The Two Sides Of Robert F. Kennedy
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Good Bobby vs. Bad Bobby
President Barack Obama recently appeared in Alaska alongside survival expert Bear Grylls for an episode of the NBC seriesRunning Wild. The two dined on raw salmon, a bear’s leftovers. It is difficult to imagine any occupant of the Oval Office since the days of Theodore Roosevelt undertaking such an adventure. One candidate for the office might have, however, the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
Known to both admirers and detractors as “Bobby,” he admired courage above all other virtues. Some have suggested that he drove himself so tirelessly because of a nagging fear that without his father’s money he would have achieved far less with his life. He sold himself short. He possessed drive, ambition, dedication, grit.
Friends report that he would grab the snakes that frightened the children up on Cape Cod and whip them, snapping their heads off. When fifty-mile hikes were in vogue, he completed one while wearing street shoes. His western white water rafting adventures were highly publicized and seemed to define the man, and his ascent to the summit of the Yukon’s Mt. Kennedy is epic.
He surrounded himself with men of courage; mountaineer James Whittaker, astronaut John Glenn, United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, General Maxwell Taylor.
He began as a steely-eyed cold warrior, and later a tough, no-nonsense prosecutor. Late in the game, he evolved into a man of sensitivity and compassion, an idealist in the stone cold world of realpolitik, an advocate for the poor and marginal, a battler against racism and injustice.
As Attorney General, he went after racketeers and thugs with a vengeance, and championed school integration.
As a politician, he was a realist, a bare knuckles, back-room operator who pursued victories for his brother John F. Kennedy and later for himself with single-minded obsession.
A popular film portrays President Lyndon Johnson as authorizing the FBI wiretap on Dr. Martin Luther King’s phone. However, it was Bobby himself who made that reprehensible decision.
While serving as Vice President, Johnson was treated flippantly, even cruelly, by the Kennedy brothers, made the butt of jokes. The animosity between Johnson and Bobby became legendary. The heaviest burden in this vendetta lies with Bobby. Differences in style and technique fail to excuse Bobby’s near hatred of Johnson.
Perhaps the most troubling period in his years of public service involved his friendship with Senator Joseph McCarthy, the bombastic thug who attempted to ruin so many careers and reputations with his paranoid rhetoric in the early fifties. In 1952, when John F. Kennedy launched his first senate campaign, his father Joseph Kennedy made a large contribution to McCarthy’s Wisconsin campaign with the understanding that he would stay out of Massachusetts. “Bobby” was to serve as chief counsel for McCarthy’s Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, sniffing out imaginary “Communists” suspected of lurking in government service. “Touch the devil, and you can never let go,” according to an old Irish proverb, and that period was to dog Bobby for the remainder of his days.
In the aftermath of the assassination of his brother the President, a new Bobby emerged, with a revitalized compassion for victims of poverty and injustice. Elected to the U.S. Senate from New York in 1964, he focused upon health care, gun violence, auto safety and other causes. On matters of principle, he refused to budge, could be heard insisting, “It’s right, and that’s all there is to it!” Given that politics is the art of compromise, his intractability might not have served him well in the White House.
Having lost brothers himself, he befriended the family of Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers, gunned down by Mississippi racists. Seeking answers from an indifferent universe to the age old question of why tragedy strikes, Bobby, probably the most dedicated Catholic of the Kennedy brothers, found solace in the works of the ancient Greek tragedians, particularly Aeschylus.
In 1968, with the social fabric of the country rent by the quagmire of the Vietnam War, I signed onto Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for the presidency, as quixotic an endeavor as I had ever undertaken in rock-ribbed Republican Ashland, Ohio. When McCarthy made a strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, Bobby announced for the presidency. Perceiving his late entry into the race as an affirmation of his reputation for ruthlessness and opportunism, I continued to work for McCarthy.
The 1960’s were a dark time in US politics, only slightly less so than the present era. In 1968, Bobby was assassinated by a vicious malcontent moments after winning the California primary. His death came upon the heels of the murder of Dr. King by career criminal James Earl Ray.
Obsessing upon history’s what ifs, is a waste of time. Still, had Bobby somehow eked out a victory in ’68, with the backing of solid majorities in both houses of Congress, many of the issues that divide us today might have been resolved. At least, an RFK presidency would have captured the public imagination. Perhaps he would have even eaten raw salmon in the Alaska wilderness. We will never know.
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