Robert Kennedy greets an enthusiastic crowd in Indianapolis in May 1968 during his presidential campaign. (Paul J. Shane/Associated Press)

Joe Scarborough is the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and a Washington Post contributor.

In 1999, Massachusetts congressman Joe Kennedy asked me to join him in drafting legislation renaming the Justice Department headquarters after his father, Robert F. Kennedy. At the time, I was a Republican congressman from Florida, and Joe knew that RFK had been the driving force in my decision to enter politics. My job was to persuade Republican lawmakers such as Tom DeLay and Dick Armey to sign on to our bill and get this tribute to one of the great Democrats of the 20th century passed through a very conservative House of Representatives — no small task.

Our efforts with Republicans were surprisingly successful until California congressman Steve Horn, a former member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a moderate voice in an increasingly conservative caucus, launched into a verbal assault on the House floor aimed directly at the memory of Bobby Kennedy: “That ruthless SOB did more as attorney general to set back the cause of civil rights than anyone else in Washington. The man fought Martin Luther King and the rest of us every step of the way.”

I reported back to Joe Kennedy that we should mark Horn down as undecided.

The bill eventually was signed into law, and in 2001, I attended a ceremony commemorating the Justice Department building’s name change where then-Attorney General John Ashcroft praised RFK as a worthy example in the new age of terrorism. Earlier that day, however, Bobby Kennedy’s daughter Kerry had criticized President George W. Bush and most of the Republicans who co-signed the RFK bill for betraying the very values for which her father lived and died.

(Random House)

Kennedy’s legacy has been scorned, defended and highly extolled in hagiographic biographies by the likes of Arthur Schlesinger and other enthusiasts. Now comes Larry Tye with “Bobby Kennedy,” a fascinating and extensively researched biography that provides the most balanced view to date of this complicated liberal hero who spent most of his life driven by the right-wing orthodoxies of his father.

From Bobby’s eager role as a friend and aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, to his disdain for Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination, to his hatred of homosexuals, to his use of dirty tricks against political opponents, to the wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr. — whom Kennedy never trusted or liked — to his role in an assassination plot against Fidel Castro, Tye gives the reader an unflinching look at Kennedy’s darkest side while providing a moving yet unromanticized view of the metamorphosis that occurred in him between Dallas and his spellbinding and tragic run for president in 1968.

In his youth, Bobby never seemed destined for greatness. His father saw him as the “runt” of his litter, his mother worried he would grow up to be a “sissy,” while his older brother Jack bristled at his father’s suggestion that Bobby help on his 1946 campaign for Congress. JFK told friends to get a picture of the happy brothers working together and then “take Bobby out to [the] movies.” He was born a misfit with buck teeth, a slight stammer and a disposition so dark that Jack took to calling him Black Robert.

But by JFK’s 1952 Senate race, the family’s iron-willed patriarch began to realize that Bobby shared more in common with him than any of his other children did. “Bobby’s as hard as nails,” Joe Kennedy bragged to friends. The father now considered his runt to be indispensable to his older son’s march to the White House and credited Jack’s upset victory of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. as much to Bobby as to the candidate himself. Even RFK’s older brother admitted that while every politician in Massachusetts hated Bobby, he had built “the best organization in history.” He would remain JFK’s lightning rod throughout Jack’s successful 1960 bid for president, running a campaign so tough that even the “Happy Warrior” Hubert Humphrey swore that he would never forgive Bobby.

After the 1952 race, Bobby put his organizational skills to use as a staff member to McCarthy as the senator ran an anti-communist witch hunt that spiraled quickly out of control. Kennedy was “delighted” at the prospect of working for McCarthy, who had dated two of his sisters and was a close friend of the family until his death. Like Joe Sr., McCarthy was a defiant Irishman, a disillusioned New Dealer and a conservative who had a “disdain for left-wingers.” That may explain why Bobby remained a fierce apologist for the senator even after he was censured by his colleagues, observing that “Joe McCarthy seemed to be the only one doing anything” about the serious internal security threats to America. Kennedy left the committee as things began falling apart for McCarthy, but Tye tells readers that the two remained such close friends that “McCarthy reserved a place for Bobby at his wedding, his dinner table, and his death bed.”

