From the time of his brother's assassination, the mission was never in doubt; one day he would try to regain the lost Presidency. Most people simply assumed it; one close friend put it quite plainly: "Anyone who has gone to the President's grave…with Robert Kennedy gets the sense that he feels that something great was broken here, and that as his brother's brother he has an obligation to continue it."
But at first the obligation seemed more apparent than the desire. A score of interviewers asked him when he would make the race—1968? 1972? Each heard a version of the same distracted reply: "I don't even know if I'm going to be here." An aide elaborated: "Bob just feels it's futile to plan too much. He has a visceral sense of the precarious nature of human life and effort."
Campaigning at last, he seldom seemed far from this somber mood. There were all the exhilarated images of the final weeks; Bobby Kennedy rolling down a dozen Main Streets to a dozen courthouse squares in the Midwest, as a high school band oompahed, "This Man Is Your Man." Bobby bemusedly debarking from his plane on a fork-lift at an East Oregon way station, and remarking in parody of his own pet oratorical tag line: "As George Bernard Shaw once said: 'We can do better'." Or bobby trying to reach every single hand along a near-riotous motorcade route in Southern California, as if he were giving bread to the poor. Yet he waged his campaign with more celebration than joy. In the few unguarded moments. The gaunt face flickered between brightness and melancholy. He had become, willingly or not, John Kennedy's surrogate, driven to seek his brother's fulfillment, or his tragedy. Was he worried by his exposure to frenzied crowds, a reporter asked? "I play Russian roulette." He answered. "Every time I get up in the morning. But I just don't care…If they want you, they can get you."
Prophecy: Just before his death he prophesied that an attempt would be made on his life. Yet "one must give oneself to the crowd," he said, "and from then on…rely on luck." Then his luck ran out, and the crowed consumed him.
Robert Francis Kennedy could not have done it otherwise. He plunged into life just as he plunged into the masses of people reaching out to touch and maul him. He was a driven man and this was never more apparent than in things physical. Whether on the football field or on the slopes, he had a need to excel. Learning that a peak in Canada had been named for his brother, he rushed off to be the first to scale it and plant a flag there. Walking along an Oregon beach a few weeks ago, he suddenly stopped, seeming to hear a challenge no one else heard, stripped to his shorts and plunged into icy, angry surf for a swim.
There was some intense contest within him that appeared to surface in paradoxes. Solemn and tenacious, he could nevertheless mock himself with a fine sense of absurdity. Deemed arrogant by some of his peers, he could be self-effacing among lesser men. He sought coteries and crowds, yet he could be painfully shy with individuals. Rich and privileged beyond most men, he could be tender, compassionate shepherd of the young, the disabled and the deprived—and yet he could also pursue and adversary with Old Testament vengefulness.
Still, the larger truth might be that he burned with a fiercer flame then others, throwing sharper lights and deeper shadows even that other Kennedys. Of all of them, he was the most inward and difficult to know, the grittiest and at the same time the most vulnerable. Perhaps it was his post position. "I was the seventh of nine children," he said once. "And when you come form that far down, you have to struggle to survive." He was born Nov. 20, 1925 to a household already lorded over by two idolized brothers, some overpowering sisters, and above all a steely willed baronial father who had amassed a seemingly boundless fortune—and conferred on each child a trust currently valued at more than $10 million. In that galaxy, Robert was slight, unprepossessing and unblessed by any obvious gifts of scholarship or intellect. He could neither read as swiftly, jest as deftly or achieve the effortless poise of his tall, handsome older brothers Joe Jr. and John.
By the time he was a Harvard footballer, he had an understandable reputation for trying
harder, attested to later by Kennedy aide Kenneth O'Donnell, who was team captain: "He had no right to be on the varsity team…We had eight ends who were bigger, faster and had been high-school stars. But Bobby…worked five times as hard as anybody. He'd come in from end like a wild Indian, If you were blocking Bobby, you'd knock him down, but he'd be up again, going after the play. He never let up."
In those days he was called relentless. The postgraduate version (after he had taken a law degree from the University of Virginia) was "ruthless," a designation--part hearsay, and part fact--that was to stay with him the rest of his life. This began with his stewardship of brother Jack's first Senate race in 1952, when Bobby angered older, professional pols offering help in Massachusetts by instructing them to lick envelopes at campaign headquarters. Then there was his service as a cocky young assistant counsel with Joe McCarthy's Senate investigations subcommittee-critics put down his failure to repudiate that episode as one more demerit. Or the time in 1957, during the Senate labor-rackets investigation, when he ragged Teamsters boss James Hoffa and other unionists so mercilessly that a Teamsters attorney called him "a sadistic little monster."
Legend: For all that, the legend of Bobby the Ruthless first gained national standing in the 1960 Presidential campaign, when Bobby, in the service of Jack, was hard at work improving the art of the advance man, which meant commandeering armies of people and facilities, and cracking heads on a monumental scale. As campaign manager he was dedicated with a liege man's blind loyalty to the enthronement of his brother. "I don't give a damn whether the state and county organizations survive after November," he told fending New York State pols. "I want to elect John F. Kennedy." Inevitably, the legend fed on such encounters.
