The Washington Post
Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Yearsby David Talbot
For decades, books about John or Robert Kennedy have woven either a shimmering tale of Camelot gallantry or a tawdry story of runaway ambition and reckless personal behavior. But the real story of the Kennedys in the 1960s has long been submerged -- until now. In Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, David Talbot sheds a dramatic new light on the/i>… See more details below
For decades, books about John or Robert Kennedy have woven either a shimmering tale of Camelot gallantry or a tawdry story of runaway ambition and reckless personal behavior. But the real story of the Kennedys in the 1960s has long been submerged -- until now. In Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, David Talbot sheds a dramatic new light on the tumultuous inner life of the Kennedy presidency and its stunning aftermath. Talbot, the founder of Salon.com, has written a gripping political history that is sure to be one of the most talked-about books of the year.
Brothers begins on the shattering afternoon of November 22, 1963, as a grief-stricken Robert Kennedy urgently demands answers about the assassination of his brother. Bobby's suspicions immediately focus on the nest of CIA spies, gangsters, and Cuban exiles that had long been plotting a violent regime change in Cuba. The Kennedys had struggled to control this swamp of anti-Castro intrigue based in southern Florida, but with little success.
Brothers then shifts back in time, revealing the shadowy conflicts that tore apart the Kennedy administration, pitting the young president and his even younger brother against their own national security apparatus. The Kennedy brothers and a small circle of their most trusted advisors -- men like Theodore Sorensen, Robert McNamara, and Kenneth O'Donnell, who were so close the Kennedys regarded them as family -- repeatedly thwarted Washington's warrior caste. These hard-line generals and spymasters were hell-bent on a showdown with the Communist foe -- in Berlin, Laos, Vietnam, and especially Cuba. But the Kennedys continually frustrated their militaristic ambitions, pushing instead for a peaceful resolution to the Cold War. The tensions within the Kennedy administration were heading for an explosive climax, when a burst of gunfire in a sunny Dallas plaza terminated John F. Kennedy's presidency.
Based on interviews with more than one hundred fifty people -- including many of the Kennedys' aging "band of brothers," whose testimony here might be their final word on this epic political story -- as well as newly released government documents, Brothers reveals the compelling, untold story of the Kennedy years, including JFK's heroic efforts to keep the country out of a cataclysmic war and Bobby Kennedy's secret quest to solve his beloved brother's murder. Bobby's subterranean search was a dangerous one and led, in part, to his own quest for power in 1968, in a passion-filled campaign that ended with his own murder. As Talbot reveals here, RFK might have been the victim of the same plotters he suspected of killing his brother. This is historical storytelling at its riveting best -- meticulously researched and movingly told.
Brothers is a sprawling narrative about the clash of powerful men and the darker side of the Cold War -- a tale of tragic grandeur that is certain to change our understanding of the relentlessly fascinating Kennedy saga.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
Those looking for new insight into John F. Kennedy's presidency will want to read this meticulously researched chronicle. Talbot, the journalist founder of online newsmagazine Salon, sticks to the facts, starting with a timeline of then-attorney general Bobby Kennedy's actions on Nov. 22, 1963, the day his brother was killed. Immediately suspicious of the CIA, the Mafia and the Cuban exiles they're involved with, Bobby made it his mission to expose this "shadowy nexus"; much of the book concerns the Kennedy brothers' relationships with members of those factions as they dig for the truth behind the assassination. Talbot profiles friends and enemies, taking readers into JFK's strained work with Pentagon officials who famously pressured him to take a chance on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. Later chapters deal with the aftermath of JFK's and then RFK's assassinations, and the final chapter contains Talbot's incisive conclusions on those momentous years. Talbot's only weakness is in covering too much-with more than 150 original interviews, he is forced to move too quickly from event to event, making his numerous characters hard to keep straight. Still, it's an admirable feat of reporting, and one that will spark conversation among conspiracy theorists, historians and others who lived through the Kennedy era. (May)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Read an Excerpt
NOVEMBER 22, 1963
Like all Americans who lived through that day, Robert F. Kennedy never forgot how he heard his brother had been shot. The attorney general, who had just turned thirty- eight, was eating lunch -- clam chowder and tuna sandwiches -- with United States Attorney Robert Morgenthau and his assistant by the pool at Hickory Hill, his Civil War-era mansion in McLean, Virginia, outside the capital. It was a perfect fall day -- the kind of bright, crisp Friday afternoon that makes a weekend seem full of promise -- and the grounds of the rolling green estate were afl ame with gold and red leaves from the shedding hickories, maples, and oaks that stood sentry over the property. Kennedy had just emerged from a mid- day swim, and as he talked and ate with the visiting lawmen, his trunks were still dripping.
Around 1:45 p.m., the phone extension at the other end of the pool rang. Kennedy's wife, Ethel, picked it up -- she held the receiver out to him. J. Edgar Hoover was calling. Bobby knew immediately something unusual had happened. The FBI director never phoned him at home. The two men regarded each other with a taut wariness that they both knew would only be broken when one of them left office. Each represented to the other what was wrong about America. "I have news for you," Hoover said. "The president's been shot." Hoover's voice was blunt and matter of fact. Kennedy would always remember not just the FBI chief 's words, but his chilling tone.
"History cracked open" for America on November 22, 1963, as playwright Tony Kushner observed years later. But the abyss that opened for Bobby Kennedy at that moment was the deepest of all. And it was Hoover, of all people, who brought him news of the apocalypse. "I think he told me with pleasure," Kennedy would recall.
Twenty minutes later, Hoover phoned again to deliver the final blow: "The president's dead," he said and promptly hung up. Again, Kennedy would remember, his voice was oddly flat -- "not quite as excited as if he were reporting the fact that he had found a Communist on the faculty of Howard University."
Hoover's curt phone calls confirmed that the "perfect communion" between the two brothers, as the New York Times' Anthony Lewis described the bond between President John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy -- a fraternal relationship unprecedented in presidential history -- was over. But they also clearly conveyed that Bobby had suffered a death of a different kind. His own power as attorney general instantly started to fade, already to a point where the director of the FBI no longer felt compelled to show deference, or even common human grace, to his superior in the Justice Department.
For the rest of the day and night, Bobby Kennedy would wrestle with his howling grief -- crying, or fighting against crying since that was the Kennedy way -- while using whatever power was still left him, before the new administration settled firmly into place, to figure out what had really happened in Dallas. He worked the phones at Hickory Hill; he met with a succession of people while waiting for Air Force One to return with the body of his brother, his brother's widow, and the new president; he accompanied his brother's remains to the autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital; and he stayed coiled and awake in the White House until early the next morning. Lit up with the clarity of shock, the electricity of adrenaline, he constructed the outlines of the crime.
From his phone calls and conversations that day -- and into the following week -- it's possible to trace the paths that Robert Kennedy pursued as he tried to unveil the mystery. "With that amazing computer brain of his, he put it all together on the afternoon of November 22," his friend, journalist Jack Newfi eld, remarked.
RFK's search for the truth about the crime of the century has long been an untold story. But it is deeply loaded with historic significance. Kennedy's investigative odyssey -- which began with a frantic zeal immediately after his brother's assassination, and then secretly continued in fitful bursts until his own murder less than five years later -- did not succeed in bringing the case to court. But Robert Kennedy was a central figure in the drama -- not only as his brother's attorney general and the second most powerful official in the Kennedy administration, but as JFK's principal emissary to the dark side of American power. And his hunt for the truth sheds a cold, bright light on the forces that he suspected were behind the murder of his brother. Bobby Kennedy was America's fi rst assassination conspiracy theorist.
Predictably, the first phone call that Bobby made on November 22 after his initial conversation with Hoover was to Kenny O'Donnell. JFK's chief of staff had accompanied the president to Dallas and was with him at Parkland Memorial Hospital when he was pronounced dead at 2:00 p.m. Tough, taciturn, Boston Irish, O'Donnell was second only to Bobby himself in his political guardianship of the president. A close friend since they roomed together at Harvard and played on the college football team, O'Donnell was the man Bobby would have wanted at the scene of a crisis if he couldn't be there himself. As a B-17 bombardier, he had fl own thirty missions against Nazi Germany, was shot down and then escaped from enemy prison. In his final, legendary game as quarterback at Harvard, he ran for the winning touchdown against archrival Yale on a broken leg.
Bobby ran upstairs to phone O'Donnell from his bedroom, while Morgenthau and his assistant were led to a TV set in the drawing room at Hickory Hill. Not finding O'Donnell at the hospital, Kennedy spoke instead to Secret Service agent Clint Hill, the only offi cer who had performed heroically on the president's behalf that afternoon. Images of Hill rushing to leap onto the back of JFK's moving limousine would forever become part of the iconography of that eerie day.
It's not known precisely what Bobby learned that afternoon from the Secret Service man. But there was a darkness that immediately began growing in Hill and O'Donnell about what they'd seen and heard in Dallas. Neither man would ever be the same after November 22.
O'Donnell was riding immediately behind Kennedy's limousine in the Dallas motorcade, just ten feet away, along with fellow Boston Irishman Dave Powers, the White House aide and court jester. They were front row witnesses to the assassination. Powers would later say it felt as if they were "riding into an ambush." O'Donnell and more than one Secret Service man would tell Bobby the same thing that day: They were caught in a crossfire. It was a conspiracy.
Bobby Kennedy came to the same conclusion that afternoon. It was not a "he" who had killed his brother -- it was a "they." This is how he put it to his friend, Justice Department press spokesman Edwin Guthman. The former Pulitzer Prize-winning Seattle Times reporter had become close friends with Kennedy during the 1950s when they both put themselves on the line to investigate corruption and thuggery in the Teamsters' union. Guthman was one of Bobby's "band of brothers," as the attorney general years later inscribed a picture of his young, idealistic Justice Department team. The battle cry from Shakespeare's Henry V appealed to Bobby's sense of heroic mission: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother.../ And gentlemen...now a- bed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here." If the perfect communion between Jack and Bobby was at the heart of the Kennedy administration, it was this wider circle of brothers -- all intensely devoted to the Kennedy cause -- who gave the New Frontier its blood and muscle. Bobby would quietly turn to several of these trusted aides to help him on his quest for the truth.
