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Clarity Through Complexity.


Even before his assassination, writers, pundits, and political cartoonists were making hay with the evident tensions within Bobby Kennedy's personality. As Evan Thomas puts it in his new biography Robert Kennedy: His Life: " The Good Bobby/Bad Bobby dichotomy, limned by cartoonist Jules Feiffer, became a cliche even before he died. Was he the hard-bullying, McCarthyite, wiretapping, Hoffa-Castro-obsessed hater forever scowling and vowing to "get" his enemies? Or was he the gentle, child-loving, poetry-reading, soulful of a new age?"

In order to explore this question, we offer the following review of Thomas' book by Harris Wofford, together with passages from the book itself that demonstrate the most compelling good and bad sides of RFK.

THE FIRST WAVE OF WRITING ABOUT Robert and John Kennedy and the New Frontier was overwhelmingly romantic and sentimental. Its high-water mark--also perhaps a mining point--came in Arthur Schlesinger's moving 1978 biography of Robert Kennedy, which Evan Thomas in his illuminating new biography, Robert Kennedy: His Life, still considers "magisterial."

Schlesinger wrote as a committed colleague of the Kennedys and as a critical historian. His book, written in heroic terms, reinforced the American public's continuing love affair with their lost leaders of the Sixties, and with the extraordinary Kennedy clan.

In the years since, the wave of writing on that decade of high hopes and bitter tragedy has been dominated by the spirit of revision and deconstruction, often crossing the line from critical skepticism into pervasive cynicism, or into the murky waters of conspiracy theory.

In the new evidence uncovered by congressional committees, or discovered in long-secret records belatedly released by the government or presidential libraries, there is plenty of shocking and confusing material to draw on and questions to ask: CIA assassination plots, dalliance with organized crime, obsession with Castro, fear of J. Edgar Hoover, and the demon sex rising up in comical but fateful ways. Who was responsible? Who knew what and when?

Despite it all, our sense of the magic and the mystery of John and Robert Kennedy has lingered on. Now comes Evan Thomas, Newsweek editor, author of previous instructive books--The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared, on the early days of the CIA and, with Walter Isaacson, The Wise Men. Thomas' truly magisterial biography of Robert Kennedy may signal a new wave of writing on the Kennedy brothers that will at last bring those ever-fascinating figures into clear focus.

Based on years of research, this rich, detailed, and balanced account of Robert Kennedy brings that many-sided man to life more vividly that anyone has done. In doing so this gripping book that is so hard to skim conveys the complicated context of the times. Evan Thomas is not afraid of complexity; indeed, it is his route to clarity.

Following the facts where they lead also turns out to be the route to the resurrection of both Robert and John Kennedy as real heroes in the classical sense. They emerge as large players who lived dangerously and strove mightily on the public stage of the world, with great daring, great promise, and great flaws. In this intricate tale in which the personal and the political are so intertwined, Robert and John are both tragic and comic.

The comedy comes to a head and turns into tragedy when the puritan brother, whose first great enemy was organized crime (the target of his first book, The Enemy Within), and whose pride was in telling the unvarnished truth, discovers that the CIA (beginning in the last months of the Eisenhower administration but extending for two years into the Kennedy watch) had engaged two of the worst of those criminals in farcical efforts to kill the head of state of Cuba. And then that brother, the attorney general of the United States, learns from the director of the FBI (the one man he most fears) that his brother, the president, was consorting with a woman tied to those very same criminals.

Because those facts comprise the most terrible secrets Robert Kennedy could imagine--the disclosure of which could wreak havoc on the reputation of his brother and the United States of America--he did everything in his power, contrary to his nature, to keep the truth from being known.

Thereafter, Robert bore the burden of the possibility that his own actions, in some awful, unprovable way; had resulted in his brother's assassination--the possibility that after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, his goading of the CIA to get rid of Castro, and his own continuing pursuit of Sam Giancana and organized crime, after knowing the power of blackmail they held over the President, had backfired. A corollary question: Did the CIA plots against Castro play a part in the Soviet's decision to install missiles in Cuba?

The two weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis in which the world wavered on the brink of nuclear war brought the two brothers together in a new intimacy. "Thank God for Bobby," the President said on the last night of the crisis.

The chapter on that crisis is alone worth the book. It supplements and corrects Robert Kennedy's own Thirteen Days. It tells of his first blustering proposal for a "sink the Maine" stratagem, then his deepening second thoughts, then his courage in standing up to the room full of powerful hawks and putting forward the moral questions, and the long-kept-secret but crucial negotiation and compromise with the Russians. In this chapter, as in the now available tape recording, one can, as Thomas says, "almost hear the blending of their complimentary talents--JFK steady and reasonable, RFK urgent and probing? He concludes: "Given the stakes and the pressure, their performance was remarkable. Some myths are true: This was their finest hour."

In contrast were other hours of bravado and play, also displaying the different style of the two brothers: John, detached, cool, debonair, cavalier in his social life--seldom socializing with the boisterous Robert Kennedys. In the book you can feel the elegant touch of Jacqueline Kennedy--and the other contrasting mode of entertainment at Hickory Hill as Robert or Ethel pushed their guests, like the formally dressed Arthur Schlesinger, into their swimming pool. "Enough!" John said to Ethel, after reading the bad press. Or you can see Robert testing himself on high rocky mountains or over fast-running rapids to prove that he was the bravest of them all. Robert liked Emerson's advice: "Always do what you're afraid to do."

Robert paid a high price for his fear of firing J. Edgar Hoover, but who knows what price might have been paid if he tried? After John's death he underscored the admonition of Herodotus: "All arrogance will reap a harvest rich in tears. God calls men to a heavy reckoning for overweening pride."

Reading Aeschylus at Jacqueline Kennedy's suggestion, Robert began to wonder if the Kennedy family had somehow overreached, dared too greatly.

Thomas' powerful book should put an end to the "Good Bobby/Bad Bobby" caricature that caught on after Jules Feiffer's famous cartoon. "Only two Bobbies?" asked Robert Coles, the child psychologist friend of RFK. "Why not four or five?" Without thinking hard, Coles ticked them off to Thomas: "Bobby the idealist; Bobby the plotter; Bobby the adventurer; Bobby the family man."

Thomas' story adds other Bobbies: Bobby the acolyte, the religious one of the brothers. Bobby the Messianic presidential candidate. Bobby the protector of family. Bobby the runt seeking to win his father and brother's respect. Bobby the lover of Ethel, who from memory; after their wedding scribbled the words from the Book of Ruth to his wife who gave him the unconditional love he got from nowhere else "... for wither Thou goeth I will go; and where Thou lodgest I will lodge ... when Thou dyest then will I die and we will be together forever."

This book enables the reader to add his own Bobby. Like a good eye doctor trying to find the prescription for the clearest vision, Thomas offers us one lens after another. In the end Thomas ponders Robert's "struggle to overcome fear and wonders what if he had lived he might have done" It is a story, he says, "of an unpromising boy who died as he was becoming a great man."

Yes, that's about it.

FORMER SEN. HARRIS WOFFORD, a member of President Kennedy's administration, is CEO of the Corporation for National Service.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Wofford, Harris
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2000
Previous Article:Flying Too High.
Next Article:Bobby: Good, Bad, And In Between.

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