August 19, 2016
Reading about the life and death of Robert F. Kennedy, the reader can’t help but be reminded of the striking parallels between the late 1960s and today — polarized politics, racial tensions and growing social anxiety and tumult. It’s also impossible not to think about the vast gulf between the idealistic hopes Kennedy inspired among his young followers, and the fear and cynicism that have marked this year’s presidential campaign.
No one has captured Kennedy’s 1968 race with as much visceral immediacy as Thurston Clarke did in “The Last Campaign” (2008), but Larry Tye’s absorbing new biography, “Bobby Kennedy,” does a compelling job of showing how a tough-guy counsel to the red-baiting, demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s became, in the next decade, “a liberal icon” beloved for his dedication to the poor and disenfranchised.
In light of the abundance of works on Kennedy (including Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s massive “Robert Kennedy and His Times” and Evan Thomas’s “Robert Kennedy: His Life”), there’s not a lot substantially new in this volume, but Mr. Tye — the author of a critically acclaimed biography of Satchel Paige — has a keen gift for narrative storytelling and an ability to depict his subject with almost novelistic emotional detail.
Instead of echoing the young Kennedy’s own proclivity for seeing things in absolutist Manichaean terms, Mr. Tye does not rely on the reductive “good Bobby” and “bad Bobby” dichotomies that the scholar Ronald Steel employed in his judgmental 1999 book, “In Love With Night.” Instead, the fair-minded Mr. Tye thoughtfully maps the many contradictions in his subject’s life, and his gradual evolution over the years, as he began to clarify his own beliefs (as opposed to those handed down by his father and older brother), shedding his “Cold Warrior” reflexes and growing increasingly concerned about the poverty and injustice that plagued his country.
The assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, is frequently cited as the watershed moment in Robert’s life — the grief cracked open his “hard-as-nails shell” and sent him into a profound depression from which he would emerge transformed: more fatalistic, more empathetic, more inclined to display in public the tenderness his family and friends knew at home. He immersed himself in reading (Camus and Aeschylus and Shakespeare) and contemplated going away to study for a year, and there was a gradual softening of his hard edges and righteousness.
Mr. Tye gives us a visceral sense of the heartbreak Robert suffered in losing the brother he had ardently served for so many years as confidant, consigliere and enforcer. But he also situates that loss within the larger arc of his subject’s life. The Robert who emerges from this book is both a dreamer and a realist, “an idealist without illusions” in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words — the most passionate of the Kennedy brothers and, as one journalist observed, a man “constantly at war with himself.”
Robert “embraced contradiction in ways that neither Jack nor Teddy wanted to or could,” Mr. Tye writes. “His realism butted up against his romanticism even as the existentialist in him looked for ways to coexist with the politician. He was half ice, half fire.”
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was sent to jail in Georgia in 1960 over a traffic misdemeanor, Robert and John helped win his release — not out of a simple sense of justice, Mr. Tye says, but out of a complicated calculus of politics and conscience. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Mr. Tye adds, Robert was both hawk and dove, and he worried about the human cost of the botched Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba, “even as he plotted new ones.”
The missile crisis, with its harrowing possibility of nuclear catastrophe, Mr. Tye argues, helped Robert understand that “a leader could be tough without being bellicose,” and it helped him find his own voice on foreign affairs and step out of “his brother’s long shadow.” Though it would take time for him to speak out against the Vietnam War, when he did so in 1967 it was with passion and a recognition of its futility and the suffering of the Vietnamese. He was able, Mr. Tye writes, to give voice to the outrage of the war’s opponents while bringing leverage to their cause in Washington with his Cold War “anti-Communist credentials.”
In these pages, Mr. Tye conscientiously strips away the accretions of myth that have come to surround Robert F. Kennedy, while at the same time creating a sympathetic portrait of this complex, searching man — a genuine pilgrim and a hard-nosed politician, a fierce romantic dedicated to “the art of the possible.”
Bobby Kennedy’s Grave at Arlington National Cemetery
“The Bobby Kennedy of 1968,” Mr. Tye writes, “was a builder of bridges — between islands of blacks, browns and blue-collar whites; between terrified parents and estranged youths; and between the establishment he’d grown up in and the New Politics he heralded. At age 42 he was on the way to becoming the tough liberal — or perhaps tender conservative — who might have stitched back together a divided land and whose vision seems at least as resonant in today’s polarized America.”
Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani
A version of this review appears in print on August 16, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Pragmatist Converting to Idealism. Today’s Paper