Evan Thomas is the author of “Robert Kennedy: His Life.”
It was one of the strangest episodes in the history of American politics. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, sought to become the Democrats’ candidate for vice president in the 1964 election.
Bobby’s quest made little sense. Yes, he would be carrying the family torch. But the man at the top of the ticket, President Lyndon Johnson, had little incentive to accept RFK as his running mate. While the Kennedy name might have brought some luster to LBJ’s election campaign, Bobby Kennedy was unpopular in some quarters, particularly among white voters down South, where RFK was viewed as a pro-civil-rights hothead.
What’s more, the two men loathed each other. Kennedy privately called the president “mean, bitter, vicious — an animal in many ways,” and he made little effort to disguise his contempt around inquiring reporters. LBJ could see that Bobby hated him as a usurper of his brother’s crown. “When this fella looks at me, he looks at me like he’s gonna look a hole through me, like I’m a spy or something,” Johnson exclaimed. Kennedy knew that if he actually succeeded in becoming vice president, he’d be relegated to a powerless purgatory, just as LBJ had been under JFK.
Still, during the winter and spring of 1964, RFK maneuvered to force Johnson’s hand. He dispatched his most devious operative, Paul Corbin, to lean on political bosses in the northern states, then tried to cover up his own role. LBJ was compelled to formally reject Kennedy’s bid in a private meeting in the Oval Office (typically, the president then proceeded to brief friendly reporters, pantomiming RFK’s physical discomfort). Briefly, Kennedy considered fomenting a pro-RFK stampede at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
What motivated this quixotic effort? In his new book, “The Revolution of Robert Kennedy,” John R. Bohrer, a TV news producer and journalist, suggests that the answer can be found in a forward that RFK wrote in December 1963 for a memorial edition of JFK’s “Profiles in Courage.” Bobby quoted one of his brother’s favorite authors, Lord Tweedsmuir, to the effect that politics is an “honorable profession” and went on to praise politicians who had the courage to lead a “revolution” in the cause of freedom and human dignity.
These are worthy sentiments, and, in a general sense, they do describe Robert Kennedy’s personal odyssey after his brother’s death. But they do not describe Kennedy’s tortured inner life or explain the sheer perversity of his attempt to compel LBJ to accept him as his running mate.
Bohrer’s book, which covers the period of RFK’s life from November 1963 to June 1966, is tightly packed with detail, much of it fascinating and even moving. It will satisfy the Kennedy true believers and interest students of politics. Bohrer is a diligent researcher and a brisk writer. But he fails to include some of the more revealing details that might help shed light on why RFK was half out of his mind in the months following JFK’s assassination.
His grief was tinged with guilt. As attorney general in the Kennedy administration, RFK had functioned as his brother’s henchman as well as his keeper. On the afternoon when the president was killed, Bobby started making phone calls to find out if there was a plot behind the assassination. He directly asked the director of the CIA, John McCone, if the agency had had something to do with JFK’s death. He called into a CIA safe house in downtown Washington to speak with a Cuban exile plotting against Fidel Castro to see whether he knew anything. He called a lawyer in Chicago who had contacts in the mafia. For months (if not years), Kennedy was haunted by the fear that the aggressive tactics he had waged against the mob and Castro had somehow grotesquely backfired.
Kennedy was driven by more than a desire to do good in the world. He was courageous, especially when he confronted the casual bigotry of voters at campaign appearances, and he seemed to be catching the wave of the revolutionary 1960s that might have launched him into the White House, had he not been assassinated himself in 1968.
But Kennedy was a deeply complex man, with a dark side and an anger that earned him the nickname, not unfairly, “Ruthless Robert.” There have been endless debates — at the time and ever since — about the real RFK: the “Good Bobby” or the “Bad Bobby” of the old Jules Feiffer cartoons. It is impossible to know which side would have emerged had he survived and been elected president (no sure bet, by any means — Kennedy was too hot, too confrontational for many voters).
Kennedy’s love and compassion, while deep and real, were laced with vengeance and anger. Indeed, it is hard not to sympathize with his nemesis, Johnson. Bohrer oddly neglects to include in his account of RFK’s speech at the 1964 Democratic convention this bit of poetry, about Bobby’s fallen brother but also, meanly and a little sneakily, about LBJ. Quoting from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” (Jackie Kennedy had shown him the passage), RFK declared, “When he shall die/ Take him and cut him out in little stars,/ And he shall make the face of heaven so fine/ That all the world will be in love with night/ And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
The reference to the “garish sun” was obvious to everyone, especially Johnson. Kennedy went on to become the tribune of a fairer future. But he never let go of his shadowy past.
By John R. Bohrer
Bloomsbury. 384 pp. $30