AUGUST 12, 2016
ELECTION SEASON always brings out the aggressive, rhetoric-driven worst in our politics, but 2016 has shaped up to be a fever-nightmare vision of American democracy. In addition to the endless rehearsal of intractable issues on which society seems constantly to be spinning its wheels — police brutality, racism, income inequality — this election has been dominated by loud public voices declaring that neither major-party candidate is acceptable. In other words, it’s the perfect time for a comprehensive and reflective biography of Robert “Bobby” Kennedy.
Larry Tye’s new book plumbs the many myths surrounding Kennedy, teases out the complex truth behind the simplistic image of a liberal warrior, and offers up a compelling story of how idealism can be cultivated and liberalism learned. But the book serves a more important purpose than retelling the well-worn tale of the third Kennedy brother. Tye’s work feels most essential when seen as a mirror of our own times, reflecting back the scant progress our country has made on the issues Kennedy fought hardest for near the end of his life and the cynicism that has so deeply permeated our culture.
Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon is unique in the cottage industry of Kennedy family biographies. Tye states early on that he wanted to strike a middle ground between the fawning praise and carping criticism that usually dictates the tone and content of books about the Kennedys, and he manages to do just that. Tye begins peeling back the myths early on, offering a deep look at Bobby’s relationship with Senator Joseph McCarthy during the early 1950s. Each chapter is built on one key facet of Bobby’s evolution, from his early service as an assistant to the architect of the 1950s Communist witch hunts to his final days as a presidential candidate running on a platform of peace and social justice.
This evolution is what makes Bobby a truly fascinating man and politician. Today it’s nearly impossible to imagine that a politician can grow as a person; such growth would appear too much like flip-flopping or seem simply disingenuous. Bobby was a small kid to whom things didn’t come easily, be it physical strength or public speaking or his father’s attention, as the seventh child in a large Irish-Catholic family. Those early battles to get to the top of the pile — quite literally, considering the Kennedys’ love of rough-and-tumble games like football — shaped the Bobby the world knew in the 1950s and early 1960s. Ruthless, focused almost single-mindedly on winning, and quick to hate, he little resembled the almost saintly image history has shaped since his assassination in 1968. But as with so many canonized after death, the truth of who Bobby was is more complicated — and interesting — than the liberal bleeding heart many have him painted as being. Yes, he felt deeply the suffering of others. But Bobby Kennedy was a fighter his entire life, and it was that fighting spirit, combined with his idealism, that made him worthy of becoming an icon.
Tye does an exemplary job of capturing not just the chronology of Bobby’s life, but also the sense of him as a person, as well as what it must have been like to know him. Tye did the usual requisite research, conducting numerous interviews with those who were closest to Bobby, including his widow, Ethel. The Bobby he evokes is a hands-on worker and quick learner, apt to take anger but also to joke, appreciative of those who worked for him but demanding a great deal of them, and rather less refined than the august Kennedy name would suggest. There’s a wildness to Bobby that Tye compellingly conveys, whether through anecdotes of his family’s rambunctious household or of the crowds who tore at the candidate’s clothes and hair. Bobby is less statesman and more tornado — a whirlwind of causes, vendettas, jokes, and solutions.
It’s his dedication to solutions that sets Bobby apart. Tye describes him as having “disdain” for “rebellion without results” — even in the late 1960s, when he was campaigning on behalf of the starving in the Mississippi Delta and calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. He was a politician who had a clear-headed view of how much he could risk before he would lose the power he had cultivated over his years of public service. He hedged his bets throughout his career, from early support for civil rights (weighing what he and JFK could do without risking his brother’s place in the White House) to his stance on the Vietnam War (for which he carried part of the blame). If the race for the 2016 Democratic nomination has proven anything, it’s that a large segment of the party would not take a kind view of Bobby’s focus on making what change he could rather than holding out for perfection. Bernie Sanders, who has backed many great solutions proposed by others but has not been a leader himself until this year, seems to be the new morally impervious ideal, and if judged by such an elevated standard, Bobby Kennedy would perhaps rank lower than Hillary Clinton.
As the book pulls closer and closer to Bobby’s assassination, the parallels between 1968 and 2016 become clear. Tye opens a section on Bobby’s Bedfurd-Stuyvesant neighborhood rehabilitation project with a story about police brutality that could be ripped from today’s headlines; in 1964, a black teenager died when he was shot by a white off-duty cop, setting off riots across the country. “Black parents were frightened,” Tye writes, “and so was nearly all of white America.” The other issues Bobby was most vocal about and active on in the later years of his life, including economic inequality and the rights of farmworkers, resonate deeply today because they have not been fully addressed in the time since Bobby’s death. When faced with a crisis or cause, Bobby would simply ask his petitioners: “What do you want? And how can I help?” Bobby was eager to listen and learn, seeing himself as a conduit through which causes could access power rather than as a man who could single-handedly save the day.
Bobby’s historic bid for the presidency tore apart the Democratic party, and the fighting between left and right factions echoes today’s battles between Bernie and Hillary supporters. These internecine struggles sapped the party’s energy in the face of an epochal Republican threat — though, granted, Nixon cannot hold a candle to the menace of Trump today. There was also Bobby’s sense of entitlement, as many saw it, to carry on the legacy of his brother’s administration, similar to what many feel is Hillary Clinton’s conviction that she’s the one to push forward her husband’s and Obama’s legacies. Contemporaneous criticism of Bobby’s campaign was surprisingly similar to the current attacks on Clinton, such as her alleged untrustworthiness and ruthless will to win. Bobby had gotten his hands dirty during two decades in the world of power politics, and he had the enemies to show for it.
The death of Bobby Kennedy is often viewed as a turning point in American political culture, although Tye doesn’t wax eloquent about the ramifications of Bobby’s assassination. The late 1960s were a transitional time in the United States, and arguably Bobby’s death shaped just what that transition was toward, opening the door to the widespread cynicism we see today. Among the young, a demographic Bobby connected with more deeply than any other, a sense of helplessness and disenfranchisement has shaped their engagement with the political system. Many young people seem so convinced that the system is rigged that they would likely reject wholesale a wealthy, privileged white man who once worked with the enemy and who changed his mind on so many major issues. What, if not cynicism, compels us to demand that our leaders be not merely human, but perfect?
Bobby was not perfect, but he was deeply human. Tye captures that humanity best when writing about Bobby’s family, whether in the casual details of his relationship with Ethel or in the rollicking stories of his many children at the family’s Hickory Hill estate. Reading these anecdotes, it’s easy to be swept up in nostalgia and questions of “what if” that have become the hallmark of such biographies. What if he had lived? What if he had beaten Nixon and become president at a pivotal moment in American history? What would he have done? But Tye’s biography leaves the reader with the sense that “what if” is the wrong question, and not one Bobby himself would have appreciated being asked. A better question, looking to the future as Bobby himself characteristically did, would be: What now?