As Attorney General and unofficial major-domo of John Kennedy's Cabinet, he could still be a fearsome straw boss. Given a key role in the investigation of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he charged in like a prosecuting attorney. On other occasions, however, he was a steadying influence in the deliberations of the National Security Council. (By his own later testimony, he was proudest of his restraining role in the Cuban missile crisis.)
All the while, he showed a capacity for growth. Neither Robert nor John Kennedy succeeded in substantially enlarging the body of civil-rights legislation, but they fostered the atmosphere of honest concern it needed to breathe in. Though he had developed a fondness for wiretapping, Attorney General Kennedy also stepped up the fight to enforce voting rights and school integration in the South, to protect rights workers from harassment. It was Bobby, in fact, who had engineered the phone call that sprung Martin Luther King Jr. from jail on the eve of the 1960 election, and though that may have been more politics than sociology ("1 won't say 1 stayed awake nights worrying about civil rights before I became Attorney General," he admitted later), there was no doubt that the plight of the Negro had begun to awaken his conscience.
Maturity: Another friend of the Kennedy family, JFK biographer Theodore Sorensen,
Described Bobby's growth to maturity this way a few years ago: "When I first met him thirteen years ago, I would not have voted for him fur anything. He was much more cocky, militant, negative, narrow, closer to his father in thinking than to his brother. Today I have no serious doubts…I would vote for him for anything."
But during the years of John Kennedy's Presidency, the old, elusive tensions between the brothers and sisters persisted. In the bantering that often filled the table talk, visitors could feel currents of affection-and rivalry. Bobby participated, then looked morose and withdrawn, then joined in again. Considered, at 35 "the second most important man in the country," he still had to come to terms with a sense of disadvantage.
Grief: Then came the unassimilable horror and grief of John Kennedy's assassination. All of the Kennedys suffered profoundly, and Bobby perhaps more than any. His relationship with Jack had been almost symbiotic. At the funeral and often afterward, he clung to Jacqueline Kennedy's hand as much, it seemed, to receive comfort as to give it. Friends found him aged and softened. He appeared not so much moody as haunted, given to trailing off in mid-sentence, staring out the windows of his Justice Department office, the quality of boyish vulnerability beneath the cold surface more pronounced than ever. The wound seemed always present.
Then the mourning ended and the Kennedy's were back, with all their drive and vitality intact. Shooed away from the Vice Presidency in 1964 by Lyndon Johnson, Bobby entered the Senate race in New York, making an unashamed grasp for the seat of Republican incumbent Kenneth Keating. But there was no other way: as political observers reckoned it, the Senate was the broadest path to the White House and a Restoration, and New York was the state where Bobby could both claim prior residence and count on enough popular support to elect him. Inevitably, his critics added the charge of "carpetbagger" to their list of grievances. Among others, the local Americans for Democratic Action challenged his liberal credentials, and a committee of celebrity Democrats formed for the defense of Republican Keating.
Kennedy won easily, and at first the new senator seemed only faintly absorbed in his duties. (After all, he implied to an interview, he had once inhabited loftier climes.) But as 1968 drew nearer, he began building his reputation as a critic of Lyndon Johnson's foreign policy in a series of speeches, painstakingly researched, drafted and redrafted, often after commend dinners with the appropriate specialists from government and academia at his Hickory Hill estate in McClean, Va. Among the assorted China watchers, Hispanophiles, Europists there might be familiar faces—Adam Yarmolinsky, Daniel P. Moynihan, Richard Neustadt, Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Goodwin—ardent attendants of his brother's fallen regime and now members of what had come to be called the Kennedy government-in-exile.
Dreams: The Restoration was gathering forces. "You see," Senator Kennedy
told a reporter who asked him why he had come to the Senate, "not the President alone, but we all were involved in certain tasks, in certain dreams…I suddenly understood that it was up to me to carry them forward, and I decided to."
Bu the ghost of his brother still hung close. Bobby's office was chock-a-block with John F. Kennedy memorabilia—photo portraits, snapshots, framed scribblings from the Cabinet meetings. He had assumed, unconsciously perhaps, some familiar John Kennedy gestures in his speeches—a hand thrust in his pocket, the other jabbing the air with an extended index finger. The issues themselves were John Kennedy's: nuclear testing, the Alliance for Progress, the U.S. role in the Third World. And the direct evocation was ever recurrent: "As President Kennedy said…" Bobby would perorate. For a time, he carried a frayed oversize tweed overcoat on trips and would drape it around his shoulders on chill days. Curiously, he left it behind in one town after another on hectic stumping tours, and then would dispatch an aide to retrieve it. It was as if he were engaged in some psychic struggle with coat, which had belonged to his brother.
Identity: Gradually, Kennedy groped forward to an identity and a course all his own. The season of discontent with Lyndon Johnson was growing stormier. Harris and Gallup surveys placed him well ahead of the President in the inevitable popularity ratings, and indeed, huge crowds bore out the pollsters, flocking to see him on the hustings. As early as 1966, "We can do better" had already become a leading voice of dissent, steering his own mid-course between the Old Left and the New. In long, carefully documented speeches, he dissected Administration tumbling in Africa, in Latin America, on the problems of the cities and the ghettos. No less an all-purpose guru than John Kenneth Gallbraith certified that Bobby "has a closer rapport with academics today than his brother did."
