Kirkus Reviews QR Code
ROBERT KENNEDY AND HIS TIMES by Arthur M. Schlesinger Kirkus Star


by Arthur M. Schlesinger

Pub Date: Sept. 5th, 1978
ISBN: 0618219285
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

In the elegiac spirit of A Thousand Days—and with access to the family papers—Schlesinger has mounted a massive attack on the Robert Kennedy conundrum (shy/aggressive, compassionate/ruthless) and, no less, on the Kennedy brothers' detractors. The themes, the interpretations, the stories are not new; but never have they been so assidously nailed down. RFK is described as an "overachiever" who tenaciously overcame his childhood handicaps to become a scrappy youth and, as manager of JFK's 1952 senatorial campaign, his father's fighting son. "In part it was an [Irish] imposture," Schlesinger writes. "The gentle self was never extinguished." Later exposure to human suffering strengthened the repressed "instinct of sympathy" and gave it "social direction." But it was not until his father's incapacitation and his brother's death that "the qualities he had so long subordinated in the interest of others. . . could rise freely to the surface. He could be himself at last." A reductive analysis, one may decide, given the complexity of the man who emerges in these 850 crowded pages which—if they accomplished nothing else—would reaffirm RFK's salient role as a doer. And indeed it is when Kennedy failed to act (e.g., to block the Martin Luther King wiretaps) or over-reacted (e.g., in pursuing Jimmy Hoffa, countering the steel price rise, supporting counterinsurgency in South Vietnam) that Schlesinger's defense is least convincing. (That the credo "If there was a problem, there had to be a solution" exacts a cost, he does not recognize.) But there is sufficient here to occupy a battery of historians, some of it openly anti-revisionist (e.g., a broad defense of JFK's handling of the Cuban missile crisis), some of it startling (RFK ostensibly broke with LBJ after the latter' spoke of JFK's death as "divine retribution" for the Trujillo and Diem assassinations), some of it the scouring of old wounds (William Manchester, Gore Vidal), and much of it—especially apropos of RFK's extra-Justice Department activities—a considerable amplification of the record. Sentimental, rhetorical, partisan—and indispensable.