Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit

Chris Matthews
Simon & Schuster ($28.99)

by Mike Dillon

“Doom,” poet Robert Lowell wrote of Robert Kennedy, “was woven into your nerves.” On June 5, 1968, the junior senator from New York, after winning the California Democratic primary, was gunned down in a crowded kitchen pantry at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Chaos surrounded him as he lay on a cement floor; his gaze was calm, “as if he knew it would all end this way,” wrote journalist Pete Hamill, who witnessed the scene. With the approach of the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s death, another book has come along to remind us of the tragic dispossession from that turbulent spring.

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, has synthesized a familiar story into a brisk, straightforward biography in which he casts Kennedy’s life as an existential progress of the soul—which it most definitely was. Late in Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, Matthews quotes Kennedy’s words to the wife of a staffer in 1967 after he visited heart-rending scenes of poverty and starvation in the Mississippi Delta: “I’ve done nothing in my life . . . everything I’ve done was a waste . . . everything I’ve done was worthless!”

Matthews, also author of Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, and other books, is well suited to tell the Kennedy tale. Like the Kennedys, Matthews grew up with an Irish Catholic lens on the world. Born in 1945 on the leading edge of the Boomer generation, and a former Peace Corps volunteer who went on to work for Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, Matthews breaks into the narrative here and there to connect his own personal experience to the Kennedy saga and the 1960s.

Matthews acknowledges two prior biographies as crucial sourcebooks: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s capacious Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978) and Evan Thomas’s Robert Kennedy: His Life (2000). His biography won’t replace those works or Larry Tye’s Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon (2016). Still, Matthews’ narrative, bolstered by archival interviews, manages to advance our understanding of an enigmatic man, the runt of the Kennedy litter who grew up under the shadow of an overweening father and a constellation of dazzling siblings.

“My goal here is to come to grips with his story, who and what he was and what lay beneath the man we saw,” Matthews writes in the prologue. “Born twenty years before me, he was from a different East Coast City and an environment far more privileged than mine. Yet the familiarities of our Irish Catholic world rang ardently through our everyday lives.”

Matthews has a sharp eye for those moments in Kennedy’s early life that flag the man he would become. One summer the four-year-old Kennedy jumped off a boat so he would have no choice but learn to swim. In 1951, while a law student at the University of Virginia and president of the school’s Student Legal Forum, Kennedy invited Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, to speak on campus. According to state law the audience would be segregated. Kennedy wrote a five-page letter to the university president, logical and eloquent, arguing for integrated seating.

Early enemies made in Washington D.C. were also a credit to his character. They included the menacing Roy Cohn, whiz kid attorney and chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Cohn, later disbarred for unethical conduct in New York, went on to become Donald Trump’s mentor.

The legendary feud with Jimmy Hoffa, President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1958 to 1971, is the stuff of film noir. As Chief Counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee prior to his brother’s 1960 presidential run, the millionaire’s son had the corrupt union boss squarely in his cross hairs. Matthews notes: “Hoffa, Bobby would recall, ‘was glaring at me across the counsel table with a deep, strange, penetrating expression of intense hatred . . . There were times when his face seemed completely transfixed with this stare of absolute evil.’”

Kennedy managed John Kennedy’s quest for the presidency with tenacious—some said ruthless—efficiency, and as Attorney General he became his older brother’s most trusted confidant. Matthews give a good account of the pair’s slow swing toward the civil rights struggle. The violent mobs assaulting the Freedom Riders and federal authorities in Alabama in 1961 shocked the Attorney General. Matthews quotes singer Harry Belafonte, friend to both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kennedy: “At last, Bobby’s moral center seemed to stir.”

Following his brother’s assassination in November 1963, Kennedy, his sharp features haunted by grief, dived into the works of the Greek tragedians and Albert Camus, trying to understand suffering. A successful run for the Senate seat in New York in 1964, riding on the hated Lyndon Johnson’s coattails, gave Kennedy a base from which to act. And so began his interregnum: unwelcome at Johnson’s White House, he pondered, in Hamlet-like fashion, a return of “Camelot” to the same address.

Finally, he began to doubt the war in Vietnam. In an speech to Senate colleagues in 1967, after pointing out that three presidents had overseen the war’s expansion, he admits, with nearly unthinkable political honesty: “As one who was involved in those decisions, I can testify that if fault is to be found or responsibility assessed, there is enough to go around for all — including myself.” Clearly, Robert Kennedy was no ordinary politician.

On the evening of April 4, 1968 it fell to the presidential candidate to inform an African American crowd in Indianapolis of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Matthews rightly quotes Kennedy’s speech in full. It was a rare moment in American history — a son of privilege, vulnerable and raw, speaking softly, at times haltingly, of tragedy and hope to the grief-stricken African American community like no other white politician could. That night riots broke out in major cities across the United States, but not in Indianapolis.

As he barnstormed in key states during the extraordinary 82 days of his presidential run, the man who searched deep inside himself for his better angels called on the country to do the same. In the last days of the California primary campaign, frenzied crowds rushed Kennedy’s open car, grabbing for a piece of him. “You know, I feel now for the first time that I’ve shaken off the shadow of my brother,” Kennedy tells family confidant Ken O’Donnell by phone on the night of his California primary win.

Kennedy’s victory speech called for an end to violence and division before he turned from the podium towards the kitchen pantry. He was 42 years old. “Give sorrow words,” Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth. This Matthews has done.

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