The dedication of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s first book is, poignantly, "to my mother and father." The voluminous acknowledgements include his 10 brothers and sisters "who have never failed to surprise me with the depth of their loyalty, love and support . . . and by their ability to let laughter carry them through the toughest of times." And there is a nod to grandmother Rose who has "always exerted her youthful and tireless spirit to point us in the right direction."
These tributes, in a way, say where Bobby Kennedy is today at 24 - more than the book he has written about Alabama's fighting civil rights judge, Frank M. Johnson Jr. The book itself, which had its beginnings as a Harvard senior thesis, has hardly been praised.
But merit or not. Kennedy is making all the talk shows - from "Today" to "tomorrow." And, as he travels the circuit, it is apparent that he is a young man bound by a past, as he says, a legacy - not only in his eyes but in the eyes of the public and the press. When he was 9, his uncle, President John F. Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas. When he was 14, his father, running for the presidency, was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel.
Today, over and over, the answers the same questions - Kenneday assasinations: Who in the next generation will run for office? What it has meant to grow up Kennedy?
Yesterday morning blurry-eyed and with a sore throat, Kennedy, lean and lanky, gulped orange juice and eggs and milk in his hotel room, and answered the questions all over again. His hair was tousled from a shower, and he threw on a wrinkled shirt, not self-consciously, not caring that a photographer was clicking pictures. Two hours later, he would be on television - in a graystriped vest and suit, tie and elephant-skin boots.
He is one of the first to say that being a Kennedy has more advantages than disadvantages. One of them is getting published at 24. "Well I may have gotten published, but I sure wouldn't have been on the talk shows. How many people are interested in a southern judge.
Johnson is more than just a "southern judge." The one-time law-school classmate of George C. Wallace - who became his foe afterward in a bitter 18-year-old battle over racial segregation in Alabama - forged, through the courts a new era in civil rights for Alabama. Kennedy, who became an uncritical admirer of Johnson, had long been at work on the book before Johnson accepted and then turned down, for reasons of ill health, President Carter's offer to head the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Kennedy's book is basically an uncritical collection of loping ancedotes which are at times engaging. However, the book lacks introspection insight an da historical perspective worthy of Johnson and his accomplishments. The thesis itself was rated average by many of those who read it at Harvard, but they blame the publishers, not Kennedy, for rushing him into print.
Kennedy seems unconcerned by the criticism, but admits a "weakness" is deeply personal material. "I was trying to figure out whether I didn't want to ask those kind of probing questions, or whether he didn't want to talk about them. I concluded it was a combination. He's such a private guy. Everything was so hard for him to bare - in the sense of showing himself. I was there when his son committed suicide - he shot himself - But I thought somehow I would be betraying a trust to write about it." Kennedy paused. "No one outside can understand that kind of pain. You can't convey that kind of pain, unless you're a superb writer - which I am not."
In September, Kennedy will start his first year at the University of Virginia law school - "everyone remembers that my Uncle Ted went there, but my father went there also."
Like all the male Kennedys before him, Bobby talks of a career of "public service." He says he "might" run for office. He plans to return to New York - his home during prep school days - and gives as a reason, "My father was senator from there."
Years of having his pictures snapped at 14 on the lawn of the Hickory Hill home, head bowed in grief . . . at 16 coming out of a court house after being arrested for possession of marijuana . . . at any age at countless Kennedy functions . . . have made him both at ease and cautious beyond his years with the press.
About the political ramifications often loom: "While I am a Catholic, I do have trouble accepting a lot of things in the Catholic faith," he says. Asked to give examples, he laughs. "Nothing I'm ready to talk about." He then gave a Kennedysque grin. "You're getting me in trouble there . . . there are 700 million of us."
At Harvard, Bobby Kennedy was no stranger to the lifestyle of his peers. Friends recall a college room litered with records and books. Some record albums were used as book marks - and some records for ash trays. One tutor had a certain empathy for the Kennedys. "I've seen four or five of 'em - including Bobby - and it's incredible. People fall all over themselves to do things for them. He's not brilliant, but he's certainly competent - if he can get past all those special favors."
Kennedy says, "I'm not very academically oriented. I had all my papers for the book in one room and I just shut the door . . . and I'd just walk room" . . .
