Excerpt from The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protest After JFK provided courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing. © John R. Bohrer, 2017.
In his darkest moment, Robert Kennedy defined change. “We are a young country,” he wrote on December 18, 1963, four weeks after his brother, the President, was assassinated. “We are growing and expanding until it appears that this planet will no longer contain us. We have problems now that people fifty, even ten years ago, would not have dreamed would have to be faced.”
Bobby was writing the foreword to a memorial edition of John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage—something he would not have dreamed of facing four weeks earlier. In an instant, he had lost his brother, his boss, and his security. The mingling loyalties to family and country had made life before “simple,” he would say. Now it was racked by uncertainty. The presidency belonged to Lyndon Baines Johnson, a man whose morals and judgment he questioned, and whose insatiable appetite for political domination convinced Bobby that the name Kennedy would mean little in a few short months. The attorney general warned friends to act fast and get what they wanted, for their political power would soon expire.
Bobby himself was unsure of what he wanted. With each passing day, pressure mounted for him to decide how to use what he had inherited. So many had put their faith in a future with JFK at the helm. People now looked to Bobby for action—some for direction, most just for comfort in their grief.
This reaction would have seemed strange just a few weeks earlier. Many liberals did not trust the President’s younger brother and chief political strategist. They thought he put elections before principles and were disgusted by his battering style on behalf of Communist-hunting and crime-fighting Senate committees in the 1950s. “Robert was perceived as a tough guy, insensitive, cruel, vindictive, clannish, summed up in a word which he never shook off . . . ruthless,” the Yale law professor Alexander Bickel would write. He was so polarizing that civil rights managed to cut against him both ways: demonstrators picketed him for lacking urgency and segregationists accused him of cramming court orders down their throats. In the weeks leading up to the assassination, Bobby felt he was becoming so politically toxic that he spoke with his brother about resigning before the reelection campaign. Recounting the conversation in 1964, he said, “What was costing us was the great dislike for me in the South particularly, but in certain other [areas]” as well, and that the blame for enforcing desegregation rulings in what had been reliably Democratic states like Alabama and Mississippi “had changed from just me in ’62 and ’63 to both of us—‘the Kennedy brothers.’ ” Bobby couldn’t even go off to manage the campaign as he did in 1960, he told the President, “because then they would have thought I was still in there, still important.” When Bobby suggested they say he was leaving “to make speeches,” JFK insisted he stay on to avoid the appearance of wavering. “It was an unnecessary burden, in my judgment,” Bobby recalled. At a gathering of Justice Department aides for the attorney general’s thirty-eighth birthday on November 20, two of his assistants left with the impression he was “depressed that night” and about to resign. Less than forty-eight hours later, the President was dead.
That mood was nothing compared to the lows Bobby would experience after JFK’s assassination. But the tragedy also elevated him in ways he wouldn’t have expected. In time, “ruthless” Robert Kennedy would become the redoubt of a young decade’s ideals. There were people who wanted to hope, to recapture the excitement, and believe that the New Frontier President Kennedy spoke of was not behind them.
This idea was slow to dawn on Bobby as the cold crept in, the days became shorter, and the sleepless nights stretched on. He would later say that he thought about the future in that month to the point where the only decision he could make was “to stop thinking about it.” Yet in those lost days, he wrote the truest expression of who he was and what he lived for.
On December 18, the day they renamed New York’s Idlewild Airport for JFK and Congress authorized putting his face on money, tributes to the late president were piling up. The Profiles in Courage memorial edition was one of them, and a rumor had made its way to the publisher that Bobby might write the foreword. If not Bobby, the book’s editor gently suggested, “how about Sandburg?” Carl Sandburg, the poet and biographer of Lincoln, was ancient—nearly eighty-six years old. Bobby had just turned thirty-eight. It was up to him.
And so the attorney general sat alone in his Justice Department office— “this enormous mausoleum,” as a reporter once described it—with ceilings so high he could lob a football. Children’s drawings clung from pieces of tape to the walnut-paneled walls, as dreadful thoughts of the future crowded that terribly empty space. He sent questions to JFK’s top aide and their father’s office, looking for a quote from a speech, or wondering about Jack’s illnesses—his suffering—as a young man. Bobby ignored his speechwriter’s recommendations and put the draft down entirely in his own hand. He wrote the word Courage in bold, underlined text at the top of the first sheet of ruled paper. Hardly any revisions were necessary.
