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In the Shadow of Camelot: A Book Review

Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit by Chris Matthews. Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $28.99

Robert F. Kennedy was born a son of privilege. For much of his short, but vibrant life, he struggled to find his own identity. Kennedy was compelled by family and political consequences to live in the shadow of his older brothers; first the sacrificial war hero Joe Kennedy Jr., and then President John F. Kennedy. His journey to discover his place in the world was not easy.

Robert F. Kennedy left his job as a criminal prosecutor to help his brother, John F. Kennedy, run for Congress, the U.S. Senate, and then the Presidency. Controversially, he was rewarded for his efforts with an appointment to the position of United States Attorney General.

Kennedy’s tenure as Attorney General was mixed. He surrounded himself with smart and crusading attorneys and did much to expand the role of the Justice Department in civil rights issues. To his great credit, his policy advice to President Kennedy during this period seems to have dragged the reluctant President deeper into the civil rights debate and compelled him to take actions that supported those who were protesting and advocating for equality under the law.

Robert F. Kennedy moved gradually (and some would suggest too cautiously) toward support for the movement. While he deserves praise for his efforts to battle the tired tenets of the Jim Crow South, Kennedy’s actions to authorize wiretaps of Dr. Martin Luther King and purge Dr. King of some of his closest advisors under sweeping charges of communism, serve to compromise his civil rights accomplishments. As hard as it might be for some to reconcile with his enduring legend, Kennedy was just a man of faults and failings, like all others. He was a man of both great accomplishment and monumental failures, a human combination of genius and poor judgement.

After his brother’s assassination in November 1963, Robert Kennedy entered a dark period of depression that would probably be diagnosed as Post-traumatic stress today. He emerged from his grief as someone who found new meaning and purpose in both advocacy and opposition. The once shy and reserved Robert Kennedy, was more thoughtful and reflective after his brother’s loss. In trying to find purpose in his life, he sought change and betterment in the world he inhabited. Indeed, the Robert F. Kennedy who ran for the presidency in 1968 was more than a carpetbagger politician, he had become both radicalized and even revolutionary. Exposed to deep poverty, racial disharmony and a grinding war in Vietnam, the transformation of Robert F. Kennedy was truly remarkable. In 1968, as the American nation was ripped apart, Robert F. Kennedy evolved into a radical leader - a political force determined to bring change to America.

This all seems somewhat naïve today, a wealthy heir tipping at establishment windmills. But Robert Kennedy, and those who flocked to his fold, believed in the collective power of change. They believed that Kennedy was the engine to achieve something that would run counter to the crude and defensive politics of President Lyndon Johnson and the paranoid style of Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater. Their hopes were dashed when Kennedy was killed on the night of his primary victory in California. As Kennedy lay dying on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel, he said much in testimony to his spirit when he asked, “Is everybody else ok?”

Documenting the conversion of Robert F. Kennedy seems purpose of this book. It is intended, not so subtly, to chronicle Robert F. Kennedy’s leadership style at a time when the author proposes that such leadership is absent in American politics. Given such a heavy burden, it is unfortunate that this effort falls flat.

There have been many fine biographies of Robert F. Kennedy published in recent years, and it is fair to ask why another is needed. Except for memoirs, most of these recent works have been heavy on scholarly documentation and shy on personal opinion. The better of the recent books have relied on the JFK Presidential Library’s impressive oral history holdings or on exhaustive interviews with those who lived and worked with Robert F. Kennedy. This book seems more of a skim based on selective interviews and limited access to a few unpublished interview transcripts. There is a wealth of untapped archival material available on Robert F. Kennedy but this book seems to have accessed very little of those records. It is a question of scholarship versus commercial opportunism.

Regardless of source selection, I appreciate the author’s view that America is in need of humanistic and inspirational leadership and that Robert F. Kennedy provides a certain example. I understand the objective but fail to see how this book gets us there.

The author is the MSNBC commentator and Hardball host, Chris Matthews. While he would like this book to serve as something of a clarion call for more inspired political leadership, this overly generalized biography of a complex persona leaves much to be desired – and developed. In Matthews’ pages, the reader rushes through the highlights of a life without really connecting to the book’s subject. It could be argued that one who selects this volume has already been hooked by Kennedy’s legacy, but that argument assumes too much in these distracted times. A general reader, unfamiliar with Robert Kennedy’s story, will not get much from this book. In the end, bracketed by the author’s underlying message that the reader should be inspired and moved by the Kennedy story, the reader really only gets the fast-paced and bulleted Cliffsnotes version of Kennedy’s life. It is hard to be stirred by a generalized expansion of an encyclopedia entry – which alas, is what mostly comes through in this book.

There is not much in these pages that has not been said before.

Many years ago, I had the chance to talk with Arthur Schlesinger, the historian who bridged both John F. Kennedy and Robert as part of the Kennedy White House coterie. When I told Schlesinger how much of an impact Robert Kennedy exerted on my life and political development, he smiled and commented that “the America you grew up in would have been a much different place had Robert F. Kennedy lived.” I have no doubt in those words. There is no question in my mind that Robert F. Kennedy would have shaped his century had an assassin not determined a different historical course; all that is left is speculation.

In the end, Robert F. Kennedy will stand and endure on his own terms and in our national memory without much assistance from Matthews’ book. There is nothing here that detracts from Kennedy’s story, but there is nothing here beyond hagiography that adds to his legacy. Where Matthews might have stirred hearts with ringing prose that at least underlined the importance of Kennedy’s life in the context of our own time, the author lazily leaves that to the reader to make their own connection. Future biographers will likely do much with the life of Robert F. Kennedy, but for now that effort must wait. A Raging Spirit will soon be forgotten, destined to be displaced by other books that more fully explore and apply the story and complexity of Kennedy’s brief life. It can only be hoped that such a book will bring inspiration to a new generation of leaders.

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