The Revolution Of Robert Kennedy
By John R. Bohrer
384 pages, $30
This is a good time for a biography of Robert Kennedy: right after the 100th anniversary of the birth of his brother John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963), the 35th President of the United States.
This well-written partial biography, “The Revolution of Robert Kennedy,” by John R. Bohrer, might equally be called “The Evolution of Robert Kennedy." Why the issue with the title? You may remember that “Robert was perceived as a tough guy, insensitive, cruel, vindictive, clannish, summed up in a word which he never shook off … ruthless,” the summary view of Yale law professor Alexander Bickel.
In fact, these hard-nosed characteristics modified and became softer over time, as author Bohrer tells us, using the word "revolution" to emphasize RFK’s “journey from memorializing his brother’s legacy to defining his own.” Bohrer, a reporter, historian and television news producer, does a good job putting forward this perspective, although it is a view that one could argue. Avid readers of recent history may not find much new in it either.
Bohrer explains that after President Kennedy’s assassination, Robert Kennedy (1928 - 1968) was despondent about his brother’s death. Why wouldn’t he be? It’s not surprising behavior for members of a close-knit family. The other reason for Robert Kennedy’s turbulent mindset was the “sudden competition” – Bohrer’s phrase - with President Lyndon B. Johnson, LBJ (1908 – 1973.). For readers who lived through that period of American history, it may have been sudden but it wasn’t unexpected.
How so? As attorney general, Robert, frequently combative, feuded with his JFK’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. The following tale illustrates Robert’s problem with Johnson. LBJ, born in hard-scrabble Stonewall, Texas, taught high school before running for Congress. He couldn’t stand pugnacious Bobby, a leftover appointment from a wealthy Ivy League family, who represented everything he detested.
Not surprisingly, one of the reasons they didn’t get along was that they were alike politically. Neither took any prisoners. Mark K. Updegrove, who wrote a biography of LBJ in 2012, tells a story about Johnson which shows at once his manipulative side – not unlike Robert’s own capacities.
Updegrove encapsulates LBJ’s approach to politics and life this way: “Johnson used to joke about the Depression-era schoolteacher in desperate need of a job who was asked by the school board whether he taught that the world was round or flat. 'I can teach it either way,' ” he replied."
In a sense, LBJ’s "hardball" had already being practiced by Bobby for his brother, JFK, the president. After JFK died, LBJ held better political cards than Bobby, so Bobby changed his knuckles-in-your-face-game.
How did RFK do this? Bohrer, calling Bobby "Robert" as a mark of respect, explains that Robert slowly morphed into what the author refers to as “the champion of the common man,” one of the themes Robert Kennedy developed when he ran for president.
Why RFK did what he did is another matter. It could have been pragmatism, or it could have been an instinct of the spirit, or perhaps a dollop of both philosophies. Bohrer sees RFK’s actions as that of a great leader.
If you were paying attention to national politics at the time, Robert F. Kennedy has so many legends misting about him -- tough guy, mean son-of-a-gun, kindly liberal -- that it’s been hard until now to know who he really was, or at least who he ended up being.
Bohrer scans political history, reminding us that Robert Kennedy secretly campaigned to run as the vice president on LBJ’s ticket, but that the effort came to naught. Then Kennedy moved to New York State to run against Ken Keating and won. One aide wrote, “It’s funny, but the problems of places like Glenn Falls and Rochester seemed to be a tonic to him. RFK had spent so much time on national and international affairs, localizing his attention was an important, almost calming experience."
Over time, our author says, Kennedy developed a quality of openness about him that connected with the young and powerless. He had a candor about war, society and national priorities. Bohrer tells us that these qualities established him as an independent identity and a political force that grew with the years.
Earlier writers about RFK made these points as well. Last year, former Boston Globe writer and Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Larry Tye, dispersed this fog of unknowing with his bio, “The Making of a Liberal Icon.” He wrote a fair account of a complicated life. Tye observed that “part of the ‘making’ is the man himself and his struggles. The other part of the making comes from the press, and it is unending in its speculation.”
Robert Kennedy’s story ends in 1966, two years before his death. RFK increasingly talked about a “revolution now in progress that included the patois of dignity and freedom for all." These are blissful terms, not much in use today when a candidate for congress body slams a member of the press for asking a series of questions. Against this asymmetrical activity we remember that Robert Kennedy ran for president and was assassinated, a martyr to democracy and social justice.
Just how much Kennedy’s altruism reverberates in this present age is questionable, but Bohrer raises all the right questions, ending by quoting Bobby: “It is a revolutionary world we live in. … Each of us have our own work to do,” asking “if a man of forty” can claim membership in “the world’s largest younger generation.”
Clearly Kennedy could.
RFK carried this lesson of youthful aspiration with him to his death, on a hotel pantry floor and his last seconds of consciousness, Bohrer tells us, “his head bleeding and his sighs falling shallow … with a heart still beating.”
Michael D. Langan reviews books for The Buffalo News. He served in Democratic and Republican administrations in Washington, D.C. for 20 years.