REVIEW: A New Biography Charts RFK's Idealistic Rise and Tragic End

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The following review first appeared in the National Book Review

The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protest After JFK

By John R. Bohrer

Bloomsbury Press 384 pp.

By Jim Swearingen

“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.” But for the Gettysburg Address, there is arguably no greater eulogy in American history than Teddy Kennedy’s for his brother Bobby, in 1968. The meteoric political life to which it pays tribute is the subject of John R. Bohrer’s new book, The Revolution of Robert Kennedy.

For those steeped in the Kennedy legend, as well as for a generation to whom Bobby Kennedy is only a vaguely familiar name, Bohrer has written a fascinating account of the man’s career from his President-brother’s assassination in 1963 to his iconic “Ripple of Hope” speech at the University of Capetown, South Africa three years later. (“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope . . .”) For Bohrer, a frequent contributor to a host of public affairs publications, The Revolution of Robert Kennedy marks a promising book-writing debut.

Picking up the RFK story, as it does, with JFK’s death, the book carries Bobby’s dark, haunted mood a good bit of the way. Many of the events are punctuated with his repeated visits—at all times of the day and night—to his brother’s grave at Arlington. It is only with the opportunities for positive, productive work in the Senate that Bobby’s—and the book’s—spirits lift.

Bohrer portrays RFK’s public appearances as filling a void in the national psyche, a hole in the nation’s heart. Washington might have moved on, but when Bobby began his own political career the people had not done grieving. During his 1964 campaign for Senate in New York, his audiences seemed more interested in seeing and touching a part of his brother than in hearing Bobby’s own political views.

Tagged with the reputation of a ruthless power-broker in the Kennedy White House, Bobby spent the years after JFK’s death rebranding himself, shedding the image of political pit bull for a new one as ideological inheritor of his brother’s idealistic mantle. As the book attests, RFK was constantly trying to carve out a position to the left of the more conservative Johnson administration while still appearing loyal to his brother’s successor. His every move was judged against his brother’s legacy and its potential to benefit his own political ambitions.

Complicating these delicate maneuvers was the Constitutional challenge of finding a new Vice President after LBJ assumed the Presidency with over a year remaining in JFK’s term. The book covers in great detail the fencing between Bobby and Johnson over the appointment. Bohrer conveys RFK’s ambivalence toward the high-profile but ultimately superfluous job: it was one his ambition should have led him to want, but one so irrelevant to governing that it would have made him miserable. As time went on, even the painstaking, arduous pace of the Senate frustrated Bobby’s urgent need to get things done expeditiously.

Throughout the book, RFK’s energy, intelligence, and courage are striking. He drove himself—often with his wife Ethel right alongside—through grueling vacations, hazardous adventures, and dangerous foreign visits. He had a marked command of policy issues and discipline in learning unfamiliar ones. His emotional courage in pushing through agonizing grief after JFK’s death and jumping into policy debates with inhospitable crowds in Watts and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Chile and South Africa is stirring. During each of these forays Bobby articulated a vision for America that picked up where his brother’s left off, that of a reinvigorated nation at peace with the world and at odds with inequality, poverty, and prejudice.

The second half of The Revolution of Robert Kennedy deals heavily with the metastasizing conflict in Vietnam. Bohrer quotes the officials and journalists who thought the venture doomed from the start. He also cites the familiar accusations of naiveté and treason aimed at those who favored peace talks with the Vietcong or criticized the Johnson administration’s ever-increasing troop deployments. Even in the 1960’s there was, as Bohrer shows, a disconnection between the views of Washington elites inexorably drawn towards protracted warfare and the younger generation of Americans vociferously opposed to it.

By 1965, the Johnson administration already found itself cornered, desperately needing more money and troops to fight a guerilla war that had cost too many American lives to abandon. Meanwhile, student protestors were challenging a foreign policy that indiscriminately bombed peasants and insurgents alike. RFK filled this political gap with an anti-Communist policy proposal of a different sort.

After each of LBJ’s troop and bombing escalations Bobby pointed out that the Communist insurgency in Vietnam was rooted in economic deprivation and poor education. Military responses to those conditions alone were doomed to end in failure. Success against Communism, he argued, had to entail tackling the root social problems that gave rise to it, not simply trying to annihilate it. “Counterinsurgency might best be described,” Bobby reasoned, “as social reform under pressure.”

As Bohrer shows, RFK’s domestic policy views echoed this nuanced approach to fighting Communist aggression. Peace—whether in American ghettos or Southeast Asian jungles—necessitated magnanimity toward others and providing the basic necessities of life to all.

So much of this period, as Bohrer recounts it, echoes our own times: the disagreement over whether or not open debate in the middle of a war strengthens the nation or undermines it; the choice between crushing terrorism with brute force or defusing it with diplomacy and economics; the temptation of acquiescing to nativist suspicions for votes or challenging them on principle; the debate over backing popular leftist revolutions suspicious of capitalism or a regimes sympathetic to it. On all of these issues Bobby Kennedy’s ideals and rhetoric, as Bohrer recounts them, called America to its altruistic political self.

More famous and influential casualties in the manic political battles of the 1960’s have dwarfed Bobby Kennedy in history. His was a life extinguished before it had a chance to catch fire. Robert Bohrer’s new book resurrects a ghost whose principles remind us, in these haggard and cynical times, that power need not harden and corrupt our leaders and government need not repeal and replace the aspirations of mankind.

Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.