A balanced new biography of Bobby Kennedy

bobby kennedyDuring his years in the public eye in the 1950s and 60s, Bobby Kennedy was as controversial a figure as anyone else in American history. Millions despised him because he worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy. Millions more loathed him for his role in supporting the civil rights movement. Yet other Americans lionized him as the uncompromising liberal he was viewed as in the final years of his life.

Little wonder that most biographers have veered either sharply left or sharply right in painting a portrait of this endlessly complex man. In Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, journalist Larry Tye steers a careful middle course. The result is a balanced and insightful biography of one of the most significant figures on the American stage in the mid-twentieth century.


Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye

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The man known as RFK

Today, the man known as RFK is closely identified with his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who has cast a much longer shadow over American history. As Tye makes abundantly clear, the two were different in a great many ways: in age, stature, temperament, and political perspective. JFK was eight years older and three inches taller — Bobby was considered the runt of the large Kennedy litter — and the younger man bore grudges for decades. His older brother was far more pragmatic and much less prone to anger.

As an adult, managing Jack’s first race for the U.S. Senate in 1952, Bobby gained a reputation as “ruthless” that stayed with him for the remainder of his life. Tye insists that the label was misplaced. “Bobby was as intelligent as Jack, although less of an intellectual; Jack had Bobby’s toughness, although he was better at disguising it.” And Tye reveals Bobby to have been an inspiring boss at the Justice Department, a caring father and wife whom he loved passionately, and genuinely compassionate with the disadvantaged people he met along the campaign trail. Still, Bobby was notorious for the abiding hatred he possessed for a long list of enemies, including J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy’s pit bull Roy Cohn, Jimmy Hoffa, and Lyndon Johnson. However, much of his reputation for ruthlessness stemmed from his willingness to follow evidence of wrongdoing even among his friends. “During his three years as attorney general, his office prosecuted two congressmen, three state supreme court justices, five mayors, two chiefs of police, and three sheriffs — all Democrats.”

Bobby Kennedy’s evolution from Right to Left

Now, nearly half a century after Kennedy’s death, many of the passions have cooled, and long-secret archives have been opened. It’s now possible to view the man’s life in greater perspective. Biographer and journalist Larry Tye has accomplished just that, steering a steady course between the extremes in Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon. As the title suggests, Tye’s theme is Kennedy’s evolution under fire as his brother’s campaign manager, anti-Communist zealot, no-holds-barred Senate investigator, Attorney General, U.S. Senator, and, finally, presidential candidate. Beginning public life identified with the Right, he came to its end less than two decades later as the bright new hope of the Left.

Bobby Kennedy is not easy to pigeonhole

Notwithstanding Kennedy’s popularity with the Left in 1968, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as a liberal. True, he was fiercely committed to ending poverty in America, and he had emerged as a champion of civil rights for African-Americans, albeit slowly and reluctantly. However, like his brother, RFK would have been horrified if asked to support the sort of policies advanced in 2016 by Senator Bernie Sanders. He was, if anything, pro-business, fiercely anti-Communist, a fervent supporter of the Cold War, and committed to economic policies that today might well be considered conservative.

Skip this if you know the history

In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was poised for election to the White House when an assassin’s bullet cut him down at the age of 42. His victory was by no means assured, but he had just won the California primary and seemed on track to a showdown with Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic Convention. Given the intense popular hatred for the Vietnam War and Humphrey’s continuing support for Lyndon Johnson’s policies, it’s clear that the contest would have gone down to the wire, at the very least. Instead, as history shows, Humphrey emerged with the nomination bloodied by the tumultuous events that surrounded the 1968 convention. Had Kennedy won the nomination instead, or had Humphrey won in a fair fight, it seems highly likely that Richard Nixon would have gone down to defeat. Even heavily handicapped as he was, Humphrey came exceedingly close to winning.

About the author

Boston journalist Larry Tye is the author of seven nonfiction books, three of which are biographies. His previous subjects were Edward L. Bernays, the father of public relations, and the legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige.

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