The Essential Enigma of Robert F. Kennedy Remains, Even 30 Years Later |
By Paul Hendrickson
Like his brother, he died on the road. Who could have known there would be less than five years between the rifle in Dallas and the snub-nose revolver in Los Angeles? It was an eye-blink of time in America, from the crack of one to the pop-pop-pop of the other, during which so much about our national life went helter-skelter. Martin Luther King Jr. died also in those five years, and cities burned, and Vietnam became the hemorrhage no one could stanch.
But still: The two Kennedy assassination moments. Nov. 22, 1963, at Dealey Plaza, is a more engraved date, no question, but June 5, 1968, in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel, has made its own fierce imprint.
Thirty years ago tomorrow, at 13 minutes after midnight, Robert F. Kennedy fell backward in that pantry with a quizzical expression on his face. He lived for about another 26 hours -- until 1:44 a.m. on June 6. And then the funeral two days later at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. And then, that same afternoon, the train ride southward, attended at towns and crossings by the silent and curious -- perhaps a million trackside mourners in all. The family had put his coffin in the last car, which had big observation windows, and stuck it up on chairs so that children, riding in the saddle of their fathers' shoulders, might get a glimpse as history rolled by.
Some people tossed roses; some people ran after the train.
It wasn't until after nightfall that the family got him into the ground at Arlington, close to John F. Kennedy.
It's a touchstone of the '60s, a newsreel in sepia, that 22-car RFK funeral train coming slowly toward Washington in the failing light and summer swelter. A wrenching documentary that will air this weekend on the Discovery Channel -- "Robert F. Kennedy: A Memoir" -- begins its three-hour presentation with close-up footage of the train. It's all you need to see. Everything insane about the decade comes back.
It's not a very objective film. With "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" playing in the background, narrator Glenn Close says, "Robert Kennedy was a work in progress when he was murdered at age 42 -- perhaps that's why he was so frequently misunderstood. He was a folk hero, a pop icon, a symbol of political opposition, and glamorous royalty."
So what do we more objectively think of this younger brother now, a generation having worn away? What might have happened if he had lived? Is it possible our politics might have been sent in a much different direction? There are old RFK partisans around who feel it's so, and a few historians are willing to hedge toward that idea as well. But of course that question -- what might have happened had there been no snub-nose revolver in a hotel pantry -- is the useless what-if question. The irresistible what-if question.
"He never had the chance to fulfill his own possibilities, which is why his memory haunts so many of us now," Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Bobby's biographer, wrote in the foreword to his 916-page "Robert Kennedy and His Times." That mammoth and beautifully crafted work was published in 1978, and the sentence still seems apt today, even if so much of the book reads like hagiography.
"Most people acquire certainties as they grow older; he lost his," Anthony Lewis of the New York Times once said in a brief tribute. "He changed -- he grew -- more than anyone I have known." Covering Bobby at the Justice Department, when he was JFK's attorney general, Lewis initially viewed the little brother's appointment antagonistically. But then, not long into his reporting on the administration, Lewis began to observe the intriguing capacities for change. Fundamental things seemed to be happening in him and to him, in fits and starts.
Not that the little brother wasn't capable of switching back and becoming the ruthless and opportunistic and arrogant and rude little operator again.
During the Bay of Pigs debacle, in 1961, at the outset of the Kennedy administration, he is reported to have been told that four American pilots, who'd been in Nicaragua secretly training Cubans, were missing. A top CIA official, Richard Bissell, was summoned to the White House. Bobby caught him outside the Oval Office and got right up in his face and said, "Those American pilots had better goddamned well be dead." According to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and others, Bobby's only concern was for the image of his already humiliated brother, and for what the effect might be if those captured pilots were displayed by Fidel on Havana television.
The true depth of the changes wouldn't show themselves until after Nov. 22, 1963 -- but it's clear now that, for tangles of reasons, the transformations were underway beforehand. The shock of his brother's death seems to have been an intense catalyst for what was already going on in him. It was as if JFK's death pulled everything together, and brought it out into the light.
But it was in those final three years, from '65 to '68, when he was out of JFK's shadow entirely, when he was a senator from New York and then so briefly a presidential candidate, that there seemed so much nakedness and vulnerability and hurt on the surface; so much that you would have almost thought he was inviting the world's psychological scrutiny of him.
"He was a guy who felt, who acted on his feelings," says Jules Witcover, a reporter who has covered political campaigns for 45 years. "In the end, he was what he appeared to be."