So tough-minded a journalist-historian as William V. Shannon credited Robert with the
winning attributes of "compassion and hard-headedness, residual moralism" and ''social idealism." Amid the liberal clichés he had mastered, wrote Shannon, shone forth a genuine feeling for the Struggles of the poor. Social critic Patrick Moynihan put it this way: "Kennedy has worked for his liberalism…The things he learned first were conservative things. The things he learned second were liberal things. He is an idealist without illusions ... You might want to call this the higher liberalism."
But the higher liberalism seemed still grounded in the lower politics. There was Kennedy, "totally absorbed in the contest for power," as a friend described it, playing conventional politics ("He is New Frontier on top and Last Hurrah at bottom," someone wrote), and caution was a cardinal rule of the game. Bobby loved to climb the mountains and run the rapids, but he was ever chary of political risk. He was one of the more restrained Vietnam critics and, against the urging of his followers and the pressures of a growing public outcry for peace, finally decided in January not to make the challenge against Lyndon Johnson in 1968. (By one account, the President had earlier warned him in a stormy confrontation at the White House, "In six months all you doves will be politically destroyed.")
Badly Done: Thus it was Eugene McCarthy who arose from obscurity to carry the fight, and there began another season of agony for Bobby. Over the wintry months of 1967-68, the witnessed the defection of young collegians who had been among his staunchest partisans. Then when he abruptly reassessed his position anti plunged into the race on the
heels of McCarthy's New Hampshire triumph, it served only to further alienate the once faithful. "The Kennedys," wrote Arthur Schlesinger, in a piece apologizing for Bobby's gaffe but endorsing his candidacy, "always do these things badly."
But the damage was done. Unhappily, it conjured up once again the specter of legendary ruthlessness, and much of Kennedy's ensuing campaign was devoted to efforts to josh away that ogre. Over the years, the "ruthlessness thing," as he called it, had become something of an obsession with him. Thus, when Sen. Joseph Clark was puzzled once by an over-formal note of thanks for a minor favor, Bobby explained: ''I'm just concealing the ruthless side of my nature."
Now he went before the electorate anti tried again. "Someone's taking my shoo-ooes," he crooned, breaking into a serious moment in a California speech. "If I were ruthless I'd kick her." In one of the most significant utterances of his campaign in Oregon, he felt compelled to inject the obsessive note again. "How essential is a victory in Oregon!'" he was asked. "If I lose any primary," the senator replied, "I won't be a viable candidate ... I might be a nice man. I might go back to being unruthless…But I won't be viable,"
Other things were happening, to be sure, Stung by criticism that he was running on the memory and legacy of his brother, he began dropping the President Kennedy references from his talks. This had a curiously liberating effect: now his statements on the issues seemed to develop more convincingly. He was evolving an authentic voice of his own: compassion for the ghettos and concern for law and order: decentralization of big government, and private involvement in social programs.
Even so, he had begun to strike some observers as a Kennedy who didn't think he could win--or stranger still, who didn't need to win. He could still outstump any other candidate, pushing through an eighteen-hour day of hell-for-leather campaigning that had members of the press corps chanting at the end, "Hey, hey, RFK, how many reporters did you kill today?" Yet always there was about him that dreamy fatalism. At street-corner rallies he quoted hopeful moral passages from Albert Camus, but for his private text he seemed to take Camus's darker message of life's futility, "Existence is so fickle, fate is so fickle," he would say.
When McCarthy stunned him with the defeat in Oregon--the first election loss by any Kennedy--Bobby recovered with notable grace and made a generous speech of concession. Then in California, the old spark was rekindled. There he had found the most compatible following of a curiously lonely campaign: Negroes and Mexican-Americans by the tens of thousands leaped in front f his moving car, tore at his clothing, snatched his
cufflinks, ripped the shoes from his feet.
Salty View: Some commentators took a salty view of his ritual immolations among the poor. Said columnist Murray Kempton comparing the Kennedys to the Bonapartes: "…they identify with the deprived, being the radical foes of all authority when they are out of power …"
But Bobby's rapport with the poor was undeniable. He seemed to feel that they accepted him as one of them, one of the wounded, and in his wordless contact with the roiling crowds of the poor, he found the triumph of communication he often could not manage in his speeches.
California gave him a victory, coupled with a resounding one in South Dakota. Now the possibility of winning the nomination--however remote--was at least alive again, and he headed off to hold a press conference after his victory speech last Tuesday night, pleased if not exhilarated. He was shot as he passed through the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel ballroom in Los Angeles and the last view the world had of Robert Kennedy, as it loomed from the TV screens and on the front pages of the newspapers, was unforgettable. He lay on his back, pain on his features--pain and a look of gentle surprise, perhaps at the final discovery that existence is indeed fickle, and that so fierce a flame can be extinguished in a single split second of insanity.