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That we speak at all of a Kennedy legacy is because of Robert Kennedy, writes historian Hilty (Temple Univ.), who has also written a study of John F. Kennedy. That we connect the Kennedy name to issues of social justice and equity, he continues, is also the result of RFK's work after John's murder. It is fair that we think of the younger Kennedy as a good man, Hilty suggests; but, he reminds us, the Kennedy brothers were above all else politicians who often got credit for more than they achieved. It is as a politician that RFK most engages Hilty, who dissects his role as a political bulldog, crusading attorney, and, above all else, fierce champion and protector of his older brother throughout his political career. In that role, RFK may have committed a few improprieties—including allegedly accepting campaign contributions from the Mafia, delivered by Frank Sinatra. The brothers were, the author continues (disputing the claims of tell-all memoirist Judith Campbell), far too savvy to get too close personally to such transactions; in any event, John Kennedy even joked about such things, telling an audience that he had received a telegram from his father instructing him not to buy one more vote than necessary with the words, "I'll be damned if I'll pay for a landslide." Elsewhere Hilty writes that as attorney general RFK was nonchalant about illegal wiretaps and smear campaigns, favorite tactics of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. But for all his contradictions, ethical shortcomings, and personal demons, which Hilty explores with care and sympathy, Robert Kennedy found his true calling at the end of his life, using his spiritual intensity and sense of invincibility to effect meaningful social change.
This well-written book is timely, coming just as the 30th anniversary of RFK's assassination approaches, and just as the current crop of Kennedy scions is making news for all the wrong reasons.