Robert Kennedy, Good and Bad

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January/February 2000


Robert Kennedy, Good and Bad

The Scum and Glory of Later Camelot

By Taylor Branch


In Love with Night: The American Romance With Robert Kennedy

By Ronald Steel
Simon and Schuster

Click on the title to buy the book

First the good news. Ronald Steel wrote this book with a worthy purpose. He set out to reconcile, temper, refute, or otherwise explain the enduring polar and powerful myths about Robert Kennedy as the celebrated "good Bobby" and infamous "bad Bobby." The twin myths have been staples of popular culture since Kennedy's lifetime. The shallow, clannish, persecutorial "bad Bobby" was a pit bull for the disgraceful Joe McCarthy and for his brother JFK, sending mafia killers after Fidel Castro, FBI wiretappers after Martin Luther King, and commandos after Vietnamese rebels as a "piano wire hawk" of the Cold War---in the signature word, ruthless. The healing "good Bobby" of later years was a reconciling figure of conscience, driven to tearful embrace of malnourished children in sharecroppers' shacks and to a martyr's crusade against the moral destruction of the Vietnam War. Steel's introduction suggests a premonition that "good Bobby" has been exaggerated to preserve him as the patron of lost hope in American politics, which is not an unreasonable start.

The book does catch Kennedy between the twin poles more than once, suspended against type in human moments that are clues to myths in error or transition. There is a brief description of RFK as a scrawny young student at Harvard, not advertising himself as the rich ambassador's son in order to make friends on the football team. The older players "came to admire his grit and lack of pretension..." writes Steel. "Bobby chose to be with them, to make his social life among townies and vets. Like most outsiders, he felt comfortable only among those who were not his social or intellectual peers. That is why he gravitated so naturally toward children..." Steel catches Kennedy twenty years later in the high councils of Armageddon as his brother's Attorney General during the Cuban Missile Crisis, already deeply invested in clandestine plots to take vengeance on Castro and now pushing for a decisive air attack to wipe out the Soviet missiles. "Although RFK at first sided with the hardliners, he calmed down," writes Steel, and with those three words his account veers into RFK's diplomacy that helped the country draw back from nuclear showdown. Steel again zooms in on Kennedy two years later, wrestling with whether to become a Senate candidate after JFK's assassination. "He was not, to say the least a natural politician," Steel observes. "Indeed, it would be hard to imagine anyone less skilled at ingratiating himself with voters and special-interest groups, or less naturally inclined to do soŠ He knew how to threaten but not how to cajole; he got angry easily and held grudges foreverŠ A virtual teetotaler, he did not drink with the boys, and had no patience for small talk and bonhomie. He could not stand to be touched."

Steel twice glimpses Kennedy as a senator in conflict with himself about his partner and rival in liberal Democratic politics, LBJ. He describes Kennedy pounding on a hotel door in a fury to revise William Manchester's forthcoming book about President Kennedy's assassination---"not because of [Manchester's] worshipful approach to JFK, about which there could be no disagreement," writes Steel, "but because of the author's contemptuous treatment of Lyndon Johnson." Kennedy was defending the "widow's honor" of his sister-in-law Jacqueline, who, kindly treated by LBJ, thought Kennedy loyalists had unfairly vented their grief through Manchester in crude attacks on Johnson. But RFK was also defending his "own political ambitions," which mandated public respect for the new president. Steel describes how Kennedy successfully browbeat Manchester into a slightly more favorable portrait of Johnson, and closes the incident with the judgment of a Kennedy aide that the ensuing Manchester controversy "did more than anything else to affix the image of ruthlessness on Bob Kennedy." Finally, in a 1968 scene just after LBJ's political surrender and just before RFK's death, Steel sketches Kennedy's White House visit to pay his respects to Johnson as a candidate to succeed him. Johnson morosely said he had come undone trying to keep faith with John Kennedy's course in Vietnam, and that he trusted the late president's spirit would look down on him favorably, whereupon Kennedy replied, "You are a brave and dedicated man, Mr. President." He whispered the words so softly that Johnson asked him to repeat them.

Now the bad news. These are among Steel's most suggestive character moments, and he does nothing with them to refine the Kennedy myths. What does he mean that Kennedy "calmed down" during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Was this turning point in the Cold War also a turning point in his personal obsession with enemies? Steel shows no interest. He neither recognizes nor explores the layered irony of the Manchester incident, so that we are presented with RFK who was both selfishly and honorably ruthless about being less mean to Johnson. As for the farewell meeting, Steel takes from it the standard fare about how much they disliked each other and ignores the begging invitation to reappraise the polar images of Johnson and Kennedy on Vietnam. Recent scholarship shows that LBJ expressed far more doubt than critics ever guessed about the soundness and even the morality of his policy, while Kennedy, who called the war immoral, never said it should be ended outright.

This is not to say that Steel or anyone else is obliged to wrestle all ambiguity to the ground for either man. The truest and most riveting characters are full of internal conflict, and a writer might conclude in good faith, hypothetically, that Kennedy felt on the same day both the piano wire hawk and the immoral-war dove in full mythological strength. But then the task for Steel's professed mission would be to inquire where the warring traits came from, how they coexisted, what made them ebb and flow, and why.

