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The Making of a Liberal Icon

by Larry Tye

Pub Date: July 5th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-8129-9334-9
Publisher: Random House

A former journalist at the Boston Globe returns with a comprehensive, thesis-driven account of the political career of Robert Francis Kennedy (1925-1968).

Tye (Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, 2013, etc.) develops the argument that RFK was an evolving human being and politician, a tireless attorney general and senator on whom nothing was lost. The author begins with his association with one McCarthy (Joseph) and ends, more or less, with another (Eugene, whom RFK battled in the 1968 presidential primaries). Relying on countless interviews, including the contributions of RFK’s widow, Tye weaves a compelling story of Bobby’s changes: his growth from the “ruthless” image his political enemies attached to him to the committed humanitarian, the friend of African-Americans, the enemy of poverty, and the outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. We see his devoted support of John F. Kennedy’s various campaigns, his vigorous performance as attorney general, his devastation after JFK’s assassination, his rancorous relationship with Lyndon Johnson. But mostly it’s his changes that interest the author. Not the student or scholar that JFK had been, RFK began to read—after the JFK assassination, he read Aeschylus and listened while he shaved to recordings of Shakespeare plays—and to inform himself deeply about the issues. Not a witty, graceful politician like his older brother, RFK worked hard to develop an effective style. Although Tye is a patent admirer, he wonders about RFK’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe, and he is also unsure about a possible affair with widow Jackie Kennedy. The author chides RFK for such things as slanting his account of the Bay of Pigs, his perhaps excessive pursuit of Jimmy Hoffa, and his early hawkishness on Vietnam. But the contrary image is clear: a good, if not great man; an unspeakable loss.

Richly researched prose that sometimes soars too close to the sun of admiration.