Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon

By Larry Tye

Ballantine Books

A matter of yards away from those of his brothers, Jack and Teddy, lies the grave of Bobby Kennedy.

Thousands of visitors still flock to Washington’s Arlington Cemetery to pay their respects but many of them might not know that Bobby’s burial there was no foregone conclusion. Following his assassination in 1968, President Johnson – still riven with contempt and loathing for his longtime rival – sought to prevent him from being laid to rest in America’s most sacred of burial grounds.

What was it about this man that provoked such strong reactions? Why did he inspire so many but at the same time provoke hatred and scorn in many others? In this one-volume yet magisterial biography, Larry Tye shines a forensic spotlight on this most complex of men. The result is a fascinating story of a man and country in transition.

The theme of the book is Bobby’s journey from cold war warrior and rabid anti-Communist to liberal icon and hero. Growing up “the runt of the litter”, as his father initially saw him, Bobby’s life story certainly makes for compelling reading. Tye is helped enormously by his access to unpublished memoirs, 58 boxes of papers previously under lock and key, and rarely-granted interviews with, among others, Bobby’s widow, Ethel.

Here we have the private Bobby – intensely compassionate towards children in need – yet, to start with anyway, a public Bobby who was counsel and right-hand man to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Yet a mere decade later his political transformation had seen him become a vocal defender of the poor, the hungry and the dispossessed, as well as the only leader in America capable of calming racial tensions and strife: his off-the-cuff speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King remains one for the ages.

The story of Bobby’s life and career has, like that of his family’s, been told many times. I’d be surprised, however, if anyone seeks to follow in Tye’s footsteps anytime soon. After all, here we have a biography which blends storytelling with insight, analysis with revelation. It is also critical when warranted – such as Bobby’s self-promotion of his role during the Cuban Missile Crisis – yet praiseworthy when due, such as his later devotion to society’s most vulnerable.

With Bobby’s place in the pantheon of American political history assured, anyone interested in his story would be well advised to pick up a copy. If they do so, they will discover much about the third Kennedy son, and also learn anew about the twists and turns of America’s story in the 20th century.

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