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Robert Kennedy: His Life
by Evan Thomas
ISBN 0684834804 / 9780684834801 / 0-684-83480-4
Publisher Simon & Schuster
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In the nation's varied memory, Robert Kennedy is a contradictory figure, a hard-bullying McCarthyite obsessed with Hoffa and Castro but also a gentle, poetry-reading herald of a new age bent on stopping the Vietnam War and lifting up the poor. As Evan Thomas (The Wise Men and Man to See) writes, both liberals and conservatives have their own spin on his legacy, with predictably different visions of what he would have done if he had lived to be our 37th president. As it turns out, none of the Good Bobby/Bad Bobby projections are right, and none are completely wrong either. In sorting through the myths and the truths, Thomas provides a detailed portrait of a man centrally engaged in most of the important issues of the postwar era, and concludes that the best way to understand him is "fear":
He was brave because he was afraid. His monsters were too large and close at hand to simply flee. He had to turn and fight them.... He became a one-man underground, honeycombed with hidden passages, speaking in code, trusting no one completely, ready to face the firing squad--but also knowing when to slip away to fight again another day. Although he affected simplicity and directness, he became an extraordinarily complicated and subtle man. His shaking hands and reedy voice, his groping for words as well as meaning, his occasional resort to subterfuge, do not diminish his daring. Precisely because he was fearful and self-doubting, his story is an epic of courage.
RFK was born after the chosen siblings had been established in the Kennedy clan. He originally had low standing in the family hierarchy. Thomas describes how the "runt" of the family, the one not born and raised for power and whose only ambition was to please the father who ignored him, turned into the essential son, the defender of the family and mediator between Joe Sr. and JFK. He fleshes out Bobby's role in JFK's campaigns, his testy relations with Martin Luther King, his middle-ground stance on integration, his performance during the Cuban missile crisis, and his genuine concern for the poor. He reveals the truth behind such events as the vice-presidential appointment of Lyndon Johnson as well as the famous calls from the Kennedy brothers, which got Martin Luther King out of jail. He also tries to untangle the webs obscuring the Kennedys' involvement in Castro assassination plots, their relations with Marilyn Monroe, and RFK's guilt over his brother's death. And finally, he, too, speculates on what kind of president one of history's great what-ifs might have made. The picture he paints--of a sensitive, courageous, and determined man on the verge of achieving greatness--is more complex and human than any we've had before, and reminds us again of the tragedy of RFK's death. --Lesley Reed [via]