As disturbing as Kennedy’s time with McCarthy may be to our sensibilities today, his use of government power to carry out a blood feud with Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa seems even more chilling. As chief counsel to the Senate Labor Rackets Committee, RFK unleashed what Tye describes as “the most unrelenting congressional assault ever” directed at the Teamsters boss, hiring more than 100 staffers, calling more than 1,500 witnesses and holding 207 days of hearings. After pounding Hoffa for three years, Kennedy failed to prove that he ever improperly took a dime from his union. The hearings turned Hoffa into a hero inside his organization and forever branded Kennedy as ruthless.

His legal war against Hoffa only intensified after RFK took over the Justice Department as his brother’s attorney general. The department empaneled 15 grand juries to investigate Hoffa, and had 16 lawyers and 30 of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI agents working exclusively to bring the union boss down. It was, Tye explained, the justice system operating in reverse. Instead of starting with a crime and looking for a criminal, Kennedy started with a presumed criminal and obsessively searched for a crime to destroy his target. He ultimately succeeded in convicting Hoffa but along the way did the unthinkable: He made him a sympathetic figure. Joe Sr.’s warning that “when Bobby hates you, you stay hated” never applied more to anyone than Hoffa.

Tye traces the jagged line of Bobby Kennedy’s transformation from ideologue to idealist while attorney general. But that path was anything but straight. The same man who fought to advance the cause of civil rights in Capitol Hill hearing rooms and at Alabama schoolhouse doors also approved the wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr. two months after the March on Washington. At the same time, the ruthlessness Kennedy used against McCarthy’s targets, Hoffa and political opponents was now deployed to intimidate Southern governors who were fighting to maintain segregation.

“Somewhere in this man sits good,” King told his lieutenants. “Our task is to find his moral center and win him to our cause.” Though he never trusted King, Kennedy did take up his cause. But only after the tragedy in Dallas did he transform into the idealistic hero who compelled many like myself to believe that public service was, in fact, a noble profession.

Kennedy successfully ran for the Senate a year after his brother’s assassination and entered the chamber more prepared for his new role than all but a handful of senators in U.S. history. RFK used his time on Capitol Hill “crafting a new creed” that blended FDR’s New Deal collectivism with the self-reliance of his boyhood hero, Herbert Hoover. More important, Kennedy himself was changing. Tye observes that “most people harden as they add years and accumulate power, but Bobby’s sanctimony and starchiness increasingly yielded to his introspection and idealism.”

Over the next three years, Joe Kennedy’s misfit would speak to the outcasts of society in a way that reached audiences in South Africa and Indianapolis and still moves many to action today. The author rightly concludes his sweeping look at RFK by asserting that it did not matter that Kennedy never reached the throne his brother had briefly occupied. Millions of Americans believed in his majesty by the time he died.

Like Alexander Hamilton during our nation’s founding, Kennedy was the most dominant figure of his time not to be elected president. He shaped events during the most turbulent years since the Civil War, holding center stage during the McCarthy hearings, the Teamsters investigation, the rise of the New Frontier, the Cuban missile crisis, his brother’s assassination, the emerging Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movement, the killing of King and his own remarkable run for president, whose tragic ending still wounds the American psyche.

Any study of Bobby Kennedy will be less about what he was than what he might have become. Tye has crafted a multi-layered, inspiring portrait of RFK. Because the author refuses to avert his eyes from the uglier chapters in Kennedy’s life, he provides readers and historians their most in-depth look at an extraordinary figure whose transformational story shaped America at mid-century.

Joe Scarborough is the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and a Washington Post contributor.

Bobby Kennedy
The Making of a Liberal Icon

By Larry Tye

Random House. 580 pp. $32