Guthman was having lunch with a congressman from Seattle on Capitol Hill when someone came rushing in to tell them the president had been shot. He immediately drove to Hickory Hill, where he spent the rest of the afternoon with Bobby. By now, Kennedy family members were gathering at the Virginia estate. But Bobby was also surrounding himself with "brothers" like Guthman. The two men paced endlessly together, back and forth on the backyard lawn. "There's so much bitterness I thought they would get one of us, but Jack, after all he'd been through, never worried about it," Kennedy told Guthman.
"Bob said, 'I thought they would get me, instead of the president,' " Guthman said, recalling the conversation years later. "He distinctly said 'they.'"
Guthman and others around Bobby that day thought "they" might be coming for the younger Kennedy next. So apparently did Bobby. He was normally opposed to tight security measures, which he found intrusive and perhaps even a sign of cowardice -- "Kennedys don't need bodyguards," he had said, even after he began receiving death threats as the crime-busting attorney general. But that afternoon, Kennedy allowed the Fairfax County police, who rushed to Hickory Hill after the assassination without being summoned, to protect his home. Later, the police were replaced by federal marshals, who encircled Kennedy's estate after Guthman and other RFK aides spoke to Chief U.S. Marshal Jim McShane.
Bobby trusted McShane and his men. James Joseph Patrick McShane was a street-tough Irish New York cop. He had worked with Bobby as an investigator for the Senate Rackets Committee in the late 1950s and had served as bodyguard for JFK during the presidential campaign. He and his men had put their lives on the line in the civil rights battles of the South, saving Martin Luther King Jr. from a howling mob that had surrounded a church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was preaching in May 1961. The following year, McShane and his ragtag troops had again formed a thin, bloodied line in defense of James Meredith, the black student who set off a fiery white uprising when he enrolled at the University of Mississippi. McShane was "built like a tank, had the crushed nose of the Golden Gloves boxing champ he once was, and the puffy face of a man who enjoyed booze in his off-hours," observed one chronicler of his exploits. As a New York cop, he had survived seven shoot- outs on the streets and received the NYPD's medal of honor.
It's telling that Bobby turned to McShane and his band of federal irregulars in his hour of dread, and not Hoover's more professional G-men. Even when his brother was still alive, Bobby had learned that Hoover's men could not be trusted in the administration's most dire showdowns, like those in the South. Nor did he turn to the Secret Service for protection that day. He was already trying to fi gure out why the agency entrusted with the president's personal safety had failed his brother.
With their youth, ambition, and deep sense of family entitlement, the Kennedys had come into offi ce confi dent they could take charge of the federal government and put it at the service of their cause. But on November 22, Bobby Kennedy immediately suspected something had broken inside the government and that his brother had been cut down by one of its jagged shards. In these hours of unknown danger, Bobby followed his old tribal instincts, turning not to the appropriate government agencies, but to the tight band of brothers whom the Kennedys had always most relied upon. None of the intensely loyal men gathered around Kennedy at his home that day knew if Bobby's life too was now in danger. Nor did they know for certain in these fearful hours where the threat might come from or on whom they could depend. But they were sure that they could count on Jim McShane and his men to give their lives for the surviving Kennedy. He was one of them.
While McShane's marshals staked out the front gate at Hickory Hill and fanned out along the perimeters of the estate, Bobby worked to put faces to the conspiracy that he suspected was behind his brother's death -- to find out who "they" were. No one knew more about the dark tensions within the Kennedy administration than he did. As President Kennedy struggled to command his government, clashing with hard-liners in his national security bureaucracy, he had given more and more responsibility to his brother Bobby. Among the items in the attorney general's bulging portfolio were the CIA, which the Kennedys were determined to overhaul after the agency led them into the Bay of Pigs disaster; the Mafi a, which Bobby had declared war on, telling his fellow Justice Department crusaders that either they would succeed or the mob would run the country; and Cuba, the island nation around which raged so much Cold War sound and fury. When it came to administration policy on Cuba, Bobby was "president," General Alexander Haig, one of the Pentagon's point men on the issue, would later say.
The CIA, Mafia, and Cuba -- Bobby knew they were intertwined. The CIA had formed a sinister alliance with underworld bosses to assassinate Fidel Castro, working with mob-connected Cuban exile leaders. Bobby thought he had severed the CIA-Mafia merger when the agency finally told him about it in May 1962. But he also knew the agency often defied higher authority. He would later describe CIA actions during the Bay of Pigs as "virtually treason." It was this shadowy nexus -- the CIA, Mafia, and Cuban exiles -- that Kennedy immediately focused on during the afternoon of November 22.
After phoning Dallas, Kennedy made a call to CIA headquarters, just down the highway in Langley, Virginia, where he often began his day, stopping there to work on Cuba- related business and trying to establish control over the agency's "wilderness of mirrors" for his brother. Bobby's phone call to Langley on the afternoon of November 22 was a stunning outburst. Getting a ranking offi cial on the phone -- whose identity is still unknown -- Kennedy confronted him in a voice vibrating with fury and pain. "Did your outfit have anything to do with this horror?" Kennedy erupted. Whatever the anonymous CIA official told Bobby that afternoon, it did not put his suspicions about the agency to rest.
Later that day, Kennedy would take his question to the top of the CIA. John McCone, director of the agency, who was eating lunch in his Langley office when his aide Walter Elder burst in to tell him the news from Dallas. McCone immediately phoned Bobby, who told him to come right over to the house in McLean. McCone later recalled that he was with Bobby and Ethel in their second-floor library when Kennedy received the call telling him his brother was dead. "There was almost nothing we could say to one another," recalled McCone. "We were seized with the horror of it."
After he called his mother, Rose, and brother, Teddy, to tell them Jack was gone, a "steely" Bobby (as McCone described him) took the CIA chief outside to the backyard and engaged him in a remarkable conversation that would extend, off and on, for three hours that afternoon. The attorney general of the United States wanted to know whether the country's intelligence agency had assassinated the president of the United States. Bobby would later tell a close friend, "You know, at the time I asked McCone...if they had killed my brother, and I asked him in a way that he couldn't lie to me, and they hadn't."
Bobby's remarks about his conversation with McCone have caused intense speculation. McCone, a fellow Catholic, shared a deep sense of faith with Bobby, as well as with Ethel, both of whom had consoled him after the death of his first wife. He once took a rosary ring that he carried around in his billfold for comfort to Rome, where he had a copy made and had it blessed by the pope as a gift for Bobby. Perhaps Kennedy made McCone swear to tell him the truth, as one devout Catholic to another.
In the days following the assassination, McCone would come to conclude that there had been two shooters in Dallas, in striking contrast to the official version of the crime as the work of a lone gunman, which was being ardently promoted by Hoover and the FBI. But there is no evidence that he ever came to suspect his own agency.
Bobby accepted McCone's assurance about the CIA that afternoon. But he also knew that McCone, a wealthy Republican businessman from California with no intelligence background, was not in firm control of his own agency. Kennedy himself knew more about the spy outfit's sinister exploits, including the Mafi a plots, than McCone did. His brother had replaced the CIA's legendary creator, Allen Dulles, with McCone after the agency's spectacular failure at the Bay of Pigs. But McCone never worked his way into the agency's old boy network that dated back to its origins in the OSS during World War II. And there was a sense he preferred to be left in the dark on the more unpleasant stuff, that his religious principles would not countenance some of the agency's black arts. Bobby would realize that while he had taken his question to the very top of the CIA, he had asked the wrong man.
Kennedy also made inquiries about the Mafia that day. The young attorney general had built his reputation, before and after coming to the Justice Department, on a relentless crusade to crush the power of organized crime in America, which he felt was threatening to take control of the country's economy through corrupt labor unions like Jimmy Hoffa's Teamsters as well as local, state, and federal government through payoffs to politicians, judges, and elected officials. While Hoover was still focusing on the empty shell of the Communist Party USA as public enemy number one, RFK was convinced that the true "enemy within" was a corporate underworld that was gaining the power to overshadow the country's legitimate democratic institutions. "Of course it's a different era now, maybe terrorism is a greater threat these days than organized crime," said Guthman recently, sitting in his cramped office at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, where he still lectures. "But if you look at what has happened in South and Central America, you can see Bob was right to worry about organized crime taking over our country. Where would we be if he hadn't recognized the power and importance of the Mafia and the rackets? This was a time when the chief of the FBI, Hoover, was saying there was no such thing as organized crime."
By hounding the gods of the underworld in a way no other attorney general had ever done, Bobby Kennedy knew that he had drawn their fiery wrath. He knew about the death threats made against him by Hoffa, whose control over the Teamsters' golden pension fund made him the Mafia's favorite banker. But he was undeterred. His last item of business before breaking for lunch on November 22 was the prosecution of Chicago godfather Sam Giancana on political corruption charges. Before he got the call from Hoover, he was waiting to hear from New Orleans about the verdict in Mafia lord Carlos Marcello's deportation hearing. And in Nashville, Walter Sheridan, the ace investigator who led Bobby's "Get Hoffa" squad, was monitoring the latest developments in the Justice Department's jury tampering case against the Teamster boss.
On the evening of November 22, Bobby phoned Julius Draznin in Chicago, an expert on union corruption for the National Labor Relations Board. He asked Draznin to look into whether there was any Mafia involvement in the killing of his brother. Draznin knew this meant Sam Giancana, who had been overheard on FBI wiretaps raging against a Kennedy "double-cross," after claiming to deliver the Chicago vote to JFK in 1960. "We need help on this," Bobby told Draznin that evening. "Maybe you can open some doors [with] the mob. Anything you can pick up, let me know directly."