"Perhaps the essential clue to this most protean of modern politicians is that Bobby was perpetually in a state of becoming," Michael Knox Beran wrote in the New Yorker a few weeks ago. Beran, a historian and lawyer, has a new book out, "The Last Patrician," in which he is trying to make a case that the last great liberal was really a conservative, first and last.
Well, maybe. But say this about a very paradoxical man: He continues to fascinate because of all those paradoxes. He's a riddle we haven't gotten to the bottom of yet. Say this, too: from the vantage point of three decades, the little brother -- the one with the protruding teeth and the big ears and the brood of kids out at Hickory Hill and the hair that was forever hanging down over his forehead -- begins to seem not just far more complicated in his makeup, but far more appealing, than his cool brother Jack. You could rightly call Bobby Kennedy many things, and a lot of them wouldn't be flattering, but cool isn't among them. Jack was very cool, Bobby was something else.
"Oh, a lot more interesting," says historian Michael Beschloss. "I think he was tortured by things JFK never was. Psychoanalytically and emotionally, he's much more difficult to figure out."
Shots in a Pantry
The core criticism was that he had waited until Eugene McCarthy had done all the early and dirty work for him in proving that Lyndon B. Johnson was highly vulnerable to being ousted. Then he jumped in. It revived all the old charges of opportunism.
Kennedy had announced for the presidency on March 16 in the Senate Caucus Room, four days after anti-war candidate McCarthy had come very close to defeating his own party's incumbent president in the New Hampshire primary. (He got an astounding 42 percent.) Johnson, who hated Kennedy with a paranoia that maybe only Shakespeare could understand, took himself out of the race on March 31. That changed everything.
In the Indianapolis ghetto, on April 4, on the night Martin Luther King Jr. was slain, Kennedy had spoken so eloquently and spontaneously of what we need in the United States: "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or black."
Now it was Los Angeles, late on the night of June 4, with twin primary victories in California and South Dakota. Suddenly the impossible -- securing the Democratic nomination in Chicago later in the summer and then going on to win the presidency in November -- began to seem merely the improbable. Camelot was being dreamed anew.
He came into the hotel ballroom in a dark blue suit and striped tie. He talked about how Don Drysdale of the Dodgers had just pitched his sixth straight shutout. After, as always, the crowds tried to mob him. It was a little past midnight, West Coast time, when the handlers decided to move him toward the pantry. Somewhere in that narrow and clogged space, a short, dark figure stepped down off a low tray stacker and fired.
It sounded like firecrackers.
Sirhan Bishara Sirhan: 24, a Jordanian, born in Jerusalem, who'd ended up in L.A. and had spent a lot of time watching TV in the suburbs. Lately, though, the trim young man with the curious smile had been test-firing a handgun at the San Gabriel Valley Gun Club.
The Hunted, the Haunted
"Oh, my God," Ethel Kennedy said. She stepped across her husband, got down and took his hand. People were screaming, "Get back, get back, give him air!" By now, they had wrestled the gunman to the floor. They brought in a gurney and put Kennedy on it. "Gently, gently," his wife begged. "Oh, no, no," he said, "don't."
A former aide to Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, was upstairs, in the Kennedy suite, watching the primary returns on television. Lewis saw the news and fell to the floor, crying. Two months earlier, he'd been with RFK in Indianapolis when the "what we need" speech had been delivered. After King's funeral in Atlanta, rather than stay home and grieve, Lewis told himself, "Well, we still have Bobby."
Last week, on the phone, Lewis, who is a Georgia congressman with his own '60s memoir just out ("Walking With the Wind"), tried to recall precisely what he felt that night -- and what he did by daylight. "I got on a plane and went right back to Atlanta," he said. "I couldn't stay there. I think I cried all the way across the country. I remember looking down and seeing snow in the Rockies."
"I had dreams for years that he had come back alive," an old RFK aide named Peter Edelman said last week in his office at Georgetown University Law Center, where he is a professor of constitutional law. "Actually, I still do. It's still mysterious. It's not entirely clear in the dream whether I'm the only one who knows." He cleared his throat.
The professor's office is a little museum to Robert Kennedy. There are moody and oversize black-and-white photographs on the walls. You can walk in and feel an almost palpable presence. Edelman said that every school year, he gets a group of fresh new law students coming in to say hello, precisely because they have huge admiration for the younger brother.