He wrote how President Kennedy had suffered greatly in his forty-six years. A bad stomach. A bad back. Long spells in hospitals. “At least half of the days that he spent on this earth were days of intense physical pain.” Bobby remembered their 1951 trip around the world, to Okinawa, where Jack’s fever reached 106 degrees. “They didn’t think he would live,” he wrote. “But during all this time, I never heard him complain. I never heard him say anything which would indicate that he felt God had dealt with him unjustly.”
Kennedys didn’t cry. They did not wear their pain for all to see. They were not halted midsentence by emotion or have eyes welled with tears. They were not given a sleeping pill and heard through the door, crying, “Why God?”
In the four weeks between his brother’s death and writing the foreword, Robert Kennedy had done all these things, no matter how much he willed himself not to. He didn’t just feel pain—he emitted it. “Desolation,” scribbled Edwin Lahey, the smoky old newsman who was granted the first interview days before Bobby’s writing. Lahey had watched him since he first arrived in Washington as one of Senator Joe McCarthy’s tenacious boy prosecutors, determined to root out Communism and win absolute victory in the clean-cut 1950s. A dozen years on, the youthful face was creased with experience and “crushed” by despair. To see Robert Kennedy was to feel his pain.
This was not how Jack Kennedy would be seen, as Bobby wrote in the foreword: “Those who knew him well would know he was suffering only because his face was a little whiter, the lines around his eyes were a little deeper, his words a little sharper. Those who did not know him well detected nothing. He didn’t complain about his problem so why should I complain about mine— that is how one always felt.”
Kennedys didn’t cry. This was the family mantra and hard-hearted edict of their father, ruthless entrepreneur and ambassador to the Court of St. James, Joseph P. Kennedy, who pounded into his children this unmatched toughness and stubborn refusal of defeat. But few understood the deeper meaning: that Kennedys didn’t cry so that others might not cry, too. As their mother, Rose, would write, “What he really meant was that there was to be no self-pity, and no burdening of others with any personal misfortunes by making a commotion about them. He knew that for almost everyone life is likely to hold many knocks and bruises, and that people had better get used to that idea at an early age.”
Robert Kennedy’s entire life had led to a bruise he could not forget, a pain that fell drop by “drop upon the heart,” in the words of a Greek poem he would months later discover. Bobby had to cope with change. Sudden, unwanted, stunning change. It was a time to be brave, a time to have courage. In his memorial foreword, he quoted a passage from his brother’s inaugural, beginning with the part just before the eternal “Let the word go forth … the torch has been passed to a new generation…”
“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.”
In the years that followed, Robert Kennedy underwent his own revolution, recasting him in his time and beyond into a glimpse of a leader still longed for. He had been as rough as JFK had been smooth, and his transition was at many times rocky. He searched for power in traditional means and, when he found himself incapable, used his dissenting voice to exert what influence he could. His actions and gestures, from someone who had been so clearly wounded by the world, brought hope to those who needed healing, even across political divides. These years tell the story of how he dreamed and plotted, where he failed and succeeded—but ultimately, how he handled change and tried to send it forth. By 1966, he would find his revolution was catching and watch it sweep across his life and cross currents with a generation, to the extent that a person who had walked the secret corridors of power would at last claim membership among the world’s youth. “This world demands the qualities of youth,” he would say, “not a time of life but a state of mind.” For Robert Kennedy understood that a true revolution takes a leader young enough to change with the times.
Though not a politician in the traditional sense, Bobby was the most political of the Kennedys in November 1963. Unlike his two brothers, he had never run for office—a difference that freed him from the burden of having to be liked by all. He became the Kennedy most closely identified with the cold, calculating compromises beneath every successful campaign.
Campaigns had consumed most of his adult life. He missed his law school graduation to return to Massachusetts to run Jack’s 1952 Senate campaign. He put his future aside or altered its course every time Jack Kennedy’s political career required. He joined Adlai Stevenson on the road in 1956 to learn the workings of a presidential operation, and his ruthless reputation only grew as he took his brother’s ambition nationwide. “Gentlemen, I don’t give a damn if the state and county organizations survive after November,” he told a meeting of New York reform Democrats in 1960. “And I don’t care if you survive. I want to elect John F. Kennedy.”