But the man on whom Robert Kennedy relied more than any other to crawl into the country's darkest corners was Walter Sheridan. A former FBI man who had left the bureau in disgust over Hoover's methods, he had first proved himself with Bobby as an investigator for the Senate Rackets Committee where Kennedy served as chief counsel. A fellow Irish Catholic born on the exact same day as Bobby, November 20, 1925, he was as fearless as his boss in the crusade against crime and corruption. When the Kennedy Justice Department was escalating its drive against Hoffa, the death threats would not be directed solely at Bobby but at his right-hand man Sheridan as well. On these occasions, the Sheridan family home would be turned into an armed bunker.
"There would be times when the house had numerous federal marshals in it with numerous fi rearms stacked up behind the front door, like they were expecting a whole army to show up," recalled Sheridan's son, Walter Jr. "Shotguns. They were expecting trouble. I was taken to school and choir practice and altar boy meetings by federal marshals -- we couldn't leave home without them. This was on two occasions, when Hoffa was on trial."
Ted Kennedy later recalled, "My brother loved to tease Walter about his mild demeanor and quiet manner. But as Bobby wrote in [his book about the Mafia] The Enemy Within, Walter's angelic appearance hid a core of toughness. As any wrongdoer well knew, the angelic quality also represented the avenging angel."
It was Sheridan, said Ted Kennedy, to whom Bobby turned when the world was on fi re. "You wanted Walter with you in any foxhole, and that is why he always seemed to get the most difficult assignments."
Sheridan was not in Washington on November 22. He was sitting in a federal court building in Nashville, where Hoffa was awaiting trial, when an associate came running in and told him, "Walt, there has just been a news flash that the president has been shot in Dallas!" Sheridan immediately phoned Bobby, but couldn't reach him. But the two brothers-in-arms would soon rejoin each other. And when Sheridan returned to the East Coast, Bobby's avenging angel would be given the most diffi cult assignment of his life: f nd out who killed the president of the United States.
Robert Kennedy had one other phone conversation on November 22 that sheds light on his thinking that afternoon. He spoke to Enrique "Harry" Ruiz-Williams, a Bay of Pigs veteran who was his closest associate in the Cuban exile community. Kennedy stunned his friend by telling him point-blank, "One of your guys did it."
The venerable Washington journalist Haynes Johnson is the source for this story. Then a young reporter for the Washington Evening Star, Johnson had come to know both Ruiz-Williams and Kennedy while researching a book on the Bay of Pigs. Johnson remembers almost coming to blows with Bobby, who wanted his book to focus on the Cuban heroes of the invasion like Ruiz-Williams and not the Kennedy administration's controversial actions during the ill-fated operation. "We had a very difficult conversation one afternoon at the Metropolitan Club in New York," recalled Johnson, sitting in the basement study of his Washington home. "He got very hard-eyed and didn't want to give me any information, and I said something to the effect, 'I'll be around here a lot longer than you and your brother' and he got very mad." It's a remark even more unnerving now than it must have been then. "I was young, foolish and arrogant myself at the time," shrugged the journalist. Johnson started to storm out of the club, but Bobby jumped to his feet and grabbing him by the shoulders, told him, "Don't go away, don't go away." It was the beginning of a warm relationship between the two men, the kind Bobby was in the habit of forming after first almost exchanging punches with a man.
"He was sort of a hard, passionate parish priest, the avenger type -- all faith and justice," said Johnson. "I always thought of Jack, on the other hand, like an English lord."
On the afternoon of November 22, Johnson was planning to celebrate the completion of his book over lunch with Ruiz-Williams, who had been one of his principal sources. On his way to the Ebbitt Hotel, a drab establishment in downtown Washington where the CIA put up anti-Castro leaders like Ruiz-Williams, Johnson heard the news from Dallas on his car radio. As soon as Johnson reached Ruiz-Williams's cramped, sparsely furnished room, they phoned Kennedy. It was Ruiz-Williams who spoke to him. "Harry stood there with the phone in his hand and then he told me what Bobby said....It was a shocking thing. I'll never forget, Harry got this look on his face. After he hung up, Harry told me what Bobby had said: 'One of your guys did it.' "
Who did Kennedy mean? When he first recounted the phone conversation, in a 1981 article in the Washington Post, Johnson assumed Bobby was referring to accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, whose name might have been known to Kennedy by then since he was arrested in Dallas at 2:50 p.m. Eastern time. Later Johnson concluded that Kennedy was probably pointing his finger in the general direction of Cuban exiles. In either case, it's important to note that Kennedy apparently never jumped to the conclusion that afternoon that Fidel Castro -- the target of so much U.S. intrigue -- was behind his brother's killing. It was the anti-Castro camp where Bobby's suspicions immediately flew, not pro-Castro agents. It seems that Bobby either immediately connected Oswald with anti-Castro Cuban exiles or suspected one of Ruiz-Williams's fellow exile leaders in the crime.
Bobby came to this conclusion despite the energetic efforts of the CIA and FBI, which almost immediately after the assassination began trying to pin the blame on Cuba's Communist government. Hoover himself phoned Kennedy again around four that afternoon to inform him that Oswald had shuttled in and out of Cuba, which was untrue. In reality, Oswald -- or someone impersonating him -- had tried only once, without success, to enter Cuba through Mexico, earlier that fall. In any case, the FBI chief failed to convince Bobby that the alleged assassin was a Castro agent.
Kennedy did not mean to implicate Harry Ruiz-Williams himself with his stunning assertion. The Cuban exile world was a "snake pit," in Johnson's words, of competing anti-Castro conspirators, some aligned with the Kennedys, some with the CIA, some with the Mafi a, and some with mixed or mysterious allegiances. Bobby trusted Ruiz-Williams, more than any other anti-Castro leader, to bring order to this feverish world. "I want you to take charge of the whole thing," Bobby had told Ruiz-Williams earlier in 1963. "I'm not going to see any more Cubans unless they come through you, because they make me crazy." Throughout the year, Ruiz-Williams was in almost daily contact with Kennedy, as the two plotted ways to topple Castro, with RFK strongly backing his friend's effort to form a coalition of the more responsible exile leaders.
Ruiz-Williams had completely charmed Bobby. A U.S.-trained mining engineer, he joined the Bay of Pigs brigade though, pushing forty, he was older than most of the other volunteers. After the invasion, badly wounded, lying in a makeshift fi eld hospital, he still tried to shoot a visiting Castro with his .45, but the gun clicked empty. Despite his ordeal, Ruiz-Williams came out of Cuban prison with a sense of proportion, unlike many of the other Bay of Pigs veterans, who were consumed with a poisonous hatred for both Castro and President Kennedy, whom they blamed for not coming to their rescue on the beaches of Cuba. He liked Bobby from the moment he met him, when he was invited to the attorney general's office after his release. "I was expecting to see a very impressive guy, very well dressed, and a big office and all that," Ruiz-Williams later told Johnson. "And when I got into his office there was this young man with no coat on, his sleeves rolled up, his collar open and his tie down. He looks at you very straight in the eyes and his office is filled with things done by little children -- paintings and things like that. I liked him right away."
The feeling was mutual. Bobby invited Harry to Hickory Hill and took him on family skiing trips. "Harry was an old-fashioned buccaneer type," recalled Johnson. "He had these flashing black eyes and passion. And Bob Kennedy just liked him, he trusted him implicitly."
But the other Cuban exile leaders were a different story. Bobby, his brother's vigilant watchman, knew he had to watch them. He sent Harry to Miami to help provide security for JFK before the president traveled to Florida in November 1963, after the attorney general was informed of death threats there against his brother. Even though the city had offered the Democrats $600,000, Miami had already been ruled out by the administration as a site for the party's 1964 convention because it was feared that anti-Kennedy feeling among the Cubans there could explode.
Another Bay of Pigs veteran, Angelo Murgado, said he was so alarmed by the murderous talk about President Kennedy in Miami's Cuban exile community that he approached Bobby through anti-Castro leader Manuel Artime and offered to keep an eye on the more dangerous element and report back to the attorney general. Murgado said that he, Artime -- the political leader of the Bay of Pigs brigade -- and brigade veteran Manuel Reboso all met with Bobby at the Kennedy mansion in Palm Beach, Florida in 1963 to tell him of their concerns. "I was thinking we have to control and keep a sharp look on our Cubans, the ones that were hating Kennedy," recalled Murgado. "I was afraid that one of our guys would go crazy. Bobby told us to come up with a plan and do it....He was fanatic about his brother, he would do anything to take care of him."
A few months after the Kennedys took office in Washington, a New York Times Magazine profile of Bobby described him prowling the "broader reaches of his brother's administration...like a Welsh collie -- and with much the same quick-nipping protectiveness."
Now his brother was dead. And in the barrage of phone calls and conversations on November 22, it is clear to see where Bobby was hunting for the culprits. In those corners of the administration that had been his responsibility -- the CIA, Mafia, Cuba.
When Bobby Kennedy told his comrade-in-arms Harry Ruiz-Williams, "One of your guys did it," he might as well have been saying, "One of our guys did it" or even "One of my guys did it." Bobby was saying that his brother had been killed by someone in his own anti- Castro operation, or by someone suspicious in the anti- Castro exile world he should have been watching. He should have been on top of this -- that's the way Bobby's mind worked. Around his neck hung a St. Michael medallion, symbol of righteous power. He was supposed to know where the darkness fell, and how to keep his brother safe from it. His brother's death was his fault -- this is certainly another wound that his brother's killers aimed to infl ict. For they knew it would not be enough to assassinate the president -- they would have to fi nd a way to stop his avenging brother from coming after them as well, to hobble him with guilt and doubt.
But this poison dart would take a while to work its enervating effects. On November 22 and the days immediately after, Bobby Kennedy was a man on fire to find the truth.
