chance to disappoint us, so it’s partly the hope he represented and the tragic way he died. And it’s also because if we had leaders today that were capturing our imagination…when they do political polls they’re finding out these days that it’s who the public dislikes a little bit less than the other candidate, it’s not somebody that anybody is passionate about. People in 1968 were passionate about Bobby Kennedy. He was easily the most passionate of the Kennedy kids and he was the one who was impatient enough at a time when America was impatient for change that he would have delivered something. Whether it would work, whether it would have met all of our high expectations, that’s impossible to know. But he died at that great moment of opportunity and hope. And that’s why we still look back wistfully at him.
Price: You can read about the life of Robert Kennedy, with information from exclusive interviews with his widow Ethel Kennedy, in Larry Tye’s book, Bobby Kennedy: The making of a liberal icon, available now. Tye also invites listeners to visit his website at LarryTye.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.
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