In agony, learn wisdom.
Folks, I don’t often read biographies. In essence, they are all the same – someone is born, does something worth telling, dies. To truly make a good biography, you need two ingredients: a good life, and a good story teller. This is where most biographies fail – either the subject isn’t interesting, or the way their life gets told doesn’t do them justice.
(If you are looking for the gold standard in biographies, look no further than Ron Chernow. I will pick up unquestioningly any book written by this guy. He wrote an excellent Washington biography, his Hamilton book was the basis for the Broadway Musical hit, and his Grant biography was a revelation. I can vouch for him.)
So this week, we have the odd case where the life is worth telling, but the telling is lacking.
So there’s two reasons why I picked up a book about JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy. Firstly, I wanted to know more about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and starting with one of the main characters seemed like an obvious choice. The second one was an odd kind of fascination that this family radiates, even fifty years after JFK became president.
There’s just something about this family. I’m sure I’ll pick up a biography about JFK eventually, but his kid brother seemed like a better choice to start. After all, he was Attorney General under his brother, his main adviser, the keeper of his brother’s legacy. But more than that, for a brief moment in the summer of 1968, he was a beacon of hope, someone a country in crisis looked to and put their hopes upon. Robert Kennedy will forever be one of history’s greatest ‘what if’s.
It would be the job of a great biographer to bring us closer to this person, to make us understand why they did what they did, to explain how their actions fit into the bigger picture.
Unfortunately, Thomas doesn’t do that. I think part of it has to do with his limited access to source material – even though he saw RFK’s private papers and conducted interviews with his aides, the people in this book remain oddly superficially painted.
I mean. RFK was dealing with some of the most interesting people in recent American History. He had to put up with Herbert Hoover, the insufferable director of the FBI! He butted heads with Martin Luther King over the Civil Rights Movement! His brother hung out with Frank Sinatra and his crew!! You’d think that all of these people would make it easy to create a compelling narrative, but this book fails at that. They all remain oddly one-dimensional, mere blips in the narrative.
(In the author’s defense, RFK – and JFK, for that matter- were known for not leaving a lot of written documentation. They loved their back channel politics, and never wrote anything down that they didn’t have to. It might have made shady dealings easier, but it surely complicates the work of any historian.)
Perhaps it’s just that this book is too short – it clocks in at just over 400 pages. To do such a life justice, in the way that I wanted it to, it would have to be double that. There is simply no time to go into the geopolitical implications of the Cuban Missile Crisis, or show how the Kennedy administration planted the seed for the Vietnam War.
There is also no time to discuss the PR masterpiece that the Kennedy’s created. Which is a shame, because I think we would all benefit from understanding how the public personas they created clashed with the real people behind the masks.
All of that means that this biography created more questions for me than it answered. I simply wasn’t getting any closer in understanding Robert Kennedy.
How, for example, did he feel about having to constantly clean up after his Casanova brother? Because JFK was incredibly stupid when it came to his womanizing. Everyone pretty much knew what was going on (and there was a lot going on, starting with an affair with an East-Germany spy, another affair with the girlfriend of a mobster, yet another affair with one of Sinatra’s girls. Johnny couldn’t keep it in his pants.).
The only saving grace was the press was willing to glance over this, but it still necessitated a lot of intervention from Robert Kennedy. I would have lost it. Like, imagine your sibling (or your closest friend) just being so goddamn stupid and you having to deal with the outfall of it. Constantly.
A good biographer shouldn’t be afraid to call the subject out on their bullshit. They need to clearly say if what was done was right or wrong, and why, and how that mattered. They need to give the reader a moral framework, so to say.
And Thomas doesn’t do that. In fact, he seems to have fallen into the same trap that journalists have fallen into since this photogenic family clan made its first public appearance – he drank the Kool Aid.
So as an Attorney General, Kennedy was deeply concerned about the emerging Civil Rights Movement and especially its leader, Martin Luther King Jr. He was convinced that somehow the movement was connected to the Soviets (in the 60s, everything was connected to communism somehow.)