As dusk fell on the 22nd, RFK and Guthman drove from Hickory Hill to the Pentagon, where Kennedy joined Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McNamara, the former Ford Motor president who had tried to tighten civilian control of the Pentagon, was the Cabinet member most admired by the Kennedy brothers. Taylor, an intellectual military man who had fallen out of step with his colleagues for challenging the Eisenhower- era nuclear orthodoxy of massive retaliation, was also viewed as a Kennedy imposition at the Pentagon. Bobby would name a son after him. The Kennedy brothers' tensions with the military hierarchy were no less severe than those with the CIA. They were grateful to have two commanding presences like McNamara and Taylor in a military culture they otherwise thought of as a hostile camp.
While Guthman remained in the E-Ring, Kennedy, McNamara, and Taylor walked out to a Pentagon landing pad and boarded a helicopter for Andrews Air Force Base, where they waited in the gathering darkness for the arrival of Air Force One. McNamara said he could not recall if Kennedy discussed his suspicions about Dallas with him that evening: "I don't have any recollection of him saying he thought A, B or C did it."
The presidential plane heading their way in the evening gloom was a vessel of dark thoughts. In the rear compartment, Jacqueline Kennedy and Kenny O'Donnell brooded by the coffi n of her dead husband, drinking from dark tumblers of Scotch that seemed to have no effect on them after the horrors of Dealey Plaza, even though the young widow had never tasted whisky before. She shrugged off Admiral George Burkley, the White House physician, when he gently tried to persuade her to change out of her gore-soaked pink Chanel suit. She was covered in rust-red stains; her husband's blood was caked even under her bracelet. But she refused to scrub herself clean. "No," she hissed. "Let them see what they've done."
This would become one of the most indelible remarks from that haunted day, ever since William Manchester recorded it in his 1967 best-seller, The Death of a President. It's widely quoted but seldom analyzed. Like Bobby's "I thought they would get me, instead of the president," Jackie's defiant statement was filled with implications too chilling for journalists or historians to dwell upon. The feeling took hold immediately within the Kennedy inner circle that day -- they were facing an organized "they," not a lone, wayward malcontent. This is not to say that they were necessarily right or that their convictions were shared by every core member of the New Frontier. But a surprising number of Kennedy loyalists did reach the same desolate conclusion as Bobby and Jackie that day, and believed it for the rest of their lives.
As Air Force One prepared to land, Jackie and O'Donnell decided that he and JFK's other close aides would carry the coffin off the plane. She pointedly told a White House military attaché, Brigadier General Godfrey McHugh, "I want his friends to carry him down." And when another general came back to the rear of the plane to tell O'Donnell, "The Army is prepared to take the coffin off," O'Donnell shot back, "We'll take it off." But in the end, the military would have the final word. "Clear the area," McHugh ordered as soon as Air Force One taxied to a halt. "We'll take care of the coffin."
This tussle over proprietorship of the presidential coffin would set the stage for a larger drama around the JFK autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital, which was ostensibly controlled by Bobby Kennedy on behalf of the family but was actually in the hands of military officials.
Bobby hurried to Jackie on Air Force One, brushing past Lyndon Johnson in a brusque manner the new president never forgot. "I want to see Jackie," LBJ's press secretary, Liz Carpenter, thought she heard him mumble. "Oh, Bobby," Jackie exhaled as he wrapped his arms around his brother's blood-spattered widow. It was just like Bobby, she thought; he was always there when you needed him. Later, riding with him in the rear of an ambulance to Bethesda, next to the coffin, Jackie reported what had happened in the hot, bright streets of Dallas, the words rushing out of her for twenty minutes, as she told him about the sudden explosion of violence and the chaotic aftermath at Parkland Hospital.
Bobby was also anxious to hear from the Secret Service men who had returned from Dallas that evening. In the ambulance, Kennedy slid open the plastic partition separating the rear from the front and spoke to Roy Kellerman, the agent who had ridden in the passenger seat of JFK's limousine in Dallas.
"At the hospital I'll come up and talk to you," Kellerman told the president's brother.
"You do that," replied Kennedy, and shut the partition.
As Kennedy later learned when he quizzed Kellerman, a lumbering Secret Service veteran so soft-spoken his fellow agents nicknamed him "Gabby," the agent did not believe "it was one man." Kellerman would later tell the Warren Commission that "there have got to be more than three shots, gentlemen" -- proof there was more than one shooter -- and that a "flurry of shells" flew into the vehicle. After her husband died, Kellerman's widow, June, would say that he always "accepted that there was a conspiracy."
According to one account, the chief of the Secret Service himself, James Rowley, also told Bobby that evening that his brother had been cut down in a crossfi re by three, perhaps four, gunmen. The Secret Service believed the president was "the victim of a powerful organization," Rowley informed Kennedy. By the time he testifi ed before the Warren Commission months later, Rowley had changed his mind, telling the panel he believed Oswald alone had killed the president. But the night must have grown darker for Bobby on November 22 when the head of the Secret Service told him of an organized plot more powerful than the presidency itself.
As his brother's autopsy proceeded in the morgue below, Bobby and Jackie waited in a dreary seventeenth-floor suite in the stone tower of the Bethesda Naval Hospital. They were surrounded by a retinue that now included McNamara; JFK's close friend, Newsweek journalist Ben Bradlee, and his wife, Tony; Bobby's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith; and Jackie's mother, Janet Auchincloss. While Bobby made a flurry of phone calls, the group consoled the young widow, still wearing her murder-scene clothes. "There was this totally doomed child, with that God-awful skirt, not saying anything, looking burned alive," Bradlee would recall.
Manchester, whose book remains the classic account of the postassassination Kennedy drama, wrote that it was Bobby who "was really in charge in the tower suite" that evening, even making sure that his brother's personal possessions were removed from his White House bedroom to spare Jackie's feelings when she returned there. Manchester's portrait of a fully in command Bobby was later taken up by Kennedy critics such as journalists Seymour Hersh and Gus Russo, who depicted the attorney general as a feverish cover- up artist that night, working into the early hours of the morning to make sure the autopsy report would not include any evidence of his brother's Addison's disease or chronic venereal affl ictions that would have damaged the JFK legend. In reality, however, RFK's dominion over the grisly proceedings in the morgue below was far from complete. The family's medical representative, JFK's personal physician Dr. Burkley, was banished from the morgue soon after the eight- hour procedure began, and he joined the Kennedy group in the tower. The autopsy itself was in the hands of three inexperienced pathologists under the constant supervision of a cadre of high-ranking military men. So crowded was the small room with uniformed officers, Secret Service men, and FBI agents that a Navy autopsy photographer would describe the scene as "a three- ring circus."
The report finally produced under this blanket of military supervision would contradict key findings of the emergency room surgeons who had first examined the mortally wounded president earlier in the day at Parkland Hospital, as well as the death certifi cate signed in Dallas by Dr. Burkley. For instance, where Parkland doctors saw clear evidence of an entrance wound in the throat -- indicating a shot from the front -- the Bethesda report was edited to conclude it was an exit wound, conforming to the theory of Oswald as lone assassin, firing from the rear.
Years later, one of the Bethesda pathologists, Dr. Pierre Finck, would testify in the case brought to court by fl amboyant New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison -- the only trial to come out of the Kennedy assassination -- that it was the Kennedy family who had blocked him and his medical colleagues from properly examining JFK's throat wound by dissecting the bullet track and removing the neck organs. But the Kennedys placed no such limitations on the autopsy. The authorization form for the post-mortem examination, signed by Robert F. Kennedy on behalf of the president's widow, was left blank in the space that asked if the family preferred any restrictions on the procedure. Under persistent questioning from Garrison's assistant D.A. at the 1969 trial, Finck fi nally conceded that an Army general and two admirals were actually running the show in the crowded autopsy room, none of whom had medical credentials. "Oh, yes, there were admirals, and when you are a lieutenant colonel in the Army you just follow orders," Finck told the New Orleans court.
It is doubtful that Bobby -- high in the seventeenth floor suite at Bethesda -- was aware of how the story of his brother's assassination was being rewritten in the morgue down below. But he made one final attempt to take control after the autopsy was fi nally completed at well past three in the morning. Bobby took possession of his brother's brain and tissue samples, entrusting them to the care of Dr. Burkley. Over the years, this would produce waves of morbid speculation, with some suggesting it was a sign of Bobby's gloomy, unsound mind at the time and others arguing it was yet more proof of a family cover-up aimed at protecting the Camelot myth. Perhaps a more convincing explanation is that a deeply suspicious Bobby, with Burkley's assistance, was desperately holding onto any physical evidence he thought might be vital in a credible investigation in the future -- that is, one under his control.
Kennedy's phone logs show that in February 1964, he also discussed taking possession of JFK's death limousine, which had been sent to a Detroit repair shop after the assassination, where -- his brother's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, informed him -- it was to be "done over" for President Johnson. Perhaps the repair process -- which would eliminate forensic evidence -- "could be stopped," Lincoln told RFK, if Kennedy declared that he wanted the limousine to be "given to the [Kennedy] Library."
Whether or not Kennedy was intent on collecting evidence for a future investigation, it is certain that Burkley shared his dark thoughts about Dallas. Oddly, the president's physician -- who should have been near the top of the Warren Commission's witness list -- would never be called to testify. Nor was he questioned by the Secret Service or FBI. Nor was the death certificate he signed -- which refuted the claim that JFK's throat wound was caused by a shot from behind -- admitted into the offi cial records. As far as government investigators were concerned, Burkley was a non- person.
But Dr. Burkley left his ghost world -- briefl y -- to put on record his true opinion of what had happened to President Kennedy. JFK was the target of a conspiracy, Burkley told assassination researcher Henry Hurt on the telephone when he contacted him in 1982, refusing to elaborate. After years of public silence on the subject, this was a thunderclap.
