Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon
by Larry Tye.
Random House, 2016.
Hardcover, 580 pages, $32.

The year 1968 is sometimes invoked in comparison to our current situation. It can serve both as a warning of what serious civil strife looks like in the United States, and as a consolation in that our own troubles seem not quite as dire when compared to that modern Annus horribilus. One of the central tragic figures of 1968 is Robert Kennedy, who plunged into the maelstrom of those tumultuous times and whose life and legacy have been made, with some good reason, part of the history of modern American liberalism. Larry Tye is the latest to place Kennedy within this tradition in Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon. Buoyed by new documents released by the John F. Kennedy Library and his own interviews with hundreds of people who knew Kennedy, most notably his widow Ethel, Tye has skillfully produced a thorough and engaging biography of a figure for whom he clearly has great respect, admiration, and affection. In this, his work is very much in harmony with other first-rate chroniclers of Kennedy’s dramatic and dense life, political and otherwise, most notably Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978) by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., (who knew and worked with Kennedy) and Robert Kennedy: His Life (2000) by Evan Thomas.

Much like those predecessors, Tye stresses Kennedy’s moral (and hence political) growth over time. Beginning his public career as a self-righteous and zealous staffer for Kennedy family friend Senator Joe McCarthy, so the familiar story goes, he was also profoundly influenced by the conservative orthodoxies of his domineering father and the Catholic Church. As Attorney General, he pushed his brother to take a bolder stand on civil rights, and later won election to the U.S. Senate from New York. From that post, he ranged far and wide, acting on behalf of migrant farm workers in Upstate New York, comforting African-American children in Mississippi suffering from the effects of hunger, and challenging the apartheid regime in South Africa on his visit to that country. He eventually broke with Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam War, and finally, in his own doomed but valiant bid for the White House in 1968, became a tribune of the dispossessed, notably African-Americans, American Indians, and Hispanic Americans, making common cause along the way with such figures as Cesar Chavez and Marian Wright, even as he also won the support of white workers and farmers in Indiana, Nebraska, and South Dakota. His death by yet another of the decade’s assassins brought more anguish to a divided, dispirited, and increasingly bewildered nation.

It was during that campaign that Kennedy began to find his distinctive political voice, one not materialistic or nor offering simple solutions to complex problems. He said this at the University of Kansas: “The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.”

One of the questions that Tye raises, by dint of his subtitle alone, is Robert Kennedy’s standing as a “liberal icon.” He acknowledges in several places that the relationship between Kennedy and liberals was rarely smooth and uncomplicated. Some of them never forgave Kennedy for working for and befriending Joseph McCarthy. Tye quotes Kennedy as chiding Anthony Lewis of the New York Times (a newspaper far from a favorite of the Kennedy brothers) that “you liberals, you think we can do just whatever we want and it will all come out your way.” One reporter asked Kennedy in the late 1960s, apparently in all seriousness, if he was a conservative or a liberal; Kennedy dismissed the question as too abstract. Many educated white liberals, it will be remembered, supported Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota for president in 1968 over Kennedy. One critic said of Kennedy at the time, “it took him seventeen years to come out against McCarthy, and then it was the wrong one.”

Readers of The University Bookman may recall a book published already nearly twenty years ago and usually overlooked in the pantheon of Kennedy biographies. Michael Knox Beran in The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy (1998) portrayed Kennedy as a critic of New Deal/Great Society liberalism. Kennedy thought the best and most likely approach to succeed in reducing poverty in the United States (and he clearly recognized poverty as a problem that needed addressing) was through the market and free enterprise. Proof of that comes from his efforts to enlist the business community to invest in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a struggling section of Brooklyn, New York. William F. Buckley, no fan of the Kennedys, praised RFK’s efforts along these lines. Beran noted that these endeavors were the origins of “free enterprise” zones later championed by Jack Kemp. One wonders whether if he had lived, Kennedy might have become a passionate crusader with strong ties to the African-American community, who, like Kemp, emphasized private enterprise as the surest ladder up from poverty. Kennedy also emphasized respect for the law, and had little interest in or respect for anarchism and nihilism.

