Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon

Bobby Kennedy Crop

When Robert F. Kennedy ran for a U.S. Senate seat from New York in 1964, many cried foul. John F. Kennedy’s younger brother had served as attorney general in the late president’s administration — an appointment that had itself generated controversy — and his candidacy in a state in which he neither resided nor voted (he lived in Virginia, voted in Massachusetts) was seen as a shameless attempt to use New York as a steppingstone for a future White House bid. The New York Times, which would eventually endorse his Republican opponent, called the campaign a “cynical” move and alleged that New York was nothing more to Kennedy than a “convenient launching-pad” for his “political ambitions.”

As Larry Tye recounts in his clear-eyed and absorbing new biography, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, others saw the same naked political calculations but responded with what amounted to a shrug. Kennedy, like many of his fellow citizens, was clearly still mourning the assassination of his revered brother the year before. “If the Attorney General has a wound so great that, not to heal him but just for a little while to relieve him, he must be made a Senator, then we owe him nothing smaller,” declared the veteran political journalist Murray Kempton in The New Republic.

The two reactions demonstrate how polarizing Kennedy was. To some, he was less like his brother Jack than like his ruthless, vindictive father, Joe. (“Jack made friends, Bobby enemies,” Tye quips.) But traveling in America and abroad, he attracted adoring crowds inspired by his youth and his promise, even before JFK’s death made him, as Tye writes, “a prince in exile.” Kennedy, of course, did win the Senate seat, and he used it to launch his presidential campaign in 1968, as political observers had predicted he would. The idealistic Bobby who ran against the Vietnam War and as a champion for African Americans and the poor — and who, like his brother, was cut down in his prime by an assassin’s bullet — is the Bobby we remember today.

There was much more to Kennedy, though, and Tye cuts through the gauzy nostalgia to create a perceptive account of a life rife with contradictions, unearthed via boxes of previously unseen family papers along with interviews with RFK’s widow, Ethel, his former aides, and many others who knew him. Early in his career, the liberal icon of the book’s title worked as counsel to the crusading anti-Communist senator Joseph McCarthy, a position secured for him by his father; he left the job less because of disenchantment with McCarthy’s overzealous witch hunts than because of his hatred for the senator’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn. (Cohn was just one of RFK’s famous nemeses; others included Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa and President Lyndon Johnson.)

Bobby, as Tye refers to him throughout the book, was drafted by his father to manage JFK’s campaigns for Senate and then president, and his cutthroat techniques, along with Joe’s money, helped secure Jack’s victories. When Joe decided that Bobby would serve as Jack’s attorney general, both sons balked; JFK worried about charges of nepotism, particularly since Bobby had never actually tried a case in a court of law. Tye describes an astonishing encounter in which Joe Kennedy told John, “By God, he deserves to be attorney general of the U.S., and by God, that’s what he’s going to be. Do you understand that?” The president-elect responded, “Yes, sir.” Jack later joked that the job would give his little brother some legal experience.

It did, with mixed results. Take civil rights: the administration tried to walk a middle path, with Bobby gradually coming to appreciate the urgency of the issue of racial injustice and the need for federal action. While RFK increased the number of black attorneys in the Justice Department from six to sixty, he also appointed a number of racist, segregationist judges in the Deep South. He secured the safe passage of the Freedom Riders from Alabama to Mississippi, but he also approved FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s request to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr.’s telephones.

With JFK gone and Joe incapacitated by a massive stroke, Robert Kennedy, still only in his thirties, was at last free to be his own man. He fantasized about taking time off to teach or simply to read but knew that public service was, in Tye’s words, “his calling as well as his inheritance.” As a senator, he learned best through direct experience, traveling to Mississippi to witness poverty firsthand and to California to understand the abuse of farmworkers. “He came to us and asked us two questions,” recalled farmworker labor leader Dolores Huerta. “All he said was, ‘What do you want? And how can I help?’ That’s why we loved him.”

Tye, who is the author of previous biographies, of Satchel Paige and Superman, admits to having been “captivated” by his subject since he was in high school, and he occasionally falls victim to the sentimental depiction of Kennedy that he has set out to dispel. (When, while campaigning for the Senate, Bobby is asked a question about the Warren Commission investigating JFK’s assassination, Tye doesn’t just have RFK tearing up in response — he has “silver tears [collecting] on his lower lashes.”) These lapses are minor, though, in a book that demonstrates forcefully and convincingly that Kennedy underwent a genuine change to emerge on the right side of history. “In today’s derisive political context he’d be decried as a flip-flopper,” the author observes, “but his transformation was heartfelt and transcended politics.” While the Bobby we remember today is that passionate idealist running an insurgent campaign for the presidency on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed, Tye has done readers a service by showing us exactly how far he traveled to get there.