That night at Bethesda, when Burkley was still down in the morgue, as all the beribboned men hovered over the president's cadaver, O'Donnell came down to retrieve Jackie Kennedy's wedding ring, which in a spasm of grief she had slipped onto the fi nger of her husband after he expired on the operating table at Parkland. O'Donnell knew she would want it. Burkley insisted on taking it upstairs himself. There she was, in the very hospital suite he had reserved for her during the final days of her last, ill-fated pregnancy. He gave it to her, while words awkwardly worked their way out of him. There was nothing to say, after the day they had been through together. She reached into her pocket and gave him one of the red roses she had been carrying in the motorcade, whose petals were slowly turning the wine-stain color of her splattered suit. He bowed his head. "This is the greatest treasure of my life," murmured the loyal doctor.
It was after 4:30 in the morning when Bobby and Jackie finally returned to the White House with the body of the president. Bobby walked upstairs with Jackie and her mother to make sure they could get to sleep. "A terrible sense of loss overwhelmed everybody who was present in the room," remembered family friend Charles Spalding, "and Bobby was trying to calm everybody and get them to bed." Later he asked Spalding to walk with him to the Lincoln Room, where he was going to sleep. His friend, realizing he was "terribly distraught," urged him to take a sleeping pill, which he did. Then Spalding closed the door. "All this time he had been under control. And then I just heard him sobbing. He was saying, 'Why, God? Why, God, why?'...He just gave way completely, and he was just racked with sobs and the only person he could address himself to was 'Why, God, why? What possible reason could there be in this?'"
After a brief, restless sleep, Bobby was up and walking the South Grounds by 8:00 a.m. that Saturday. The White House was now fi lled with family, close friends, and aides. Among them was actor Peter Lawford, husband of Bobby's sister Pat, and his manager, Milt Ebbins, who had flown in from Los Angeles the night before. JFK had always enjoyed the two Hollywood men's company, pumping them for show business gossip and taking them on impromptu White House tours to show off the pomp of his new domicile. "Did you ever think you'd be in the White House with the president of the United States looking at Gilbert Stuart's painting of Washington?" a bemused Kennedy asked the Hollywood agent
Now Ebbins was back in the White House and witness to another historical tableau. The cavernous East Room had been transformed into a black-crepe-bedecked funeral hall, with the coffin of Ebbins's friend at the center, resting on a catafalque modeled on the one that had held the body of President Lincoln. A madcap mood of Irish mourning gripped the White House. "We had dinner that night, it was like an Irish wake," Ebbins recalled. "You'd never know there was a dead man upstairs in a coffin. Laughing, jokes, everything. At one point Ethel took off her wig and put it on me. That family just turns off death. They grieve alone, by themselves, I think."
Ebbins later came upon Bobby, who did not participate in the frantic dinner party, standing alone next to his brother's coffi n. "I walked in and he had both hands on top of the coffin, with his head down. He was crying. I thought it was strange, because Bobby never showed his emotions." Ebbins had always thought of the younger brother as a "cold fish."
"Every time we met him, he was nice to me, but it wasn't Jack. Oh, Jack, he was something else. They were so different. Bobby had his holy grail. He was out to do something. Jack was too, but you never knew it. Eventually you did, but he would never talk about it."
But Ebbins was seeing another side of the younger Kennedy that weekend. His suffering seemed biblical.
Years later, Peter Lawford would tell a friend that during the weekend at the White House, Bobby revealed that he thought JFK had been killed by a powerful plot that grew out of one of the government's secret anti-Castro operations. Bobby reportedly told Lawford and other family members that there was nothing he could do at that point, since they were facing a formidable enemy and they no longer controlled the government.
During that gray, wet weekend, the tensions between the inner Kennedy circle and the national security team that had served the president continued to flare. Defense Secretary McNamara, who had convinced Jackie and Bobby Kennedy to lay the president to rest at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac from the capital, escorted groups of family and friends on four separate occasions to scout for a burial site in the cemetery. (O'Donnell and the Irish mafi a, ever possessive of their fallen leader, were lobbying strenuously for Jack to be returned to the Boston soil from which he had sprung.) On his second trip, McNamara, unprotected by raincoat, hat, or umbrella, was soon soaked to the bone in a sudden downpour. None of the attending generals, safely bundled up in their own rain gear, made even a polite attempt to extend their civilian boss some cover. Artist and close family friend William Walton, who had been tapped by Jackie to help oversee the aesthetics of her husband's funeral, was flabbergasted by the military retinue's blatant show of disrespect for McNamara.
The sodden McNamara weathered the storm and oversaw the successful selection of a site, high on the slope below the white-columned antebellum mansion of General Robert E. Lee. The defense secretary was told that this was the same spot where President Kennedy had stood admiring the view, during a tour of Arlington Cemetery that he took a few weeks before his assassination. The young tour guide who escorted the president that day told McNamara that Kennedy had gazed across the Potomac at the Lincoln Memorial in the distance. "The president said that it was so beautiful, he could stay up there forever," the guide recalled.
On Sunday afternoon, AT 12:21 Eastern time, the second shock from Dallas struck the nation -- Lee Harvey Oswald was gunned down on live television as he was being escorted through the basement of the Dallas police building. His murderer -- a burly nightclub owner named Jack Ruby who shouted, "You killed the president, you rat," as he shot Oswald mortally in the stomach -- professed to be distraught about the pain that the alleged assassin had caused the Kennedy family. But the killing had the feeling of a gangland hit meant to silence the accused Oswald before he could talk. In fact, Lyndon Johnson aide George Reedy thought the TV channel he was watching had cut away from coverage of the Kennedy funeral preparations to play an old Edward G. Robinson gangster movie when he first saw the shooting out of the corner of his eye.
The brazen elimination of first the president and then his accused assassin sent a deep shudder through Washington circles. On the phone with Bill Walton, Agnes Meyer, the aging, blunt-spoken mother of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, growled, "What is this -- some kind of goddam banana republic?" Even former President Eisenhower was put in the same bitter frame of mind. It reminded him of a tour he had made of Haiti's national palace back in the 1930s when he was a young major. Reading the dates on the marble busts of the former heads of state that lined the wall, he was shocked to realize that two-thirds of them had been slain in office. His own country, he reassured himself, would never succumb to this type of political bloodlust. Now he wasn't so sure.
It was a worked- up Lyndon Johnson who told Bobby Kennedy about the shooting of Oswald. Entering the Blue Room of the White House, the new president greeted the surprised attorney general by urging him "to do something....We've got to get involved. It's giving the United States a bad name around the world." LBJ accurately predicted the world reaction -- newspapers in the free and communist camps alike howled about the "grotesque" display in Dallas, as the Daily Herald of London described the back-to-back murders, and openly wondered whether Oswald "was killed to keep him from talking," in the words of a Paris newspaper.
But it's uncertain how sincere Johnson was in his appeal for Bobby to join him in taking action. At this point, LBJ was still resisting calls for even a decorous investigation along the lines of the future Warren Commission. The new president seemed more concerned about the public relations aspect of the debacle in Dallas than in its actual legal resolution. In any case, Kennedy, filled with loathing for a man he immediately regarded as a usurper, never accepted the new president's challenge to work with him on the mystery of November 22. Such an alliance would have been the only way for the monumental crime to have been solved. If these dueling halves of the Kennedy legacy -- antagonists out of a Shakespearean court drama -- had been able to put aside their storied mutual contempt, history would have been different. But this would have been so far out of character for both men that it was never a possibility.
Later on Sunday, Milt Ebbins stood in the living room of the White House's presidential quarters with Peter Lawford, watching in grim disbelief as the TV played the shooting of Oswald over and over again. "Bobby came in, looked at the television, and then went over and turned it off. He didn't say anything. Just turned it off."
Bobby didn't want to dwell openly on the morbid spectacle in Dallas. But he wanted to quietly fi gure it out. It was a pattern established that first weekend, and he stuck to it for the rest of his life. He refused to cooperate with the two major public investigations of his brother's murder during his lifetime -- the Warren Commission and Jim Garrison's probe -- for reasons that are both understandable and perplexing. But he doggedly pursued his own secret avenues of scrutiny in a determined effort to fi nd the truth. And Jack Ruby was one of his first investigative targets.
There was no one in America with more acute investigative instincts than Robert Kennedy when it came to organized crime. And Jack Ruby had mob written all over him. If Bobby could not have fi gured this out himself, anonymous tipsters quickly emerged to point him in the right direction. One week after Ruby blasted his way into the national spotlight, an unsigned communication was sent to the attorney general and former CIA director Allen Dulles, from an informer who claimed that Ruby was a mob "fi nger man" or hit man. "If my memory serves me right," wrote the informer, "Jack Ruby was visiting Syndicate Members in San Diego between the last months of 1961 and early months of 1962. The meeting of the Syndicate Members was at 'The Brass Rail,' a bar- restaurant....It is used as a homosexual bar, much as the New York Syndicate under the former Gallo gang used some dozen homosexual bars as 'fronts.' "
Immediately after Oswald was gunned down, Bobby put his right-hand man, Walt Sheridan, on Ruby. An FBI memo dated November 24, 1963, shows that within hours of the shooting, Sheridan turned up evidence that Ruby had been paid off in Chicago by a close associate of Jimmy Hoffa. According to the memo, Sheridan reported that Ruby had "picked up a bundle of money from Allen M. Dorfman," Hoffa's chief advisor on Teamster pension funds and the stepson of Paul Dorfman, the labor boss's main link to the Chicago mob. Robert Peloquin, an attorney in the Justice Department's criminal division, was quickly dispatched to Chicago to check out the story about the Ruby payoff. Informed of this mission by the chief of the Chicago FBI office in a November 25 memo, an irritated J. Edgar Hoover scribbled on the document, "I do wish Department would mind its own business and let us mind ours."