Grief Forges a New Man
Oh, it's true that our mind's eye also sees him running rapids or conquering mountaintops, with that fierce Kennedy grin on. But the closer truth of his life is that he was an introspective and meditative man. He had a deep strain of Catholic Irish melancholy. He had an appreciation for man's sinfulness.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has said that JFK was a realist at heart disguised as a romantic; and that RFK was a romantic at heart disguised as a realist. It's just that the surface impressions were always otherwise.
He wasn't a great reader like his elder brother. He came to books, to the Greeks especially, and to Camus, after his brother's death. Then he seized on them, with characteristic zeal. "All things are to be examined & called into question -- There are no limits set to thought," he once scrawled in his meditations on a yellow sheet. This was after Jack died.
Schlesinger wrote that he spent the night of his brother's death in the Lincoln bedroom. On the other side of the wall he was heard to sob and say, "Why, God?"
"All he had striven for smashed in a single afternoon," Schlesinger wrote.
`The Unbearable Silence'
He had grown up the smallest Kennedy, the shyest Kennedy, the least coordinated Kennedy. (But he got his letter in football at Harvard, when his big brothers didn't.) He was the one born after four girls. One of his grandmothers worried aloud he'd become a sissy. No wonder he seemed always to be spoiling for a fight as a young man; he was trying to prove something. "I was," he once said, "the seventh of nine children, and when you come from that far down you have to struggle to survive."
Those who knew him well, especially in those three final years, talk about his gift for silence. "Shyest man I ever knew," remembers Frank Mankiewicz. "He didn't like small talk at all. He could sit in a room and just be quiet. The unbearable silence, they call it. He could be quite comfortable with that." Mankiewicz, one of his key aides in the Senate years, remembers many times driving him home to Hickory Hill in stone quiet. Bobby would get in, buckle up, say nothing. There wasn't anything hostile in this -- he had just tunneled into himself, thinking.
There was his deep empathy for children (including 11 of his own, the last born after he was dead). Harvard psychiatrist and author Robert Coles remembers traveling with him in Mississippi. They were somewhere in the Delta, maybe Greenwood. The caravan pulled up in front of some awful shack. Kennedy couldn't seem to connect with a little girl. He talked to everybody else in the family, but this one child resisted him, wouldn't look at him, stayed off by herself. The caravan left.
Coles: "He made the cars stop. He turned them around. He said, `I want to go back and talk to that little girl for a minute.' I remember how he went back and took hold of her hand."
One possible interpretation of the story is that it was his infernal Kennedy ego that made him go back: How dare this child refuse his attentions? Coles doesn't buy that. "No, the meaning of the story is he had an eye out for outsiders by then. And she was an outsider among outsiders. . . . I remember he said to me once so wearily, `We come and we go.' "
How does that RFK square with the earlier RFK who Theodore Sorensen once said was "militant, aggressive, intolerant, opinionated, somewhat shallow in his convictions . . . more like his father than his brother"? That was the Bobby of the '50s, the little brother whom America glimpsed on grainy daytime TV, when he was counsel to the Senate Rackets Committee. He was a man with short-cropped hair and skinny ties, busting the chops of Jimmy Hoffa. You could just tell how much he loved making Hoffa eat it.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has shrewdly suggested that, in his going after Hoffa and the Teamsters with such ferocity, Bobby may have really been going after his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, for not showing him enough affection as a child, for not being around enough. The labor unions had always been crucially important to Kennedy family money, and here was the seventh-born, the bantamweight, tearing out the entrails of the man who was the Teamsters.
Know what Jimmy Hoffa said, in the next decade, when he heard about JFK's death? "Bobby Kennedy is just another lawyer now."
Know what LBJ said five years later when his aide, Walt Rostow, called him at 3:31 a.m. to tell him RFK had been shot in California? "Too horrible for words," the president gasped. That was in the middle of the night on June 5. But later that same day, and on into the evening, Johnson -- pacing in the White House, ordering dinner, hectoring aides -- could be heard saying with no disguise: "I've got to know. Is he dead? Is he dead yet?"
To think, a man with a shattered brain, on whom the surgery had not gone well, was yet capable of arousing such King Lear emotion.
A radical theory: Could Bobby Kennedy's transformations -- most evident in him after Nov. 22, 1963, but certainly in process before -- have to do with an old and very Catholic word: guilt? That is, "Was he, to some significant extent, directly or indirectly, responsible for his brother's death?"
