Author Topic: Robert Kennedy’s Enemies Were All Over Town  (Read 858 times)

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Robert Kennedy’s Enemies Were All Over Town
« on: May 31, 2017, 05:13:05 am »
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Excerpt from The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protest After JFK provided courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing. © John R. Bohrer, 2017.

In his darkest moment, Robert Kennedy defined change.
“We are a young country,” he wrote on December 18, 1963, four weeks after his brother, the President, was assassinated. “We are growing and expanding until it appears that this planet will no longer contain us. We have problems now that people fifty, even ten years ago, would not have dreamed would have to be faced.”

Bobby was writing the foreword to a memorial edition of John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage—something he would not have dreamed of facing four weeks earlier. In an instant, he had lost his brother, his boss, and his security. The mingling loyalties to family and country had made life before “simple,” he would say. Now it was racked by uncertainty. The presidency belonged to Lyndon Baines Johnson, a man whose morals and judgment he questioned, and whose insatiable appetite for political domination convinced Bobby that the name Kennedy would mean little in a few short months. The attorney general warned friends to act fast and get what they wanted, for their political power would soon expire.

Bobby himself was unsure of what he wanted. With each passing day, pressure mounted for him to decide how to use what he had inherited. So many had put their faith in a future with JFK at the helm. People now looked to Bobby for action—some for direction, most just for comfort in their grief.

This reaction would have seemed strange just a few weeks earlier. Many liberals did not trust the President’s younger brother and chief political strategist. They thought he put elections before principles and were disgusted by his battering style on behalf of Communist-hunting and crime-fighting Senate committees in the 1950s. “Robert was perceived as a tough guy, insensitive, cruel, vindictive, clannish, summed up in a word which he never shook off . . . ruthless,” the Yale law professor Alexander Bickel would write. He was so polarizing that civil rights managed to cut against him both ways: demonstrators picketed him for lacking urgency and segregationists accused him of cramming court orders down their throats. In the weeks leading up to the assassination, Bobby felt he was becoming so politically toxic that he spoke with his brother about resigning before the reelection campaign. Recounting the conversation in 1964, he said, “What was costing us was the great dislike for me in the South particularly, but in certain other [areas]” as well, and that the blame for enforcing desegregation rulings in what had been reliably Democratic states like Alabama and Mississippi “had changed from just me in ’62 and ’63 to both of us—‘the Kennedy brothers.’ ” Bobby couldn’t even go off to manage the campaign as he did in 1960, he told the President, “because then they would have thought I was still in there, still important.” When Bobby suggested they say he was leaving “to make speeches,” JFK insisted he stay on to avoid the appearance of wavering. “It was an unnecessary burden, in my judgment,” Bobby recalled. At a gathering of Justice Department aides for the attorney general’s thirty-eighth birthday on November 20, two of his assistants left with the impression he was “depressed that night” and about to resign. Less than forty-eight hours later, the President was dead.

That mood was nothing compared to the lows Bobby would experience after JFK’s assassination. But the tragedy also elevated him in ways he wouldn’t have expected. In time, “ruthless” Robert Kennedy would become the redoubt of a young decade’s ideals. There were people who wanted to hope, to recapture the excitement, and believe that the New Frontier President Kennedy spoke of was not behind them.

This idea was slow to dawn on Bobby as the cold crept in, the days became shorter, and the sleepless nights stretched on. He would later say that he thought about the future in that month to the point where the only decision he could make was “to stop thinking about it.” Yet in those lost days, he wrote the truest expression of who he was and what he lived for.
On December 18, the day they renamed New York’s Idlewild Airport for JFK and Congress authorized putting his face on money, tributes to the late president were piling up. The Profiles in Courage memorial edition was one of them, and a rumor had made its way to the publisher that Bobby might write the foreword. If not Bobby, the book’s editor gently suggested, “how about Sandburg?” Carl Sandburg, the poet and biographer of Lincoln, was ancient—nearly eighty-six years old. Bobby had just turned thirty-eight. It was up to him.

And so the attorney general sat alone in his Justice Department office— “this enormous mausoleum,” as a reporter once described it—with ceilings so high he could lob a football. Children’s drawings clung from pieces of tape to the walnut-paneled walls, as dreadful thoughts of the future crowded that terribly empty space. He sent questions to JFK’s top aide and their father’s office, looking for a quote from a speech, or wondering about Jack’s illnesses—his suffering—as a young man. Bobby ignored his speechwriter’s recommendations and put the draft down entirely in his own hand. He wrote the word Courage in bold, underlined text at the top of the first sheet of ruled paper. Hardly any revisions were necessary.

He wrote how President Kennedy had suffered greatly in his forty-six years. A bad stomach. A bad back. Long spells in hospitals. “At least half of the days that he spent on this earth were days of intense physical pain.” Bobby remembered their 1951 trip around the world, to Okinawa, where Jack’s fever reached 106 degrees. “They didn’t think he would live,” he wrote. “But during all this time, I never heard him complain. I never heard him say anything which would indicate that he felt God had dealt with him unjustly.”

Kennedys didn’t cry. They did not wear their pain for all to see. They were not halted midsentence by emotion or have eyes welled with tears. They were not given a sleeping pill and heard through the door, crying, “Why God?”
In the four weeks between his brother’s death and writing the foreword, Robert Kennedy had done all these things, no matter how much he willed himself not to. He didn’t just feel pain—he emitted it. “Desolation,” scribbled Edwin Lahey, the smoky old newsman who was granted the first interview days before Bobby’s writing. Lahey had watched him since he first arrived in Washington as one of Senator Joe McCarthy’s tenacious boy prosecutors, determined to root out Communism and win absolute victory in the clean-cut 1950s. A dozen years on, the youthful face was creased with experience and “crushed” by despair. To see Robert Kennedy was to feel his pain.


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