Steel utterly fails to go behind the romance to discover a more convincing Robert Kennedy, mostly because he uses storybook language far more freely than the mythmakers he criticizes. The book aims for tempered realism but reads like Edith Hamilton at Princess Diana's funeral. The chapter that opens with RFK as an unnatural candidate is titled "Lord-in-Waiting," and the royal images alone spill in every direction. Camelot, with JFK "and his faithful Knights of the Oval office," is introduced tongue-in-cheek, but Steel lapses in his own voice to images of Kennedy as "his brother's hereditary successor," "living reincarnation of a beloved king," "feudal chief before his assembled subjects," and so on. At the 1964 Democratic Convention, Kennedy read a tribute to JFK's memory that "hauntingly evoked the dead monarch." He received adulation "like a Roman emperor" and contested LBJ as a usurper of his place. "What they were engaged in was, of course, a war of succession," writes Steel. "Under the Constitution, Johnson was the legal heir to the throne. But Bobby was, in his own mind and the ardent conviction of the Kennedy court, the hereditary heir."

Since truer proportion is his stated aim, Steel would do well to leave thrones and heirs out of the Constitution. Instead, he soars off with Kennedy to heaven, criticizing the "believed" notion of him as a "caring, sensitive pastor to life's victims," but presenting him as "a curious figure for the role of messiah," who "could not be satisfied by anything less than immortalization." To frenzied, worshipful audiences---"the dispossessed, the ignored, the despairing, and above all the blacks"---Kennedy was a figure of "divine grace" who promised "salvation and redemption" for every kind of voter. "In Robert Kennedy's house are many mansions," says Steel. Secular myths sprinkled along the way include the standard Greeks, and Kennedy as Ahab chasing his white whales of Castro and Jimmy Hoffa.

With so many fanciful, larger-than-life images floating around in his prose, Steel almost inevitably gets carried away into new and less credible myths of his own. In four different passages, he traces the emotional power of the JFK funeral to careful research by the Kennedy family on the symbols and trappings used for Lincoln. This is the first step in a great "calculation" by Robert Kennedy that Steel introduces as follows: "Bobby had to transmute his brother, brush away his failures and omissions, and create a legend based on expectation. Bobby could then become the inheritor of the future." By repetition and bald assertion, Steel manages to credit this library research for a good portion of the Kennedy appeal to black voters, saying that "because of his Lincoln-like funeral ceremonies, many black people came to believe that in some way he had, like the Great Emancipator, died for them and because of them." Once loosed from natural causes and historic restraint, the great calculation myth brings in the Johnson rivalry to account for what Steel calls Robert Kennedy's "improvised" affinity with young people, blacks, Hispanics, Vietnam War opponents, non-union workers, and the poor: "he was trying to put together a coalition of outsiders because LBJ had co-opted the center." Steel's puppeteer view of both candidate Kennedy and the electorate runs through to the end, when RFK "deliberately fomented hysteria as an electoral device," because Humphrey and Johnson blocked his access to Democratic machinery. "It was all calculated," writes Steel.

The book surrenders all but the pretense of transcending or improving romance to discover a new Robert Kennedy, beyond the familiar twin legends. In practice, Steel merely debunks the promise of the later "good Bobby" with the corrosive revelations about his earlier secrets-the Mafia connections, wiretaps, Hoover blackmail, and assassination plots. He winds up doubting the very existence of change in him, asserting that even his eloquence in South Africa and his plunging identification with the poor and downtrodden "could have been simple political calculation: he needed the votes of black Americans if he was to stand a chance of being elected senator or president." His book is stippled with acid. Steel is neither the first nor last writer to feel betrayed by the Kennedys over the lost innocence of the 1960s, but he has matched its fabled credibility gap with his claim to have learned something.

Steel resists the notion of growth in any politician. The idea that transforming experience "can be found in the daily compromises of politics, let alone in politicians, is a disturbing one," he writes. "Politics in a democratic society is about interest groups and deals, not about salvation." If Kennedy had lived to be president, "he would have had to become what every president ultimately is: a power broker."

Then why write a sad, bitter book about him? I think Steel is imprisoned in his own myth of the great calculation. He seems stuck on dilemmas from Vietnam's scalded turning point of the Cold War, where he ended his excellent work on Walter Lippmann, and somehow blames Robert Kennedy for the misplaced hopes ever since. The fact is that Kennedy lived at the volcanic core of historic events in transformation, between Cold War enemies and post-Cold War nonviolence. Steel calls Robert Kennedy the most avid believer in the Kennedy myth of innocent hope, but he also acknowledges that Kennedy avoided discussion of his brother's assassination in part because he felt the undertow of hidden government earlier and more keenly than the rest of us. Yet Kennedy kept going through changes much bigger than the detached feuds and morality plays Steel describes. His evolution in race relations alone was a tumbling ordeal of naive promises and haunted conscience and renewed experiment into hard-earned grace over years. He was never master of the forces that battered his psyche, but he never gave up, either. Because he never lost hope, he never stopped offering hope. This is the unmyth of Robert Kennedy that Steel must deny until he recovers from his own disillusionment.

Taylor Branch, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Parting the Waters is a contributing editor for the Washington Monthly

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