Ask anyone why Bobby was appointed attorney general in 1961 at the age of thirty-five, and they would say because his brother was elected president.
But few would observe what was equally true: that JFK would never have been elected president had Bobby not delivered the unpopular decisions the candidate didn’t want to sully himself with. Every negative thing about Jack was put on Bobby. From the right, from the left—he was the bogeyman. One anonymous politician remarked to a columnist how “both always told it to me straight. The difference was that Jack spoon-fed it to you while Bobby barked it at you.” As U.S. senator, Jack was the one who met with favor seekers, smiling and nodding as they made impossible demands in his Senate Office Building suite. Then he would send them down to Bobby’s office in the basement, where little brother’s stone face said no.
As evident as the routine was, many refused to accept the truth, even as Jack moved to the White House and Bobby went from the basement to the Justice Department. Bobby Kennedy did it to me was Washington-speak for The President would never do this to me. The President would have given me what I wanted. It was the role Bobby played. Political columnist Drew Pearson wrote that Bobby was “one of the most devoted brothers in American history . . . He took the knocks, let his brother get the praise.” Bobby was the “fall guy,” another wrote. “Absorbing the blows so that his brother would remain untouched.” He didn’t cry about it. He just took it.
“You won’t have any trouble finding my enemies,” he told a reporter in 1962. “They’re all over town.”
And just as he did with the favor seekers, Bobby was often the one telling his brother the things he did not want to hear. Bobby was a critical voice in the Kennedy administration—advising, pushing, and often challenging the President’s thinking. His unimpeachable loyalty allowed him to do this without raising a single question about his motives, his ambition, his angle. To spur was his role, his father’s rationale for putting him at the head of a powerful executive department, making them the closest two relatives—let alone siblings— in the line of succession since Woodrow Wilson’s treasury secretary married the president’s daughter.
“I think there was an advantage in our relationship,” Bobby said in February 1964, “because my motivation really could never be questioned. There wasn’t anything to be gained by me, and I wasn’t running for any office, so I didn’t have any political future that I was attempting to work for or help.”
He was willing to make this trade-off because his relationship with his brother gave his life meaning. “No one telephoned the President more often than his brother Bob did,” JFK’s personal secretary Evelyn Lincoln later wrote, “and it was a rare day when Bob did not come to see him at least once.”
Bobby had a superhuman devotion. Even while he was up all hours running the 1960 West Virginia campaign, he still made it to mass on Sunday mornings. “Jack works as hard as any mortal man can,” Joseph Kennedy said. “Bobby goes a little further.” This was the legend, born in part from words attributed to the Ambassador: “He hates like me.” The infamous anecdote has never been pinned down and was most likely never said, rising out of the ether, typifying how others felt Bobby came into being. It was wrong, though, because if anything gave Bobby Kennedy his toughness, it was being on his own.
He was born eight years after Jack and seven years before Teddy. “So there he was,” his mother wrote, “with two older brothers and one very much younger, none of whom was much use to him as boyhood pals, playmates.” He attended more schools than he could remember, and his coming of age was punctuated by international upheaval, war, and the loss or impairment of three older siblings between 1941 and 1948. It was along this tragic and lonely path that he discovered strength within himself—a tremendous fight. He lettered in football at Harvard despite his smaller stature, was the first brother to marry, and fathered the first Kennedy grandchild. He quickly plunged all of his energies and devotion into his family. “Bobby’s a tough one,” the Ambassador told a reporter in 1957. “He’ll keep the Kennedys together, you can bet.” He didn’t have to stand as tall as his brothers had because he was the one they leaned on. And therefore he could be as ruthless as he had to.
“I don’t think about the future,” he said in 1962. “If you start thinking about doing something else, you have a tendency to change. You start preparing for it—you can’t help it. During the campaign I rarely considered doing anything in government. I thought I might travel. I thought of going back to Harvard after Election Day to study history. You can’t let it change you. If you begin changing, you’ve got to get out.”
Now change had come for him.