While in Alabama he was introduced to the pleasures of snuff and country music; and he still finds one of his greatest pleasures, a reminder of childhood Kennedy days, is white are asked, come with push-button regularity.
As the questions about the family are asked, the answers come with push-button regularity.
Reexamining the Kennedy assassinations are "very painful for the family - but that is up to the government if they want to do it."
On Joan and Ted Kennedy: "I really don't expect him to run for the presidency." A grin. "Do you want my standard answer? I expect him to support the Democratic nominee and he expects that will be Carter." Joan Kennedy "has had a hard time . . . but all that is really a tough thing for me to talk about."
Of all the Kennedys, he thinks his aunt, Eunice Shriver, would make a "terrific" president. "She's very bright, well organized, a very good administrator."
He conceded that she would also be controversial, for such views as her tough anti-abortion stance. "I'm against abortion myself on a moral basis, but I have some reservations about how much we can impose our sort of moral ideas and religious beliefs upon other Americans through the law."
He takes a wry look at the Irish, particularly as it was told in Leon Uris' "Trinity." "That book is just what the Irish love to believe about themselves - and it's just not true. All these heroes and martyrs. If you read Irish history, it was never straight English killing Irish. It's always been Irish killing Irish. The English have just been on the sidelines. The croppies have always revolted against the people in the town and the landlords and even if they were Irish they were always going to defend themselves. I was in Derry and Belfast last year and if you asked directions in the wrong way - either side, the Protestants or the Catholics, would simply direct you the wrong way." Kennedy says at some point he would like to travel and write - having done one piece for the Atlantic Monthly while in Chile.
He personally does not see the neo-conservative trend some observors find on campuses. "The friends I have are as interested in those who have less advantages as the kids were in the '60s. They are more pragmatic, which I think is good, but they are much more interested in social issues. A lot of them have gone into journalism for that reason.Occasionally, you'll be able to do something that'll involve your own vision. I mean that's really all you can do - and it probably does more good than going out and marching in May Day parades."
At about this point, Kennedy yawns, drops some Visine in his eyes and apologizes, "I really fell I took some stupid-pills this morning," before reflecting on his childhood.
"For a while after my Dad died and after I was busted (for possession of marijuana) I had a couple of hard years. I was really wary of the press. I wanted my own privacy. And then I found some direction at Harvard. I just got used to the feeling, good and bad, of being a Kennedy. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages a lot. The doors open to me. The travel (Africa, England, Ireland, Chile). The access to the press and everything.
"One thing really hurt, and that was when I was arrested for loitering." At 17, a long-haired Kennedy was arrested in Barnstable, Mass. A policeman told the court that Kennedy was standing beside a car, with the door open and that he told Kennedy to move along. The patrolman said Kennedy then "spat a bit of his ice cream cone in my face."
To this day, the memory is etched in Kennedy's mind and he says "it wasn't that way at all. He said something smart to my girlfriend and I probably said something smart ass and he slapped the ice cream out of my hand, handcuffed me immediately, put me on the ground and then called a cruiser. When I got to the police station, he said I was drunk. I wasn't. They sent me off. The desk sergeant probably said, 'He's not drunk and that's Bobby Kennedy.' See, the guy didn't know it was me and I think the desk sergeant told him, 'You'd better have a damn good reason for arresting him and so he made that up. I really felt terrible - because that is just what some people want to think about Kennedys. When I walked out court 50 members of the press were there."
Kennedy says he's gotten over most of his wariness of the press. "You know what I think? A lot of people, like actors, are forced to act in public up to people's expectations. Maybe they're forced to be very macho or maybe drink too much. The way I act now is the way I really am."
If he runs for office, Kennedy says, "like all the Kennedys" he would view the possibility of violence against him as an "occupational hazard. But we are a very close-knit family and we have close friends. A lot of people lose members of their families and don't have that kind of support. When my father died, my brother (Joe, now 25) took over as head of the family. My uncle was acknowledged as the male head. My grandmother was - what do you call it? - the matriarch.
"My grandfather used to say this country has been very good to the Kennedys and it was up to us to give something back. Even with all the assassinations, we still come up doing pretty well. My father and my uncle, even though they died left us with a pretty good legacy. More than a lot of people have."
One final comment, "Am I shy? Yeah."