That sentence is from a chapter called "The Agony of Robert Kennedy," in a remarkable 1980 book titled, "Of Kennedys and Kings," by former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford. Part of the book's power arises from the fact that Wofford knew and worked for both brothers in various capacities. He loved them. He said in a phone conversation last week that he had nothing in mind when he wrote that sentence except the pursuit of truth. His thesis, which is presented with great sensitivity and sadness, has never been given the attention it deserves.
The heart of it is that Bobby Kennedy -- in his personal desire to "get" Castro after the Bay of Pigs humiliation -- may have unwittingly unleashed all the dark and tangled forces of violence in America against his brother: the mob, the CIA run amok, disillusioned Cuban nationalists, Cuban sympathizers, anti-Castro nuts, pro-Castro nuts. And that one of these, or a combination of these, ultimately resulted in the destruction of John Kennedy.
It is a fact that after the Bay of Pigs crisis, no one in the administration was pushing and jamming harder to topple Castro's regime than Bobby. As Wofford writes, "He seemed like a wild man who was out-CIAing the CIA."
We now know without question -- from the 1975 Church committee hearings and other congressional investigations -- that America was deeply involved in these years in trying to assassinate foreign leaders. The CIA started the business at least as early as the presidency of Eisenhower and continued it under the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson. The Senate Select Committee in '75 uncovered specific evidence of at least eight plots to assassinate Castro involving the CIA from 1960 to 1965.
Did the Kennedy brothers directly order or approve of murdering Castro? That has never been proven. There is no piece of paper tying them to it, probably never will be.
But you wouldn't have to know of (or have approved of, or actually ordered) any direct and specific plan to murder Castro to validate the thesis of Harris Wofford. His supposition is far more subtle and tensile and carefully argued. What he feels is that Bobby came to realize that -- in his earlier zeal to even a score against Castro -- he had put in motion so many things he couldn't stop. And one of them was his own brother's murder. To even the score is a Kennedy trait. And had the trait come home to roost? And had Bobby understood it clairvoyantly after Nov. 22, 1963, and had no one to tell it to?
Wofford describes Bobby as "transfigured," which of course is a biblical word that makes you think of agonies in the garden.
Wofford: "From the findings of the Senate committee, we could begin to understand the burden of knowledge -- even of guilt -- that Robert Kennedy was carrying in the last years of his life . . . grief beyond ordinary grief with which Robert Kennedy wrestled for long months and years." To someone with such a moralistic and religious sensibility, a burden like that must have seemed unbearable. And yet rather than let such thoughts destroy him, RFK rechanneled his secret burden into seeking to understand and help the poor and dispossessed and wretched.
Hence, the inside-out changes that the world saw but didn't completely understand.
Historian Michael Beschloss was asked last week about Wofford's book. He said he believes it's possible. It's just a stab, he said. No one knows for sure.
A Broken Link
"History changed him, and, had time permitted, he might have changed history," Schlesinger wrote in his biography. "He died at a pivotal moment. There are all these questions," says Beschloss.
"I don't think our politics would be dominated by race the way they are," says Mankiewicz. "He was the only white politician who bridged that gap. Our politics would not be racial politics. They would not be anger-driven."
Beschloss feels you can almost date the death of liberalism in this country to the events of mid-1968; you could almost date the death of liberalism to June 5, 1968.
So a question about RFK might be: If he had lived, even if he had not gained the nomination and then the presidency (Beschloss feels strongly he would've been unable to secure enough delegates to get nominated), could he have nonetheless made liberalism and liberal sensibilities more salable in the '70s and '80s? The answer: a hedging yes.
Witcover closes "The Year the Dream Died" thusly: "The reality was that the events of 1968 delivered a death blow to the old Democratic coalition that had produced and sustained the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier and Great Society, and left a new conservatism a-borning in its place. Since then, it is beyond dispute that the nation has experienced a major transformation."
All theories are suspect, in a sense. And in a sense, all theories are equally true. A man's life was taken from him and us. In the years since, the life has been given over to dreams, sorrows, speculations and agendas of anyone who has cared to stake a claim. Maybe this is just the way it should be. That is, to be left with the questioning itself. Because in the dreaming and the sorrowing and the speculating, we are able to divert ourselves, rechannel ourselves, from that which we can never do anything about: the gun that went pop-pop-pop in the middle of the night.