The President’s Alternate

Fredrik Logevall

  • Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye
    Ballantine, 624 pp, £15.58, May 2017, ISBN 978 0 8129 8350 0

It’s nearly fifty years since Robert Kennedy was shot as he walked through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The date was 5 June 1968; and he had just won a narrow victory in the California Democratic primary. The gunman, Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant angry about Kennedy’s support for Israel, fired three shots at close range. Kennedy died the next day. For millions of Americans of a certain age the trauma has never quite gone away. For them Kennedy was a secular saint, a liberal icon who, had he lived, would have ended the war in Vietnam, and brought racial healing and social justice to America.

It’s a powerful idea, even if it depends on a surviving RFK winning the Democratic nomination and then the presidential election, and it animates Larry Tye’s absorbing new biography. In the current American political moment, with its corrosive polarisation and its deep and pervasive cynicism about politics and politicians, even normally sober-minded observers are pining for a political superhero, someone who will rise up from the muck to summon Americans’ better angels and cause them to reunite in common purpose. Someone, that is to say, like Robert Kennedy, onto whom we can project our hopes for something better than we have at present.

That Kennedy was a complex, at times contradictory individual only adds to his allure, as does the fact that he was a Zelig figure who was at the centre of many of the major developments of the postwar era – from McCarthyism to the civil rights movement, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Vietnam War. We want to know this man, who was his brother’s right hand and alter ego, who fell into depression following Jack’s assassination in November 1963 only to pick himself up and carry on, and who was himself cut down just as he was reaching for the ultimate political prize.

Biographers often speak of his having a split personality. There was ‘Good Bobby’, who was introspective and passionate and cared deeply about others and about righting injustice; and there was ‘Bad Bobby’, devious and ferocious and hyper-ambitious, who went after his opponents ruthlessly whether they were real or imagined, first on behalf of Joe McCarthy and then in the service of JFK’s campaigns for the Senate and the presidency, and who to the end was a self-interested and calculating figure, fearful of failure and of his father’s disapproval. Tye rejects this Manichean interpretation. Acknowledging what he calls the ‘duelling aspects of Bobby’s political soul’, he describes a man who matured, not merely in the wake of his brother’s death but over the course of his adult life, developing a taste for irony and complexity and an intense sympathy for other people’s suffering. This, for Tye, is what gives such power to the question of what might have been. The ‘liberal icon’ of the book’s subtitle was in actuality not confined by liberalism; on the contrary, Tye argues, Kennedy’s extraordinary appeal in his final years lay precisely in his ability to bridge gaps, between urban workers and suburban professionals, between rich and poor, between white and black and Latino. By his willingness to change and to transcend the standard political categories, Tye’s Kennedy could have become America’s ‘high priest of reconciliation’.

The seventh of the nine children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, he grew up in an environment in which winning was the thing that mattered. Second place, Joe constantly preached to his children, was for losers. Like many of those who have written about the Kennedy clan, Tye gives insufficient due to Rose’s role in her children’s development, even as he acknowledges that the undersized, buck-toothed Bobby was her favourite, ‘in part because he needed her the most’. Tye believes it was his father’s approval that Bobby pined for. He worked indefatigably to get noticed, to stand out, to be more than the ‘runt of the litter’, as Joe called him. ‘I wish, dad, that you would write me a letter as you used to Joe’ – his eldest brother – ‘and Jack about what you think about the different political events and the war as I’d like to understand what’s going on better than I do now,’ a teenage Kennedy wrote to his father. It was more a plea for recognition than for news, Tye observes, and the boy was delighted when Joe responded with a two-and-a-half page letter.

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