IN LOVE WITH NIGHT

The American Romance With Robert Kennedy

By Ronald Steel

Simon & Schuster.

220 pp. $23

In May 1993, marking the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Robert f. Kennedy, I wrote a column for this newspaper in which I said, "There may well be in the entire history of these United States no single individual whose death has left a more lasting and mysterious sense of unexplored promise."

Taking note of the skepticism about government's capacity "to identify problems, much less to solve them" that had swept the nation since 1968, I added: "Yet even in this climate . . . it is still possible to recall Kennedy's combination of ardent conviction and persistent innocence and to believe that his death deprived us of more than just an uncommonly complex, driven, passionate man: to believe, that is, that some of our own capacity for conviction died with him."

That column is quoted in brief by Ronald Steel, along with comments by others of a similar nature, as evidence of the "powerful legend" that has grown up around Kennedy, elevating him into a "figure into whose promise we can read our unfulfilled hopes and ambitions." Mea culpa. To me, as obviously to many others, Kennedy remains the most interesting, enigmatic and perversely appealing of postwar American politicians. The sense of lost possibility radiating from his memory is intense. His life and death, after all, give real weight to John Greenleaf Whittier's cornball doggerel: "For of all sad words of tongue or pen,/ The saddest are these: `It might have been!' "

It is this aspect of Kennedy's legacy that most interests Steel, a clear-eyed and unsentimental writer as well as an unapologetic liberal. His slender book is not a biography -- Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s, though it borders on hagiography, remains definitive -- but a "study of character and circumstance," an effort "to understand why, after all these years, [Kennedy] retains a place in our political rhetoric and even in our imagination." To some extent Steel is engaged in debunking, for he draws sharp distinctions between the Kennedy mythology and historical truth; but he takes that mythology seriously, as indeed he should, and declines to mock it.

First he refreshes our memory about Robert Kennedy the man. The images of him that seem to have strongest staying power come from his abortive presidential campaign of 1968: his eloquent, moving speech to a grief-stricken black crowd on the night of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; his shaggy hair and rumpled clothes and little-boy grin; his mortally wounded body lying in a Los Angeles hotel. It is easy to draw a sentimental picture from these images. The truth, though, is that in his lifetime Kennedy was hated at least as much as he was loved, and that this was hardly without cause.

However sympathetic Steel may be to some of the things Kennedy did and many of the ideals in which he professed to believe, the portrait he paints is unsparing. As a boy Kennedy may have been "small, shy and insecure," but he took to heart his mother's religiosity, which compounded his "naturally intolerant" streak, and his father's "aggressiveness," which imbued in him the unfortunate conviction that "winning was everything and defeat ignominious." He had "a compulsive physical competitiveness" -- "In some ways he never graduated from the playground" -- and he was afflicted with a "violent and easily aroused temper" as well as "a knack for self-destructive behavior and for making life even more difficult than necessary." He seems to have been a good husband and father, but many outside his family found nothing in him to like and little to admire.

He also had an inclination to attach himself -- whether as ally or enemy -- to dangerous and disreputable people, Joe McCarthy and Jimmy Hoffa most notorious among them. His alliance with the former, Steel correctly points out, "was not simply an insignificant and overblown incident . . . as his admirers insist, but a central and telling event" because Kennedy identified with "McCarthy triumphant and McCarthy scorned; McCarthy the prophet and McCarthy the martyr." As for Hoffa, Kennedy's vendetta became a "holy cause" because "as his white whale Hoffa was his nemesis and thus one of the most important things in his life."

His attraction to McCarthy and his loathing for Hoffa both had their roots in what may have been his least attractive characteristic, "his tendency to see everything as black or white": "For him there could be no two sides to truth, to virtue, or to justice. In a family of operators and in a nation of pragmatists, he was a believer and a crusader." Though the assassination of his brother John "helped humanize him," because "it pulled him into the world of human imperfection and suffering," he was a born zealot and hater, against which he had to struggle without end. Steel's analysis of those pivotal months after Jack's death is acute:

"His own tragedy had left him bereft and confused. So much of his life had been defined by others: by the needs and expectations of the Kennedy family, by service to his brother. That would not change. What had changed was that with John dead and his father felled by a stroke he himself now had to carry the burden. For him that burden was also a trust -- to carry forth the legacy of the Kennedy presidency. In this way he would not only assuage his guilt, and honor Jack's memory, but find a worthy meaning in life for himself. He would immortalize Jack and vindicate himself from his culpable grief by becoming what Jack would have been. He became the self-anointed but inevitable inheritor. In good works he would seek release from his self-destructive impulses. . . . The Kennedy legend, which immortalized John Kennedy as much for what he might have been as for what he was, became the vehicle for Robert's own inheritance of power."

The result of Kennedy's self-transformation after Jack's murder was his emergence as spokesman for the marginal, the aggrieved and the dispossessed. "Three themes: youth, civil rights, and poverty" became the bedrock upon which he built his abortive presidential campaign of 1968, an undertaking that has become suffused with its own mythology -- much of it limned by ostensibly hard-nosed reporters who became infatuated with Kennedy -- yet that Steel views clinically. We will never know to what extent Kennedy's expressed affinity for the downtrodden was genuine and to what extent it was contrived, but Steel is right to insist that "although he is remembered to this day as an idealist who brought emotion to politics, he was also an agile and unsentimental realist in the pursuit and the wielding of political power."

This conflict between realism and idealism became the dominant strain in the last five years of Kennedy's life. It explains his belated conversion to the anti-Vietnam cause (only when the war had "become a losing proposition" could he "declare it immoral") and his equally belated decision to seek the presidency. Because so many people (myself, at the time, most certainly among them) were so desperate to recapture the lost, romanticized Kennedy White House, Robert Kennedy was granted extraordinary slack. Rationalizations were always found for his contradictions and inconsistencies and evasions, and, if none could be found, then we simply looked the other way.

Then, all of a sudden, he was dead, in circumstances appallingly similar to his brother's: "We mark the anniversaries of their deaths -- not, as with Washington and Lincoln -- of their births. We speculate more on what they might have done than on what they accomplished. Their lives were a welter of successes, compromises, and failures. But through death they have become everything we want to read into them." This is true not merely for liberals but for some conservatives as well, such being both the magnetism of the Kennedy legend and Robert Kennedy's failure to fit any clear ideological pigeonhole.

The one important question Steel does not address in this otherwise lucid and penetrating book is the staying power of this love affair with Bobby Kennedy. My own hunch is that it will not outlive those of us old enough to remember Kennedy and his "strange political journey." Although he was, as Steel says, "an exceptionally able attorney general," the concrete accomplishments of his life were small and, over the long run, inconsequential, which is to say there is precious little for history to remember. As much as anything else, Kennedy was the embodiment of a mood at a time in our history, and moods do not survive those who experience them. Even now, only six years since writing the words quoted at the beginning of this review, I find it harder to conjure up memories of Kennedy, harder to fall back under that odd, inexplicable spell, and no doubt many others feel much the same. At some not too distant day, history surely will account him a will-o'-the-wisp, and file him away accordingly.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.