Newscasts offered glimpses of his sorrow in those first weeks after the assassination, short reports on his activities. Journalists cheered him on, speculating over when—not if—he would emerge. The New York Times reported that at the time of his writing the foreword “the possibility of his resigning was rumored.” The New York Herald Tribune quoted one of his closest associates: “Bob is in a state of shock. He’s been wounded in combat. He has to recover, and only then can he really make a decision.” Other people who knew him well spoke of Johnson’s pleas for him to stay, but that a political bid in Massachusetts “seems inevitable.” The New York Daily News had close associates saying he would stay attorney general through the passage of the civil rights bill—a JFK proposal that President Johnson advocated as a tribute—but that he would be gone by the November election, lest he hurt LBJ’s chances in the South. And some—“those closest to the Attorney General”—believed he would seek the vice presidential nomination. To many, this notion seemed absurd. To Bobby, it seemed his duty.
When he was still a senator, Jack had once told a reporter, “Just as I went into politics because Joe died, if anything happened to me tomorrow, my brother Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, Teddy would take over for him.”
Though he was confused and conflicted, Robert Kennedy undertook a bid for the vice presidency, which became vacant with Lyndon Johnson’s ascension and would remain that way—as it had during the nearly four years Harry Truman inherited from FDR—until a successor could be elected in the next general election. Recent tradition dictated that Johnson would have most, if not all, of the influence over who his running mate should be. But the final decision would be made by the delegates to the summer’s Democratic National Convention, nine months away. Bobby had the difficult task of swaying the delegates and the near-impossible mission of convincing the President. His actions and thinking were occasionally out in the open, but most often in secret, with some of its aspects hidden to close aides, unknown or misunderstood. Ultimately, he decided against carrying out his final and what would have been his most dramatic play to join the Johnson ticket—to resign his office as attorney general and wage a full-out campaign to stampede the convention. Whatever his reason for going so far down the path and then abruptly stepping off it, the fact remains that he had made such preparations. And the reason he did can be found within the memorial foreword he wrote in December 1963, where he quoted “one of the President’s favorite authors,” Lord Tweedsmuir, who wrote, “Politics is still the greatest and most honorable adventure.”
Bobby added, “It has been fashionable in many places to look down on politics, on those in Government.” He had done so himself, saying after the 1952 Senate race, “Politicians do nothing but hold meetings.” By December 1963, he understood what politics could mean: “Government is where the decisions will be made affecting not only all our destinies, but the future of our children born and unborn.” He remembered talking with his brother during the Cuban missile crisis about their being killed in nuclear annihilation, writing that what the President feared most was the fate of the world’s children. “They would never have been given a chance to make a decision, to vote in an election, to run for office, to lead a revolution, to determine their own destinies.”
This was his inheritance—one he knew he had to pass on. And so when speaking to young people anywhere in the world, he would return to the theme.
“A revolution is now in progress,” he said on New York college campuses in 1965. “It is a revolution for individual dignity . . . for economic freedom . . . for social reform and political freedom, for internal justice and international independence.”
“This revolution,” he would say, “is directed against us—against the one third of the world that diets while others starve; against a nation that buys eight million new cars a year while most of the world goes without shoes . . .”
To students in Peru, Robert Kennedy—who had recently been among the most powerful men on the planet—advised that it was their “responsibility” to lead a revolution. “A revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; humane if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough. But a revolution will come whether we will it or not. We can affect its character, we cannot alter its inevitability.”
Robert Kennedy’s exile from political power had sharpened his awareness of change and heightened his ability to embrace it. He was one of the comfortable, yet afflicted. A member of the establishment who understood how powerless the old order was against people and an idea whose time had come.
Robert Kennedy occupied both sides of the coin in the middle of the 1960s. He became the old and the new—architect of a war and its chief critic; master of the backroom politics and defender of street protest; able to evoke nostalgia and hope for the future—for he stood and spoke like the Kennedy who had led the country into the decade, but wore the hair of someone who looked like he had actually learned from it. He was an authority figure and troublemaker, chiding abusive lawmen and executives in committee hearings, rallying to the side of farmworkers on the picket line, and railing against oppressive governments in foreign countries. He crusaded for mental health, education, an end to the ghettos, and, ultimately, an end to a war. He spoke of revolutions across society, inevitable but threatening only that which was wrong. Revolutions were cathartic, corrective experiences, as evidenced by the one he underwent himself. Through it all, he dared not forget that he and his adopted generation of young people were, too, the heirs of that first revolution.
This is how Robert Kennedy came to define change, and find his way forward through the valley of his life. “What happens to the country, to the world,” he wrote on that lonely December day, “depends on what we do with what others have left us.”