So, aided by Hoover, Robert Kennedy authorized to wiretrap MLK. Now, the author glosses over this fact pretty quickly – in fact, he dedicates less than a page to it – and is extremely generous to RFK. Essentially, the author justifies this behavior by RFK’s hectic schedule, the Red Scare, and the fact that he was overworked and exhausted.
Well, though shit, Bobby, you’re the Attorney General of the United States. Being exhausted is pretty much item no 1 in your job description. That doesn’t give you the right to illegally collect information on a private citizen!
Let’s be clear – because the author isn’t – Robert Kennedy broke the law in the most atrocious fashion here. It’s a bit as if Sessions listened in on the ACLU’s phones right now. It’s not just ‘problematic’, it is a crass misuse of power and entirely unjustifiable.
The fact that the author doesn’t discuss this further makes me wonder what else he left out.
The book’s best passages come towards the end – after JFK is shot, and Robert is the sole survivor. Think about it – His eldest brother was killed in WWII, he lost one sister to a tragic accident, another one to a surgery that went wrong, and now his brother got assassinated.
It’s part of the Kennedy myth that rivals a Greek tragedy – this family, blessed by wealth and good looks and power, falling apart in such a violent fashion. This is a story that could have been told by Homer.
And then, after all this violence, and loss, and sorrow, Robert Kennedy decides to step into his slain brother’s shoes and run for president. This rich kid ran on an agenda of Civil Rights, of urban revival. He spoke out against racism, and gun rights. Shakespeare would have loved this!
There was this brief moment in the summer of 1968 where hope was shining through. The country was ravished by civil unrest, a deeply unpopular war in Vietnam, riots in the streets – but in all of this, RFK’s presidential campaign must have shone like a beacon of hope, a hope that maybe things would turn out alright.
Of course, we all know how this ends – with a crazed assassin gunning down the candidate, who went into a coma, never to gain consciousness again. So it goes.
There is a poetry in all of this – not just in RFK’s life, but also in his death. The train that brought his body from New York to Washington attracted over a million viewers. People stood by the train tracks, watching the train pass by, singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
They delayed the train so much that by the time the casket arrived in Arlington, night had fallen. Robert Kennedy’s burial was the only night burial to have taken place at the cemetery. Fittingly, he is buried closed to his brother. Even in death, Robert takes care of John.
Stuff you should know about RFK
So there’s a couple of things that I learnt about RFK that I must tell you.
- So Hoover hated Kennedy, and it was mutual. However, the director of the FBI was known for compiling blacklisting dossiers on important figures. So JFK couldn’t just fire Hoover, because then all his dirty secrets (his infidelities, the fact that he was hanging out with the mafia, and his shadowy foreign policy deals) would come out in the open. Hoover knew this, JFK knew this, RFK knew this. Just in case the Kennedys forgot, Hoover sent RFK memos about JFK’s affairs. Like, pictures and witness reports and everything. Awkward.
- RFK was known for hosting A-mazing parties at his house. And not just now and then. This happened all the fucking time. His wife Ethel would just invite all kinds of people – actors, sports stars, politicians, buy a lot of alcohol and just … go for it. RFK would sometimes discuss policy issues while the party was going on around him.
- In truly rich people fashion, RFK never carried cash. He did, however, invite people to lunch all the time. When it came to pay, RFK would ask his staff to pay for him. In church, a friend threw a dollar in the collection plate for RFK. “Don’t you think I’d be more generous than that?” RFK inquired.
- Somehow, despite being super busy, RFK had time to father eleven kids. Dud-E.
- RFK became the first person to reach the summit of Mount Kennedy, named for his brother by the Canadian government. He was afraid of heights, and told his guide that he had trained by running up and down the stairs at home, practicing crying, “Help!”
- RFK absolutely loathed Lyndon B Johnson (it was mutual – after RFK was shot, LBJ refused to give him a state funeral.) RFK referred to him as “LBJ” – “The President” was a title reserved to his brother.
And next week – a Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction Finalist!