Robert Kennedy: His Lifeby Evan Thomas
He was "Good Bobby," who, as his brother Ted eulogized him, "saw wrong and tried to right it . . . saw suffering and tried to heal it." And "Bad Bobby," the ruthless and manipulative bully of countless conspiracy theories. Thomas's unvarnished but sympathetic and fair-minded portrayal is packed with new details about Kennedy's early life and his behind-the-scenes… See more details below
He was "Good Bobby," who, as his brother Ted eulogized him, "saw wrong and tried to right it . . . saw suffering and tried to heal it." And "Bad Bobby," the ruthless and manipulative bully of countless conspiracy theories. Thomas's unvarnished but sympathetic and fair-minded portrayal is packed with new details about Kennedy's early life and his behind-the-scenes machinations, including new revelations about the 1960 and 1968 presidential campaigns, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his long struggles with J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson.
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From Chapter 20: Quest
Kennedy won convincingly in Nebraska, with 51.4 percent of the vote to McCarthy's 31 percent. Again McCarthy airily dismissed the results, "I don't think I have to win all [of the primaries]. Losing one or two doesn't make all that difference." McCarthy knew he was in much better shape in the next contest, in Oregon a week later. Kennedy's moment of realization may have come when one of his strategists reported back on an exchange with Congresswoman Edith Green, who was helping to run the Kennedy campaign in her home state. "Have we got the ghettoes organized?" the strategist asked. Mrs. Green, a bit indignant: "There are no ghettoes in Oregon." There were hardly any blacks about one percent of the population. Oregon is "one giant suburb," Kennedy lamented. He worried to columnist Joe Kraft as he flew into Portland in the third week of May. "It's all white Protestants. There's nothing for me to grab ahold of." There were, on the other hand, Teamsters organizers with bad memories of Kennedy's persecution of Jimmy Hoffa and many gun enthusiasts who regarded Kennedy's support for gun control as subversive. Kennedy's problems were exacerbated by a weak organization in Oregon. Back in 1960, Congresswoman Green, a prickly and territorial local chieftain, had not wanted RFK, whom she regarded with suspicion, to come to Oregon to campaign for his brother. Now she specifically banned from the state RFK's chief advance man, Jerry Bruno, who could be abrasive and had previously tangled with the formidable Mrs. Green. The one time Kennedy could have used some tricks to pep up the crowds, his chief magician was nowhere to be found.
Kennedy had another worry, a threat he had long awaited. Lyndon Johnson had been quiet through the primary season, publicly sworn to impartiality. He was not a great fan of Hubert Humphrey's, whom he regarded as weak. He actually preferred Republican Nelson Rockefeller, chiefly because he regarded Rockefeller as the best hope to "stop Bobby." For weeks, Kennedy's traveling companion, Fred Dutton, had been waiting for Johnson to strike, expecting to see his fingerprints on a scurrilous report about RFK. Dutton knew Johnson's ways from firsthand experience. In 1964, while Dutton was the congressional liaison at the State Department, President Johnson had requested Dutton to put together a file of derogatory information on Barry Goldwater, LBJ's Republican opponent in November. Dutton delivered a packet of information, mostly about Goldwater's intemperate remarks, to the Oval Office. Johnson thumbed through the information and complained, "There's nothing about Las Vegas [where Goldwater supposedly had ties to gambling interests] or Goldwater's girls."
Dutton knew that LBJ had long kept a file on Robert Kennedy. Indeed, Johnson had been in the Oval Office less than two months when his lieutenants began asking the FBI for more information about the Ellen Rometsch case. Johnson had always been restrained from using this information on the assumption, probably correct, that Kennedy was keeping a file on him. Still, there was always the risk that mutual deterrence would break down, and that Johnson would succumb to the temptation to start lobbing small bombshells into the Kennedy camp. The first hints that Johnson might be stirring began in the nationally syndicated columns of Drew Pearson, LBJ's hatchetman, in early May, just before the Indiana primary. On May 3, Pearson rehearsed RFK's reputation for ruthlessness, dredging up an old (and probably apocryphal) quote from Father Joe that "Bobby hates the way I do." On May 22 came an allegation that RFK had paid off a witness in one of the Hoffa cases. Then on May 24 came the column intended to do real damage: for the first time, Pearson revealed that RFK, as attorney general, had authorized wiretaps on Martin Luther King. The timing the weekend before a primary in a state with a strong civil liberties tradition, ten days before the climactic California primary that would require a massive black turnout to secure victory for RFK was clearly mischievous.
