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Insight: A Kennedy's life -- New book traces the growth of one of America’s transcendent figures

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Robert Kennedy

Robert Kennedy campaigning in 1968.

From start to finish, Bobby Kennedy’s life was an exercise in transformation, displaying personal growth rare in a person born in privilege.

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon is a well-researched chronicle of Kennedy’s growth from active childhood to desultory student to ruthless prosecutor to perhaps the most heart-felt and effective advocate of the time for the underdog. Written by Larry Tye, a former Anniston Star reporter, the book will stand as the comprehensive biography of this very complex character.

Bobby’s role as acolyte to Joe McCarthy and his relentless pursuit of Jimmy Hoffa are well known. Less public was one of the seminal events of his life: a long trip he took with Justice William O. Douglas. At his friend Joe Kennedy’s suggestion, Douglas invited Bobby to accompany him to the Soviet Union in 1955. Bobby was horrified the deprivation of post-Stalin society: people living in mud huts, scratching out a living in a desert of desolation under the thumb of remote puppeteers. He later called it “the Soviet brand of colonialism.” He was especially offended by a museum he visited in Leningrad, which was “devoted completely to ridiculing God.”

Thinking somewhat differently now about how people live in worlds far removed from his familiar cocoon, Bobby still had that ruthless streak: when Jack was preparing to run for president, Bobby’s egalitarian sensitivity took a temporary backseat to his determination to fulfill Joe Kennedy’s dream. Having run Jack’s successful senatorial campaign, demonstrating a skill for organizing, Bobby undertook the presidential campaign with an almost fanatical fervor.

Bobby became the president’s closest adviser and participated in every key move the administration made. As attorney general, he “ruthlessly” pursued criminality; he hated mendacity in all its forms. The Mafia offered fertile ground for his quest for justice. His work eventually led the Mafia boss Sam Giancana to complain that Bobby was “making life miserable for me and my friends.”

The turmoil of the civil rights movement heralded the real transition in the country and led to the full flowering of Bobby Kennedy’s gifts. But as it grew and spread through the states of the old Confederacy, Bobby made life as miserable for those states’ leaders as he had for Giancana. In Alabama, then-Gov. John Patterson railed against Bobby attempting to force federal intervention, giving himself cover and risking fueling the already fiery situation.

Tye’s investigative eye has penetrated every milestone in Bobby’s life. Not least among these is the power of his faith and his family in sustaining him. His strong faith, nurtured from his earliest childhood by his mother, governed his moral outlook. Ethel and his children played a central role as support despite his difficult and time-consuming term as attorney general.

Tye has also delved into the origins and growth of Bobby’s concern for the oppressed. Through the civil rights movement and his exposure to the dangers of international instability, he saw that it is in the infancy of discontent that revolt grows into revolution. He saw this in Russia, China, Cuba and in the American South.

He learned to put the lessons of missteps and failures of judgment to use in subsequent tests. Thus, frustration in Mississippi led to smart moves at the University of Alabama. The failure of the Bay of Pigs led to an ultimate resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But no success, nor any previous experience, could prepare Bobby for Nov. 22, 1963. Deep in grief after the assassination, he shouldered every sad task as the new head of the family. This was the Kennedy way: face each of the many tragedies that haunted them with faith and courage to assume any necessary position the family needed.

He suffered the loss mightily; he later said that the assassination was “like an amputation that never healed.” A family’s life marred by so much tragedy did serve to soften Bobby’s attitude and actions bringing out his native compassion. He became more contemplative, read more, and held his own growing family ever closer.

Though he agonized over the decision, his decision to run for the Senate brought new purpose. He would strongly oppose his old nemesis Lyndon Johnson, though Johnson had pushed through the civil rights legislation originally advocated by the Kennedy administration. The Tet Offensive in January 1968 had awakened wide opposition to Johnson and played a substantial part in Bobby’s decision.

Finally announcing his candidacy in March, Bobby, usually accompanied by Ethel and several children, embarked upon a whirlwind campaign that took the country by storm. His wild popularity on the campaign trail surprised even Bobby and the intensity of his followers urged him on to heights of speech-making he had seldom achieved previously. These deeply felt speeches reflected his lifetime of transformation to the “liberal icon” referred to in the book’s title.

It was during the early days of the campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis. Bobby was scheduled for a rally in an Indianapolis ghetto. Though he was strongly advised not to go, he was determined. He climbed upon the back of a truck and told the shocking news that Dr. King had died. The crowd cried out in pain but Bobby quieted them with the memory of his own pain at the loss of his brother. He quoted Aeschylus and concluded with the plea that the crowd and the country dedicate the future to the ancient Greek admonition: “… to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

The same words could be applied to his own inner nature and to his life’s work. When Bobby Kennedy was killed, the outpouring of grief covered the years of conflicted feelings about him with a mist of love and hope. Finally, the impact of his life was demonstrated, especially by the multitudes lining the tracks as the train bearing his body crawled by.

My husband and I rode on that train; as I looked at the uplifted faces streaked with tears, I thought of the other quote Bobby had used in Indianapolis:

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

And so it has been, wisdom, though frequently interrupted, has come, if only drop by drop.