Robert Kennedy’s credentials as a conservative can be pushed too far, however. Beran did not address Kennedy’s position on abortion, already emerging as a public issue in the late 1960s. Unlike many other leading Catholic Democrats in New York, he supported Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s bid to make abortion legal in some circumstances. His younger brother Ted was briefly a strong pro-life voice in the early 1970s before succumbing to the ascendant social liberalism of the Democratic Party. It is therefore not easy to believe that if he had lived Bobby Kennedy would have instead followed the lead of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who remain an advocate for the unborn for the rest of her life. And Fred Dutton, a top aide on Kennedy’s 1968 campaign, was instrumental in intentionally shifting the Democratic Party away from its core constituencies that were at the heart of the New Deal coalition, namely northern ethnic Catholics and southern whites, and toward those comprising the New Left and others who were the most enthusiastic supporters of George McGovern in 1972.

Tye also does not present his subject as free from flaws. He admits that the criticism of Kennedy during his lifetime as an opportunist with an unhealthy sense of entitlement and whom his detractors found, above all, to be “ruthless,” had some legitimacy. Along with some well-known instances of these traits in action (the families of Jimmy Hoffa and Dean Rusk, JFK’s Secretary of State, never forgave Bobby Kennedy for how they believe he treated them during the labor rackets hearings of the 1950s and the Cuban missile crisis, respectively), Tye also recounts Kennedy’s late entry into the contest for the Democratic contest for the U.S. Senate seat from New York in 1964. Assuming that the nomination should be his for the asking, Kennedy became irritated with a popular Member of Congress who had already announced his candidacy and refused to step aside and let Kennedy proceed.

Tye also explains well some of the paradoxes that surround the third son of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy. Some of his foibles became part of Kennedy’s appeal. He lacked the easy grace and larger-than-life persona of some of the other members of his family. Of average size and somewhat shy, he lacked a naturally powerful speaking voice and an overpowering physical presence. But if one definition of courage is fighting to overcome one’s fears, then Robert F. Kennedy was certainly a man of courage. It was qualities like these that drew people to him, and often quite intensely. Jack Newfield, longtime writer for The Village Voice who grew up in the same tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood that Kennedy tried to help, had more than a healthy dose of reporter’s skepticism toward the powerful and well born, including the junior senator from New York. Unlike the politician who is the master of making a good first impression but who upon further contact becomes less admirable, Newfield as he covered Kennedy in the final years of his life found him to be uncommonly authentic and decent man. Friends, staff, and members of the traveling press who saw him daily came to share the same, almost protective, attitude toward him.

Two of Kennedy’s greatest moments came in his 1968 campaign. In early April, he announced the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. to a predominantly African-American audience in Indianapolis. He called for compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and love, even in the face of the horror of King’s murder. Even his worst critics, right or left, would have been hard pressed to deny that the man had met the moment that night as he offered moral leadership to the nation. Two months later, he spoke briefly in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. Appearing humbled by his victory, Kennedy insisted that “we can end the divisions within the United States,” a land he described as “great, unselfish, and compassionate.” A few moments later, he was mortally wounded. Many of those who supported him went to bed that night believing he was on this way to the Democratic nomination and thence the White House; they awoke to learn of another American tragedy.

Other images that remain fixed in the memory of those who admired Kennedy were the scenes of people, black and white, who stood along the railroad tracks of the nation’s aging cities and small towns as his body was carried by a train making its way from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to its final earthly resting place at Arlington Cemetery. In a year with much shouting, violence, and upheaval, the quiet dignity of those paying their last respects were of a genuineness too often missing from American public life in the decades since.

It should not come as a surprise that in the twenty-first century, latter day successors of Kennedy as Attorney General as politically disparate as John Ashcroft and Eric Holder praised him, albeit emphasizing different aspects of his legacy. Since the election of Donald Trump in November of 2016, Tye has argued that the Democrats need a “new RFK,” one who presumably could recover white working class voters for the coalition that proved successful for Barack Obama. Kennedy in 1968 had managed “lay claim to a rare piece of political ground as a pragmatic idealist.” If Tye assessment is correct, it may be more than the Democratic Party that would benefit from a leader who shared some of the more noble qualities of Robert Francis Kennedy. Indeed, it well might be advisable for all people of good will to seek understanding of the heroes of those presumed to be on the other side of the current divide, and in so doing find something important to appreciate.  

Jason K. Duncan is Professor of History at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His most recent book is John F. Kennedy: The Spirit of Cold War Liberalism, (Routledge, 2014.)