The column was apparently a setup, a straight feed from the Oval Office. "Drew got it from Lyndon," said Jack Anderson, the investigative reporter who was Pearson's chief legman. "Drew got me to confirm it with the FBI. Of course it was timed." The paper trail circumstantially supports Anderson's account: FBI files show a Johnson go-between first asking Cartha DeLoach, J. Edgar Hoover's top assistant for public affairs, about rumors that Kennedy had tapped King on May 17; a Drew Pearson meeting with Johnson on May 18; and DeLoach speaking to Johnson on May 23, the day before the column appeared.
It is clear from the column that Pearson and Anderson were shown FBI documents detailing Kennedy's role in first asking for the taps in July 1963 and then signing off on them in October. But the muckrakers made one small, sloppy mistake that the Kennedy defenders were able to seize upon to cloud the issue. At one point in the column, the word "bugging" was used. Wiretaps on phones are different from "bugs," electronic eavesdropping devices planted in a room. Hoover was careful to get Kennedy's permission on specific taps; bugging was done without informing the attorney general. Hoover had bugged and tapped King (bugs in his hotel rooms, taps on his phones), but only the taps were authorized by RFK.
Pearson called the Kennedy campaign for a response to the column on Thursday, May 23, just before it went to press. A very anxious Peter Edelman delivered the news to Kennedy, who seemed reasonably unperturbed. He told Edelman not to worry: "There'll be a lot of that," he predicted. "I was on the cover of Time and now [Time-Life founder Henry] Luce is turning over in his grave. It's not so bad." But Kennedy moved quickly to try to defuse the bomb. He called his wisest legal adviser, Burke Marshall, the former head of the civil rights division, who had gone on to work for Tom Watson at IBM. A brilliant Yale-educated lawyer, Marshall pounced on the columnists' careless use of the word "bugging." He dictated some very lawyerly talking points emphatically denying that Kennedy had ever permitted the FBI to "illegally bug" anyone, while allowing that "in cases affecting the national security" the attorney general did follow long-established precedent and sometimes authorize wiretaps.
Marshall's talking points were so cleverly drafted and so convincing of Kennedy's essential innocence that they fooled Kenendy's own staff. A Kennedy aide it is not clear which one wrote on them, "Dr. King was never the target of electronic surveillance of any sort. His loyalty to the United States has never been questioned." This was not true, of course. Kennedy tapped King to find out if he was under the influence of the Kremlin. But Kennedy made no effort to set the record straight with his own staff. He simply refused to talk about the King taps, except to complain that the article was "unfair." Kennedy would "tell you about A, B, and C," said Edelman, "but not D, E, and F." Fred Dutton was unable to get Kennedy to tell him anything about the wiretaps. "With Bobby and JFK," he recalled, "you could only go so far, and then they'd clam up." Scrambling to figure out what to say to the press, campaign spokesman Pierre Salinger fuzzed up matters even more. He told reporters that Kennedy had never approved electronic "eavesdropping." Does that include wiretaps? a reporter asked. Salinger fell back on Kennedy's generic defense that he authorized taps only in cases of national security.
Thoroughly muddled by this pettifoggery and confusion of euphemisms and generally sympathetic to Kennedy the political reporters did not follow up on the wiretapping story. But the campaign was concerned that Pearson's column, widely syndicated, would be passed around in black neighborhoods. Kennedy's strategists concocted a back-channel mission to gather intelligence from black civil rights leaders and to soothe any resentment. Through a friend of Steve Smith's who had good contacts in the National Football League, the campaign recruited Buddy Young, a black pro athlete (he had been a running back for the Baltimore Colts), to fly to Memphis, where King's old organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was holding a convention. Young met with the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who had succeeded the fallen King as head of the SCLC. What was the reaction of black leaders to the news that RFK had wiretapped the martyred Dr. King? "It was no surprise to us," recalled Juanita Abernathy, the Reverend Abernathy's wife. "We knew the pressure that Bobby was under from the FBI. I'm not saying it [the taps on King] wasn't a shock. It was. But we understood that people" meaning white politicians "only supported us to a point. His [the Reverend Abernathy's] reaction was, sure it's true, but politics is politics." Inside the campaign, Kennedy's black organizer, John Lewis, who had been beaten and arrested many times marching for civil rights, was sad but philosophical. "It's like someone telling you that your wife is sleeping with someone else," he told Frank Mankiewicz. "You love her so much you don't want to hear about it."
Kennedy had another worry: that McCarthy would try to exploit the issue. Within a couple of days, the McCarthy campaign began airing radio spots with the voice of a black man saying, "I used to be for Robert Kennedy but then I learned about how he bugged my brother Martin Luther King's phone." Kennedy's relations with McCarthy had grown increasingly bitter. Kennedy was determined to ignore McCarthy. Slighted and resentful, McCarthy began to sharply mock Kennedy in his public remarks. Sure of his intellectual superiority, McCarthy was eager to debate Kennedy, confident that he would be at once more facile and substantive than Kennedy in a verbal sparring match.
