THE Kenendys of Boston were and still are America's First Family, and its most prominent Irish-Americans and Irish-Catholics.
Joseph and Rose's third son, Robert Francis, was and still is the most mysterious and alluring of their nine extraordinary offspring. He started his professional life as a cold warrior and ended it as his nation's hottest-blooded and most promising liberal.
He was precisely the tough liberal - or perhaps tender conservative - that his countrymen seemed to long for when, on the eve of his most decisive victory in his campaign for president in 1968, he was assassinated.
In the history of America, there have been but two non-presidents with whom our relationship was so intimate that we recognize them by their initials—RFK and MLK—and we must reach back to Teddy Roosevelt to find even a president known by an appellation as dear as Bobby.
He was, in a way, our little brother, too, which made the loss that much more harrowing when, hours after his most momentous political triumph, an assassin halted his campaign of conciliation.
The dueling aspects of Bobby’s political soul were part of his breeding. His father, the speculator and kingmaker Joseph P. Kennedy, saw his third son as the runt of his litter of nine—the lamest athlete, the most tongue-tied speaker, the least likely to matter to the world.
Those same traits made Bobby the pet of his mother, Rose, yet even she worried that he was “girlish.”
Rather than keeping him down, his parents’ low expectations drove him to achieve at any cost. To please Rose, Bobby would pray five times a day, while at the same time he embraced too many of his father’s less saintly causes and tactics.
But this striving shaped Bobby in ways that weren’t obvious to his parents and political rivals. While his more assured siblings were confidently charting their own courses, he was listening, learning, and developing a sensitivity that derived from his never being sure he could measure up. The obedient Catholic half of his nature was at war with the rebellious Irish side. All of which left him as vulnerable as he was fierce.
His brother Jack’s death plunged Bobby into grief and despair, but it ultimately freed him to find his own path, just as their oldest brother Joe Jr.’s death during World War II had first tormented Jack, then liberated him. Bobby went through nearly a year of undiagnosed and unacknowledged depression, convinced that his meaningful life, along with his career, had died in Dallas.
It wasn’t only his closest brother that he had lost, but a father whose guiding light had been dimmed two years earlier by a shattering stroke. Decisions that were preordained by his birth order now were his alone and excruciating. Should he run for the Senate or quit public life? Was it okay to challenge his sitting president or must he wait his turn?
Slowly, he saw that people believed in him for himself, not just because of his family and his losses. Bobby Kennedy grew not by reading books, as Jack had, nor by chumming around with the brainy and powerful the way his father did. Experience transformed him.
He came to understand poverty the way a novelist might, or a priest, sitting on the dirt floor of a shotgun shack in the Mississippi Delta trying to connect with a starving toddler. It was the same with farmworkers and coal miners.
To Bobby, policy was personal and power was its handmaiden. More opportunities were handed to him, and snatched back, than to anyone else in public life, and both sets of experiences stretched him.
He turned his back not just on parts of who he had been, but on fundamental aspects of the presidency of the brother he worshipped. He led the charge against the very war in Vietnam for which he and Jack had planted the seeds. He fiercely advocated for a civil rights agenda to which JFK had mainly paid lip service.
Within five years of John F. Kennedy’s death, Bobby was asserting himself as a politician on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum from where he began—striving, as he put it, “to seek a newer world.” The country was in transition politically and culturally, and so was Bobby Kennedy.