A few days later, Julius Draznin, the federal labor lawyer whom Bobby had asked to look into a possible Chicago Mafi a role in the assassination, provided further evidence about Ruby's background as a mob enforcer. Draznin submitted a report on November 27 that detailed Ruby's labor racketeering activities and his penchant for armed violence. Later, Kennedy would remark that when he saw Ruby's phone records, "The list was almost a duplicate of the people I called before the Rackets Committee."
Bobby opened up another line of investigation the weekend after the assassination. Still brooding about the collapse of security around his brother, he quietly asked family friend Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, to explore whether Hoffa had been involved and whether the Secret Service had been bought off. Bobby knew that Moynihan was not an experienced investigator like Sheridan, but with a background in the long- shoreman's union, the fellow Irishman was presumed to have some useful contacts and expertise about labor corruption. Moynihan would later hand Kennedy a confidential report stating there was no evidence the Secret Service had been corrupted.
Even before Dallas, Bobby Kennedy seemed to be losing confidence in the ability of the Secret Service to protect his brother against the numerous dangers that surrounded him. At the time of the assassination, Kennedy was backing a bill, H.R. 4158, which would have given the attorney general the authority to appoint the agents who protected the president, instead of the Secret Service. Rowley, the agency's chief, acknowledged in his testimony before the Warren Commission that he was adamantly opposed to the bill, asserting that the transfer of authority to RFK's office would "confuse and be a conflict in jurisdiction."
On Tuesday, four days after the assassination, Kennedy spoke again with Clint Hill, following up the phone conversation he had with him on November 22 when the Secret Service agent was still in Dallas. There is no record of this conversation, but the security lapses in Dallas were so flagrant, Kennedy would certainly have wanted to know what happened from an agent like Hill whom the family deeply trusted. ("Clint Hill, he loved us, he was the first man in the car," Jackie would later tell Theodore H. White.)
The Secret Service had selected an unsafe motorcade route through downtown Dallas, culminating in the slow, hairpin turn onto Elm Street where the president met his death. The tall buildings, grassy knoll, and overpass that turned Dealey Plaza into a perfect crossfire shooting gallery were not secured. Motorcycle patrolmen protecting the presidential limousine followed loosely behind instead of tightly surrounding the vehicle. There were no Secret Service men on the limousine's running boards, and agents were also ordered to stay off the rear of the vehicle. The Secret Service later spread the story that it was JFK himself, anxious that the crowd's view of the first couple not be obscured, who insisted on this. But this has been effectively refuted by researcher Vincent Palamara, who interviewed numerous agents, all of whom said the order came from Secret Service officials, not the president.
Clint Hill, riding in the Secret Service follow-up car, was the only agent to sprint for the limousine when the shots rang out. He did this despite being ordered to stay put by the agent in charge of his vehicle, Emory P. Roberts. Hill reached the limousine as the first lady was crawling onto the trunk, where, he realized to his horror, she was trying to retrieve a piece of her husband's skull. He clambered aboard the car and pushed Jackie safely back in.
Despite his heroism, Hill was plagued for years afterwards by the fact that he had not reached the limousine sooner. In 1975, after retiring from the Secret Service, he agreed to be interviewed by Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes. On camera, the former agent's face was convulsed with pain. At one point, Wallace later recalled, Hill broke down in sobs, but he insisted on continuing with the interview. His eyes rimmed in red, his head jerking as he fought to choke his emotions, Hill dragged on a cigarette and forced himself back to Dealey Plaza. If he had only reacted a split second sooner, he could have taken the fatal head shot instead of Kennedy, said Hill.
"And that would have been all right with you?" Wallace asked.
"That would have been fine with me."
"You got there in less than two seconds, Clint...you surely don't have any sense of guilt about that?"
"Yes, I certainly do. I have a great deal of guilt about that. Had I turned in a different direction, I'd have made it. It's my fault....And I'll live with that to my grave."
Remembering the interview years later, Wallace wrote, "I've never interviewed a more tormented man."
It surely is one of the more poignant ironies of November 22 that a man who performed more bravely than anyone else there that day was one of the most severely punished.
On the Monday following the assassination, Bobby put aside his investigative work to bury his brother. In his funeral tailcoat, he marched past the solemn crowds lining the streets, following the flag-draped gun carriage that carried his brother from the Capitol rotunda to St. Matthew's Cathedral and then his fi nal resting place in Arlington. Walking slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue with Jackie and Teddy, he retraced the steps that Jack had taken a thousand days earlier to begin his presidency. In the old news footage, the utter bleakness of the day is all written in Bobby's eyes.
Ed Guthman and Nicholas Katzenbach, the deputy attorney general, had tried to prevail upon Bobby to ride in a closed limousine, for security reasons, instead of walking in the funeral procession. But he waved them off. It was the beginning of a recurring dispute between Guthman and Bobby over his safety that would drag on until the day he died. "He was never afraid. After his brother was killed, a bunch of us would talk to him about getting security, but he always brushed it off."
By midnight, the friends and family who had filled the White House for the funeral had deserted it, leaving only the president's brother and widow. "Shall we go visit our friend?" Bobby suggested. The two drove past the Lincoln Memorial and over the Potomac to the sloping lawn below the Lee mansion whose panoramic vista Jack had marveled at weeks earlier. In the night gloom, brightened only by the grave's fl uttering eternal flame, the two knelt and prayed.
The day after the funeral, the Kennedys began converging as usual for Thanksgiving at the family compound in Hyannis Port. Jackie arrived by plane with her children, Caroline and John Jr., after visiting her husband's grave in the morning. Teddy and his family also flew to the compound, as well as his sisters Pat, Eunice, and Jean and their families. "It was a bleak day," on the Cape that Thanksgiving, the New York Times reported. "The landscape, rust-colored with the dead leaves of scrub oaks, seemed more desolate than the gray, restless waters of Nantucket Sound." The Times reported that when Jackie arrived, she went directly to her father-in-law's house, avoiding her own, which was fi lled with mementos of the late president. One of the more touching, the newspaper observed, was a watercolor painting in the hall commemorating a happier family gathering, with a touch of Kennedy humor. It depicted a victorious JFK returning to his family's cheers at the prow of his racing sloop Victoria -- in a pose that called to mind "Washington Crossing the Delaware" -- after winning his party's presidential nomination in Los Angeles.
Bobby could not face Thanksgiving at Hyannis Port, with a clan now hollowed of the two men who had once been its center -- Jack and Joe, the powerful patriarch who had been robbed of speech and confi ned to a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in 1961. Instead, Bobby stayed at Hickory Hill for the holiday with Ethel and their seven children. About twenty people, the usual mixture of Justice Department colleagues and press friends, were invited for brunch. Bloody Marys were served. Bobby and Ethel "were putting up their usual good fronts," recalled Sheridan, who had just returned from the Hoffa trial in Nashville. "But you could tell, looking at him, of the strain."
Bobby steered Sheridan away from the party -- he wanted to know what his investigator was fi nding out about the assassination. Sheridan suspected that the Teamster boss was involved. "I remember telling him what Hoffa had said when John Kennedy was killed....I didn't want to tell him, but he made me tell him," recalled Sheridan. "Hoffa was down in Miami in some restaurant when the word came of the assassination, and he got up on the table and cheered. At least that's what we heard."
That weekend Bobby took his family to the Kennedy mansion in Palm Beach, where he gathered around him the band of brothers who had fought alongside him, from the 1950s underworld probes to the New Frontier crusades -- including Sheridan, Guthman, and White House press secretary Pierre Salinger. It was a wrenching weekend, with Bobby alternately possessed by numbing grief and savage anger. Salinger, the former San Francisco journalist whose life Bobby had forever transformed after recruiting him for his Senate rackets investigation, remembered the weekend years later with a shudder: "I mean, he was the most shattered man I had ever seen in my life. He was virtually non-functioning. He would walk for hours by himself....From time to time, he'd organize a touch football game....But they were really vicious games. I mean it seemed to me the way he was getting his feelings out was in, you know, knocking people down. Somebody, in fact...broke a leg during one of those games. I mean they were really, really tough."
Bobby also continued to be driven by investigative zeal that weekend. He conferred with Sheridan about Oswald and Ruby. Bobby asked him to fly to Dallas and make some private inquiries. "The key name was Marina Oswald [widow of the alleged assassin] -- he wanted Walt to check in to see what she really knew," Richard Goodwin, the JFK speechwriter and aide, told me.
"The thing about Bob was he was going to deal with the truth, whatever it was," Guthman said. "He was going to work hard to find it out. And the people who worked for him, like Walter, that's the way it was for them too. He was someone Bob trusted totally. He was a first-class investigator. It was always hard facts with Walter, there was not going to be any bullshit."
After sending Sheridan to Dallas, Bobby dispatched another trusted Kennedy family intimate, Bill Walton, to Moscow, one week after the assassination. Walton carried with him a secret message for the Soviet government from Bobby and Jackie. It was the most astounding mission undertaken at the request of the Kennedy family in those astounding days after the death of JFK.
WIlliam Walton was the ideal man to play the role of confidential courier. There was no one the Kennedys trusted more. If Bobby had his loyal band of brothers, JFK attracted the devotion of his own circle of male friends. And none of these men enjoyed a more easy compatibility with the president than Walton, whom JFK fondly called "Billy Boy."
"I was always surprised that he thought I was as close a friend as he did," Walton recalled years later. "He kept drawing me into things. I was even in his bedroom in the White House. I never expected to be there. Finally we were totally intimate. I think he was deeply fond of me. I was of him. I haven't had many male friends as close as he became fi nally.
"I was not subservient to him in the way you see so many people. My position was independent. And to tell you the truth, [when we fi rst met], he thought I was a lot more famous than he was."