Kennedy did not want to debate. In part, he was hewing to the well-established political maxim that front-runners can only lose by debating. But personal insecurity was also at work. He feared McCarthy's verbal facility and his own lack of it. Kennedy and McCarthy were not far apart on the issues, but McCarthy had ways to touch Kennedy's sore spots. McCarthy had repeatedly declared that he would fire J. Edgar Hoover. Kennedy had been notably silent on the subject. Asked at a California rally staged by a liberal women's group whether he would sack the FBI director, Kennedy paused for a long time and mumbled that the problem was the institution, not the man. He was just ducking: Kennedy dared not antagonize Hoover. He knew what was in those files.
Kennedy did not like to fear anyone. On Friday, May 24, the day Pearson's column appeared, he went for a walk on the beach with Ethel and his dog Freckles, who had accompanied him everywhere on the campaign. The day was gray and the water temperature was 53 degrees, but Kennedy wanted to go swimming. Stripping to his drawers, he plunged in. Oregonians, who never swam until August, were mystified. They thought he was showing off, not realizing that he was compensating or just swimming.
That same day, McCarthy issued a statement saying that he had bought a half hour of TV time for a debate. Some of Kennedy's staffers strongly urged their candidate to accept the challenge. Kennedy was no longer the front-runner in Oregon; polls showed the race neck and neck. McCarthy's barbs were beginning to sting. The ringleader of the pro-debate faction was Adam Walinsky. On Saturday, he managed to win over at least a partial convert from within the JFK old guard, Larry O'Brien. The normally cautious O'Brien agreed to go talk to the candidate.
It was late Saturday afternoon. Exhausted as usual, Kennedy was trying to take a nap, though apparently not a restful one Peter Edelman, standing outside in the hall, could hear Ethel speaking forcefully to her husband from inside the suite. O'Brien knocked on the door. Kennedy was in a testy mood. Earlier in the day, he had snapped at Edelman for being slow to fetch his shoes in the next room (Kennedy staffers were expected to be valets; one Kennedy aide found himself holding the head of one of Kennedy's dogs as it threw up out the car window). With O'Brien, Kennedy was short tempered. He blamed the old Irish hand for allowing himself to be conned by the rash Young Turks. Debating McCarthy was a bad idea, Kennedy insisted. He specifically brought up Pearson's wiretapping article. What if McCarthy started asking him about that? O'Brien didn't know what to say; Kennedy wouldn't even tell him if the charges were true. Out in the hallway, Kennedy began to hear a commotion. Walinsky, Edelman, and Jeff Greenfield, waiting outside to hear the results of O'Brien's mission, were chatting and laughing. Kennedy flung open the hotel door. Standing in his boxers, he exploded at the young staffers. All they ever did, he shouted, was play the guitar. (Walinsky liked to strum Beatles' songs on the plane.) If they had nothing better to do, he seethed, they should go ring doorbells. Shaken and upset, Walinsky started towards Kennedy to apologize. Kennedy slammed the door in his face.
Kennedy almost ran into McCarthy the next day. Both were looking for voters at the Portland zoo. Bill Barry spotted McCarthy's entourage about fifty yards away and whispered in Kennedy's ear. The candidate said, "Let's get out of here," and he and Barry ran for the candidate's car. In a terrible scene, recorded by TV cameramen, McCarthy supporters ran after them shouting, "Coward! Chicken!" Making the most of Kennedy's embarrassment, McCarthy calmly strolled over to the Kennedy press bus and invited the reporters to follow his campaign.
The next day, election day, Joe Dolan, Kennedy's faithful administrative assistant who had been handling scheduling for the campaign, walked by Kennedy's car. Kennedy leaned out and crooked his finger at Dolan. "I had been avoiding him," Dolan recalled. Kennedy looked Dolan in the eye. "You think I'm going to lose," he said. "I know you are," said Dolan. "We don't have blacks and Chicanos and we do have gun nuts."
Kennedy lost Oregon to McCarthy by six points, 44.7 percent to 38.8 percent. It was the first election ever lost by a son of Joe Kennedy (not counting JFK's first try for the Harvard Board of Overseers). Kennedy might have been crushed, but he was gracious in defeat. He took the blame on himself and congratulated McCarthy (something McCarthy had not done for him after RFK won in Indiana and Nebraska). Arriving at the airport in Los Angeles, Kennedy slid into the front seat of a car alongside his brother-in-law Steve Smith. They had a typically cryptic Kennedy conversation. "What do you think?" said RFK. "I think you're gonna win," said Smith. "But you gotta debate the guy."
Copyright © 2000 by Evan Thomas
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