The operative word in the title of Larry Tye’s absorbing new biography, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, is making. Admirers of the 1960s liberal standard-bearer and younger brother of President John F. Kennedy may be surprised to learn that Robert F. Kennedy began his public service career as counsel to the Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, never liked or trusted Martin Luther King, plotted to have Fidel Castro killed and was terribly intolerant of gays. Tye’s book offers extensive and deeply analytical coverage of the early, conservative work of the famous liberal and fully exposes the less-than-heroic aspects of the man many found ruthless and rude.
But more important, what distinguishes Tye’s biography from the plethora of previous ones is its focus on RFK’s transformation, which is shown to be a gradual process of natural growth, resulting not from any sudden conversion, but from accumulated personal experience. Chronologically delineating the influential events of RFK’s life, Tye reveals how a rich kid originally indifferent to the particular problems of blacks, opposed to interracial marriage and swayed by his father Joseph P. Kennedy’s antisemitism grew into a great civil rights warrior, especially respectful and understanding of the suffering of Jews. Forever anti-gay, RFK’s progressive transformation never extended to gender or sexuality issues, as macho manliness remained important to him. Tye writes that, in getting the family ready for JFK’s funeral, “when Jackie dressed little John in white gloves, Bobby took them off, deciding it was unmanly even for a boy of barely two.”
Though it may make you like RFK a little less than you did before, Tye’s thoroughly researched, myth-dispelling portrait of him is now the definitive one. Despite worthy efforts by the likes of Evan Thomas (Robert Kennedy: His Life) and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (Robert Kennedy and His Times), Tye’s work supersedes the others as it draws on sources to which earlier writers had no access, including interviews with intimates who never spoke out before, unpublished memoirs, unreleased government files and 58 boxes of papers that had been locked up for 40 years. The last of RFK’s archives weren’t opened until 2014.
Tye’s writing fluidly integrates the personal and professional realms of RFK’s life, underlining their inter-connectedness as well as placing them within larger cultural contexts. Unlike many academic biographies—where the author takes extended breaks from the story to “set the scene” and explain what’s going on in the world at large—Tye dances back and forth between scene-setting and storytelling, so we never lose the forward glide of the narrative, even as he gracefully sidesteps into historical references or delightfully observant comparisons between JFK and RFK.
Masterful in this regard is the book’s section on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which is framed by a critique of the untruthfulness of RFK’s own book on the events, Thirteen Days. In his recollection, RFK gives himself too much credit for being the “artful pacifist” influencing JFK’s brilliant handling of the situation, when in reality RFK’s advice was indisputably hawkish. But when RFK ultimately finished writing his book, five years later, it was not to polish JFK’s image in advance of a reelection campaign, as it was originally intended, but rather to fuel his own presidential bid as an anti-war candidate in the Vietnam era. Tye suggests that RFK’s fictionalized account led Americans to derive erroneous lessons from the historic nuclear showdown, lessons that had ramifications for Lyndon B. Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War and even George W. Bush’s actions in the invasion of Iraq. The insights in this chapter alone make Tye’s perceptive biography a must-read for all concerned citizens.
Photo: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library