Walton met Kennedy in the late 1940s in Georgetown, where the young unwed congressman was living with his sister, Eunice, and Walton was turning the second fl oor of his Victorian- style home into a studio, after leaving journalism to try his hand at painting. Walton, a former Time magazine war correspondent who won a Bronze Star after parachuting into Normandy with General James Gavin's 82nd Airborne Division, had known JFK's late brother and sister, Joe and Kick, in London. He fl ew one mission with Joe's naval aviation outfi t about a month before the eldest Kennedy brother died on a treacherous bombing run. Eight years older than JFK, Walton must have conjured memories of his heroic older brother in Jack.
But if Walton had the resume of a man's man, he was equally at ease in the company of women, with whom his relationships tended to be "sweet and safe and jolly," in the words of one such female companion, Martha Gellhorn, the distinguished war reporter and ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway. Walton also enjoyed a "sweet and safe" friendship with Jackie Kennedy.
He met her in Washington before she was married, when she was "just a wonderful- looking, kooky, young" inquiring photographer for the now- defunct Times-Herald. He immediately was drawn to her "fey, elfi n quality" and her curiosity about books and art. She liked his bohemian style, with his fondness for wearing tight blue jeans and work shirts years before it became a popular look, and his love of gossip. Walton was twenty years older than the wide- eyed gamine, but he had a wonderful, boyish spirit and crooked grin that brought to Gellhorn's mind "a clever and funny Halloween pumpkin." Like other women, Jackie was also surely drawn to Walton's valiant effort at single fatherhood, raising son Matthew and daughter Frances by himself after he was divorced from his mentally unstable wife.
After the Kennedys moved into the White House, the first couple made Walton a frequent sidekick, finally giving him an official role in 1963 as the chairman of the Fine Arts Commission, where he and Jackie joined hands to save Washington's historic blocks from the wrecking balls of philistine developers. She sent him flirtatious notes on White House stationery, including a collage featuring a photo of Walton with the inevitable cigarette in hand and the inscription: "Hate cigarettes -- but I simply can't resist those Marlboro men! Will you be my Valentine?"
He was in a "unique position," Walton later noted, because he was equally close to both Jack and Jackie. They each confi ded their secrets in him and they used him to communicate with each other. "I fi gured out later that I was a real link for both of them. You can well imagine how tough that period is in anybody's life...it is the eye of the hurricane." Walton -- witty, worldly, dishy -- helped ground them both. They could act around him as if they were still the young, carefree couple they had been back in Georgetown.
One summer day Walton brought an architectural model of his proposed renovations for Lafayette Square, which JFK had taken a strong interest in, to Hyannis Port, where the Kennedys were vacationing. "[Jack] got down on the floor and just loved it. And played with it. And Jackie came in and said, 'You two,' " Walton recalled with a laugh. "And later another time she caught us on his bedroom fl oor. He was supposed to be taking a nap, meaning he just had on his underpants, and it was like 2:30 in the afternoon. He'd had a little sleep, and then I'd been let in because I had a crisis on something that had to be decided that afternoon. We're on the fl oor with another [model], and she went out and got her camera and took pictures and sent me a copy of it. And it said, 'The president and the czar,' because the newspapers had started calling me 'czar of Lafayette Square.' "
"Bill thinks that Jack's fl irtatiousness with men is a part of his sexual drive and vanity," Walton's friend, Gore Vidal, recorded in his journal in September 1961. Vidal, who years later called his friend "the only civilizing influence in that White House," enjoyed encouraging Jackie's own naughty side.
That summer he teamed up with Walton to escort Jackie, with whom he had a family connection, on an adventure in Provincetown, already a gay mecca. "Jackie and Bill Walton arrive at the Moors Motel at 5:30," Vidal wrote in his journal. "That morning Jackie had been pondering over the phone to me -- should she wear a blond wig 'with braids' in order not to be recognized. Instead, she wears a silk bandana, a jacket, capri pants, and looks dazzling. Bill wears a dark blue sports shirt; and the usual lopsided grin....They came into my room at the motel. No one about. Jackie flung herself on the bed -- free!"
The first lady of the United States and her male companions then plunged into a night of frivolity that could surely never be repeated in today's dreary, political climate, with its all- seeing media eye. They attended a performance of Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession at the Provincetown Playhouse -- bad enough considering the scandalous history of the play about prostitution and the hypocrisy of Victorian high society, which was banned in Britain for eight years after it was written in 1894. But after the play, the merry trio then went bar-hopping, ending up in a dimly lit watering hole whose upstairs bar was frequented by lesbians. "Jackie was fascinated but dared not look in," Vidal noted.
Bill Walton was very discreet about his sexual yearnings, which by this point in his life were decidedly homosexual. Friends like Vidal -- who ran into him again that September in Provincetown "cruising the Atlantic House, very relaxed" -- certainly knew, as did fellow JFK pals like Ben Bradlee, who assumed he was "gay as a goose." Did JFK and Jackie know? The ever-discreet Walton, who died in 1994, never said whether he revealed his sexuality to the first couple. Walton's son, Matthew, said he would "bet a thousand to one against it." Still, the three shared sexual confidences and Jack was comfortable enough to ask Walton to squire his mistresses to White House events. If JFK was aware of his friend's secret life, he was clearly self-assured enough about his own sexuality not to feel threatened by it. In fact, as Walton remarked to Vidal, he seemed to thrive on male, as well as female, adoration.
Bobby, on the other hand, did not share his brother's casual polymorphous perversity. Vidal, who carried on a notorious feud with the younger Kennedy through much of the 1960s, sensed homosexual panic in Bobby's taut, angry attitude toward men such as himself. "I couldn't stand Bobby," said Vidal, recalling the two men's poisoned relationship years later. "There are certain visceral dislikes that surface in people. It surfaced in me certainly -- and in him." Vidal thought Bobby had the blunt personality of an Irish cop. "The two people Bobby most hated (a rare distinction, because he hated so many people) were...Jimmy Hoffa and me," the author remarked.
Despite the whiff of homophobia in Vidal's nostrils, Bobby never seemed discomfited by Walton. They had worked closely together in the 1960 presidential campaign. "Bill had everybody's ear -- he had direct access to Jack and Bobby," said Justin Feldman, a Kennedy organizer who loaned space in his New York law offi ce to Walton during the campaign. "They completely trusted him. Bobby talked to him several times a day during the campaign. The Kennedys trusted him with the tough assignments. At one point, Bobby didn't like the stories being written about Jack by a reporter in the New York Post. I was sitting with Walton in our offi ce when he got Bobby on the speaker phone to discuss the situation. Bill told him, 'Mission accomplished.' Bobby said, 'How did you do that?' Walton said, '[The reporter] is coming to work for us. You'll be paying him $1,000 a week.' "
Bobby, the driving engine behind his brother's campaign, valued loyalty to his family's political cause above all else. And he knew Walton was deeply devoted. "My father was a believer," Matthew Walton recalled. "You might call him an idealist in the sense that there was nothing in it for him -- certainly not money. He never really believed in a political movement before JFK."
"Bill was disinterested -- he was not out to get glory for himself, nor was he feathering his nest in the current tradition," added Vidal. "He wanted nothing for himself other than to be amused, which he was, by court life." When his service to Jack came to a stunning end on November 22, 1963, Walton was overcome. He was leaving the West Wing lobby with Pat Moynihan shortly before JFK's death was offi cially announced, when Moynihan pointed to the White House flag, which had just been lowered: "Bill, you might as well see that." Walton visibly sagged.
"Let's walk out the way he would have expected us to," said Walton, trying to hold himself together. But he couldn't. Moynihan had to help him into a cab at the Northwest Gate.
But there was still the family, Bobby and Jackie. And they needed Walton again that week, after he had helped oversee a proper ceremonial departure for his friend. They were to entrust him with a fi nal, highly confidential task. "He was exactly the person that you would pick for a mission like this," said Vidal.
Bill Walton had been scheduled to fly to the Soviet Union on November 22, at the request of JFK, to help open a dialogue with Russian artists. The artistic exchange mission was part of Kennedy's peace offensive, which was gathering momentum that year, with his eloquent olive branch speech at American University in June and the nuclear test ban treaty in August. Walton was to visit Leningrad and Moscow, where he was to oversee the opening of an American graphic arts exhibit for the U.S. Information Agency. Walton canceled his flight after hearing the news from Dallas. But Bobby later urged him to go ahead with his travel plans, and to carry a secret message from him and Jackie to a trusted contact in the Soviet government. On November 29, one week after the assassination, Walton took a Pan Am flight to London, and after connecting to Helsinki, arrived in Leningrad on an Aeroflot plane the following day. After touring the Hermitage in Leningrad, Walton flew to Moscow, where he would spend the next two weeks.
Moscow was in the grip of its usual frigid winter, and Walton was fighting a bad cold, blowing his nose into a red handkerchief as he went unflaggingly about his busy schedule. He chatted with Russian artists at the USIA exhibit and visited their studios, the state- sanctioned variety as well as underground ones, to view their work. He went to a poetry reading in a crowded hall, where passionate young fans ran to the stage to scribble questions on bits of paper for the poets after they fi nished their recitals. "Poets in Moscow have fans as devoted as American bobbysoxers are to movie stars," a bemused Walton later observed. "They debate the relative achievements of their heroes and heroines."
Walton was also invited to take tea with Mrs. Khrushchev at the House of Friendship, a government- sponsored club where foreign dignitaries were fêted. The wife of the Soviet leader immediately turned the conversation to Jackie Kennedy, whom she had met in Vienna during the 1961 summit. "She is so strong and so brave," she said, her eyes welling up. "My heart aches for her and for the two children who probably won't even remember their father."
Everywhere Walton went in Leningrad and Moscow, people wanted to talk about his dead friend. "When I arrived, he had been dead a week," Walton later recalled. "Tough old bureaucrats would brush aside a tear as they spoke of him. In several studios the painters stood in one minute of silent tribute before we began our talk about the arts. In one house the cook, crippled by age, hobbled on crutches from the kitchen and with tears coursing down her cheeks gave me a handful of paper flowers to put on John Kennedy's grave. The emotion was so genuine, the feeling so deep, that one wondered how this young man, in such a brief presidency, could have gotten through to the people of this distant land."
