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Tucson Weekly Remembering Bobby

Saintly crusader or political opportunist -- two new biographies show RFK in most of his glory and some infamy.

By Gregory McNamee

JUNE 8, 1998: 

Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector, by James W. Hilty (Temple University Press). Cloth, $34.95.

The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy, by Michael Knox Beran (St. Martin's Press). Cloth, $23.95.

EARLY IN THE morning of June 4, 1968, candidate Robert Kennedy left his Los Angeles hotel room, where he was monitoring the results of the California Democratic presidential primary, and descended into the dining room to address a crowd of well-wishers. An assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, stepped forward and shot Kennedy point-blank with a pistol. In the ensuing confusion, a Mexican busboy placed a rosary in Kennedy's hands, and another son of a seemingly accursed family died.

Thirty years later, amid televised remembrances of Bobby Kennedy's life and death, two books celebrate his accomplishments. James Hilty's Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector is a particularly fine study of Kennedy's contribution to national politics. "That we speak at all of a Kennedy legacy...is because of Robert Kennedy," writes Hilty. That we connect the Kennedy name to issues of social justice and equity, he continues, is also the result of RFK's work after his brother John's murder in November 1963. It's fair that we think of the younger Kennedy as a good man, Hilty suggests; but, he reminds us, the Kennedy brothers were above all else politicians who "often got credit for more than they achieved," and who committed questionable acts in achieving what they did.

It's as a politician that Robert Kennedy most engages Hilty, who goes on to dissect his role as a political bulldog, crusading attorney, and above all, fierce champion and protector of his older brother throughout his political career. In that role, Bobby committed a few improprieties--including, or so it is alleged, accepting campaign contributions from the Mafia, contributions delivered by none other than Frank Sinatra. The Kennedy brothers were, Hilty continues, disputing the claims of tell-all memoirist Judith Campbell, far too savvy to get too close personally to such transactions. In any event, John Kennedy even joked about such things, telling an audience that he had received a telegram from his father instructing him not to buy "one more vote than necessary. I'll be damned if I'll pay for a landslide."

Elsewhere Hilty writes that as attorney general Bobby was nonchalant about illegal wiretaps and smear campaigns, favorite tactics of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. But for all his contradictions, ethical shortcomings and personal demons, which Hilty explores with care and sympathy, Robert Kennedy found his true calling at the end of his life, using his "spiritual intensity and sense of invincibility" to effect meaningful social change for the good.

In The Last Patrician, Michael Knox Beran makes a thoughtful effort to claim Bobby Kennedy for the conservative, but not necessarily right-wing, cause. In a combination of intellectual biography and moral/cultural analysis, Beran considers Kennedy as "the first post-Enlightenment American statesman," a politician for whom public service was far more than a rhetorical device. An inheritor of the practical if unreflective politics of Harry Stimson and his Groton-educated peers, Kennedy, writes Beran, exhibited all the arrogance of his privileged class, lording it as a young man over servants and government employees (including, famously, the aforesaid J. Edgar Hoover, whom Kennedy treated like livery).

It was not until reaching middle age that Kennedy shed some of this arrogance; a moment of transformation, Beran writes in a fascinating aside, came when Mrs. Paul Mellon loaned Kennedy a copy of Edith Hamilton's book The Greek Way, which inspired Kennedy to take an Athenian view of public service--a view that meant betraying some of the aspirations of his family. Beran takes an unabashedly moralistic view of politics, examining key terms like "self-reliance" and the self-confidence that makes it possible; he considers Bobby Kennedy as a nearly Christ-like figure who walked among the poor as if wearing a hairshirt, who washed the feet of the suffering; he even finds room for a kind word for patriarch Joseph Kennedy, whom he deems a cunning but compassionate man, whom history has not treated kindly.

In all of this Beran is utterly convincing, and he reminds us how much we lost when Bobby Kennedy fell to an assassin's bullet 30 years ago. He is slightly less convincing when he enlists Kennedy in the neoconservative movement, Beran's idea of which is more English than American, but he is correct in pointing out that "dissent is not the exclusive property of the left," and that it makes more sense to liken Kennedy to John Ruskin than to Che Guevara.

Both books offer appropriate testimony to Robert Kennedy's importance in our time and are a welcome rejoinder to the customary take on the Kennedy family today, when the current crop of Kennedy scions is making news for all the wrong reasons.

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