The Russians Walton met credited the young president with trying to ease the doomsday terror of the Cold War. "He was a man of peace." This, observed Walton, "was the universal epitaph" for his friend as he traveled the land held in mutual nuclear bondage with the United States.
"I could see that President Kennedy's death was as disrupting to the USSR as to everyone else. With him the Russian leaders felt they had established personal contact. Over and over they emphasized how much more important personal connections are than cumbersome diplomatic contacts between great powers."
Among those Walton spoke with about the violent transformation of the U.S. government was Soviet journalist Aleksei Adzhubei, the son-in-law of Khrushchev. Over three glasses of throat-soothing hot tea and a cognac, Walton tried to reassure the well-connected Izvestia editor that America had not been taken over by a "reactionary clique." He asserted that President Johnson "has indicated a real desire" to continue JFK's policies. Walton must have "bit his tongue" as he passed along these assurances about LBJ, as one report of the meeting later observed, for he "detested" the new president, and the feeling was mutual. Like Bobby, he shuddered to think of the Texan occupying JFK's office.
Despite what he told Adzhubei over tea and cognac, Bill Walton had a much more disturbing secret message for the Soviet government, which he delivered as soon as he arrived in Moscow. Bobby had asked Walton to meet with Georgi Bolshakov, a Soviet agent formerly stationed in Washington, through whom the Kennedys had communicated confi dential messages to Khrushchev at critical points in their administration, including the Cuban Missile Crisis. The squat, pug-nosed, jovial Bolshakov was a frequent visitor to Bobby's Virginia home and to his spacious Justice Department suite, where he would sweep unannounced into the attorney general's office, with Kennedy's diligent secretary Angie Novello running frantically after him. So closely associated was he with Kennedy circles that Newsweek dubbed him the "Russian New Frontiersman." Offi cial Washington frowned on the back channel between the Kennedys and Bolshakov. But that did not deter Bobby from pursuing the relationship.
"One time Bob wanted to invite Georgi to a party of government officials on board the presidential yacht, the Sequoia," recalled James Symington, the attorney general's administrative assistant, in a recent interview. "But McCone from the CIA said, 'If he gets on the boat, I get off.' McCone was appalled at the idea of swanning around with some Soviet agent. But Bob was looser than that. Bob had no illusions about Bolshakov -- he had no illusions about anyone. He knew perfectly well what Bolshakov was. But he knew how to read him. And he knew he could be useful. It was impossible for JFK and Khrushchev to speak directly, so it was important for the Kennedys to have a back channel to communicate with the Kremlin."
Now Bobby was using Bolshakov one more time to relay a top-secret message to the Soviet leader. The attorney general instructed Walton to go directly to Bolshakov in Moscow, without fi rst checking in to his quarters at the U.S. Embassy. Bobby did not want the new U.S. ambassador Foy Kohler, whom he regarded as anti- Kennedy, to know about the Bolshakov meeting. Kohler was a hardliner who thought Khrushchev was more dangerous than Stalin. "He gave me the creeps," Bobby later recalled of Kohler, adding that he didn't regard him as someone "who could really get anything done with the Russians." Kohler was equally cool to Kennedy. During the 1961 Berlin crisis, when Kohler was the State Department offi cial in charge of the Soviet Union, he remembered, "Bobby would sit there across the table with those cold blue eyes as if to say, 'You son of a bitch, if you ever let my brother down, I'm going to knife you.' "
Walton delivered his remarkable message to Bolshakov at Moscow's ornate Sovietskaya restaurant. What he heard must have reminded the Russian of an unsettling encounter he had had with Bobby the year before in Washington. As Bolshakov came out of an August 1962 meeting with JFK at the White House, where he was asked to relay a conciliatory message to Khrushchev, Bobby heatedly confronted his Russian friend: "Goddamn it, Georgi, doesn't Premier Khrushchev realize the president's position? Every step he takes to meet Premier Khrushchev halfway costs my brother a lot of effort....In a gust of blind hate, his enemies may go to any length, including killing him."
Now, in Moscow, Bobby Kennedy's representative was reporting that the attorney general's worst fears had come true. What Walton told Bolshakov over their meal at the Sovietskaya stunned the Russian. He said that Bobby and Jackie believed that the president had been killed by a large political conspiracy. "Perhaps there was only one assassin, but he did not act alone," Walton said, continuing the message from the Kennedys. There were others behind Lee Harvey Oswald's gun. J. Edgar Hoover had told both Bobby and Jackie that Oswald was a Communist agent. But despite the alleged assassin's well-publicized defection to the Soviet Union and his attention-grabbing stunts on behalf of Fidel Castro, the Kennedys made it clear that they did not believe he was acting on foreign orders. They were convinced that JFK was the victim of U.S. opponents. And, Walton told Bolshakov, "Dallas was the ideal location for such a crime."
Despite this provocative remark, the Kennedy courier apparently did not mean to implicate President Johnson in the crime. But he shared with Bolshakov the Kennedys' true scornful feelings about JFK's successor. Johnson was "a clever timeserver" who would be "incapable of realizing Kennedy's unfinished plans." More pro- business than JFK, Johnson was certain to stock his administration with a legion of corporate representatives. The one hope for peaceful relations between the two countries was Robert McNamara. Walton described the defense secretary as "completely sharing the views of President Kennedy on matters of war and peace."
Walton then discussed Bobby's political future. He said he planned to stay on as attorney general through 1964, and then he planned to run for governor of Massachusetts, an idea Kennedy had already fl oated in the press. He would use this offi ce as a political base for an eventual race for the presidency. If he succeeded in returning to the White House, he would resume his brother's quest for détente with the Soviet Union. Some Russians he spoke with, added Walton, regarded Bobby as more of a hard- liner toward Moscow than President Kennedy. "This is untrue," Walton assured Bolshakov. The younger brother might have a tougher shell than JFK had, Walton acknowledged. But "Robert agreed completely with his brother and, more important, actively sought to bring John F. Kennedy's ideas to fruition."
The remarkable meeting between Walton and Bolshakov was first recounted in One Hell of a Gamble, a widely praised 1997 book about the Cuban Missile Crisis by Timothy Naftali, a Yale scholar at the time and now director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, and Aleksandr Fursenko, chairman of the history department at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Though the book itself -- which was based on secret documents from a variety of Soviet agencies and government bodies, including the KGB and Politburo -- attracted wide coverage in such publications as the New York Times, Washington Post, Business Week, Foreign Affairs, The Economist, and The Nation, none of these reviews saw fit to highlight Walton's extraordinary mission on behalf of the Kennedys, certainly one of the book's more eyepopping disclosures.
Newsweek's Evan Thomas, a dean of Washington journalism, did zero in on the book's account of the Moscow mission in his 2000 biography of Robert Kennedy, wagging his fi nger at Kennedy for this "irresponsible and potentially mischievous act of backdoor diplomacy." But Thomas completely ignored the most provocative part of Kennedy's communication -- his views on the assassination -- and focused solely on Bobby's anti- Johnson sentiments and political ambitions. Bobby's astonishing secret message to Moscow, one of the most revealing glimpses we have from those days of his thinking about the assassination, would disappear down the media hole as soon as it was made public.
Bolshakov immediately delivered a report on what Walton told him to his superiors at the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence agency. It undoubtedly added to the gloom at the Kremlin, where the Kennedy assassination was already viewed as a backlash by hard- line elements in the U.S. national security establishment against JFK's bid for rapprochement with the Soviets. When Khrushchev heard about Kennedy's death, he had broken down and wept. "He just wandered around his offi ce for several days, like he was in a daze," a Soviet official told Pierre Salinger.
Robert Kennedy's post-Dallas, back-channel message to Moscow is a stunning historical footnote. The man who bared his soul to the Soviets that week is, after all, the same man who had served as counsel for the notorious red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy. The man who led the administration's relentless drive to overthrow Fidel Castro and stop the spread of Communism in Latin America. The man so enthralled by the adventures of James Bond, the supremely elegant and implacable foil of Soviet skullduggery, that he wrote fan letters to Bond's creator, Ian Fleming.
Robert Kennedy's views of the Soviet threat had, like his brother's, become more complex with time and experience. But the Soviet Union was still his country's most feared enemy, with whom his brother had parried and thrusted all over the world, from Berlin to Cuba to Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, the ground beneath his feet had given way for Bobby Kennedy on November 22. The world was, in an instant, deeply different. The enemy lines no longer seemed so certain that week. Suddenly the attorney general of the United States regarded the government of our leading enemy as less alien than our own. He was eager to share his darkest suspicions with Moscow, taking pains to hide this extraordinary communication from the U.S. embassy there. What is even more remarkable than the fact that Kennedy engaged in an "irresponsible act of backdoor diplomacy" is the fact that such an intensely patriotic man, someone who was viscerally anticommunist, felt driven to do so.
There is no other conclusion to reach. In the days following his brother's bloody ouster, Robert Kennedy placed more trust in the Soviet government than the one he served.
Why did Kennedy feel so estranged from his own government that he was willing to take such an extreme step? To understand his conspiratorial frame of mind in the days after Dallas, we must understand the inner workings and tensions of the Kennedy administration in the years leading to the assassination. John F. Kennedy's body was not long in the ground when his administration began to be enshrouded in the gauzy myths of Camelot. Years later these myths would be shredded by the counterlegend of a decadent monarch, a sexually frenzied and heavily medicated leader whose reckless personal behavior put his nation at risk. Neither of these versions conveys the essential truth of the Kennedy administration. Missing from the vast body of literature on the Kennedy years -- including the sentimental memoirs, revisionist exposés, and standard texts -- is a sense of the deep tumult at the heart of the administration. The Kennedy government was at war with itself.
Copyright © 2007 by David Talbot
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