What Would Bobby Do?

Six months before Robert F. Kennedy was killed, I had occasion to inventory the theories of what made him tick. Here is my list: that he was a ruthless calculator (Ralph De Toledano, Gore Vidal, Victor Lasky); that he was a market researcher (Nicholas Thimmesch, William Johnson); that he was his father's son (Richard Whelan); that he was his brother's brother (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.); that there were two Robert Kennedys, one good and one bad (Jules Feiffer); that although he had been called a simple man, "it would be more accurate to say he is many simple men" (Patrick Anderson); that his style might have been radical but his content was conventional (Andrew Kopkind, Robert Scheer); that he had "a unique capacity for growth" (Justice William O. Douglas); that he was a hipster (Norman Mailer); that he was our first alienated, existential pol, a cross between Bob Dylan and Albert Camus (Jack Newfield); and that "[w]ho sketches Robert Kennedy does so at his peril" (Joseph Kraft in a sketch of Robert Kennedy).

This was before David Halberstam, Jules Witcover, Garry Wills, David Horowitz and Peter Collier, Milton Gwirtzman and William vanden Heuvel, and a host of others, including yours truly, weighed in with books of their own. For what it's worth, my message in Kennedy Justice, a book about RFK's attorney generalship, was that the Kennedy ethic requires Kennedy implementers--at least one or two of them at the top. But since Kennedys, like philosopher kings, are in short supply and since a number of precedents of Kennedy justice might lend themselves to easy abuse, this was not a reservation to be taken lightly.

Comes now Ronald Steel, the latest Robert Kennedyologist. But Steel, sophisticated liberal journalist, public intellectual, definitive biographer of Walter Lippmann, tells us that his purpose is less to understand Robert Kennedy than to deconstruct the Kennedy myth. His elegantly written new book is a meditation on character and circumstance, on why so many came to believe that, had he lived, Robert Kennedy would have transformed America.

Steel's method, he tells us, is to look at what Kennedy did (mainly as attorney general) and what Kennedy said (mainly as LBJ's "enemy" and as a presidential candidate) and, based on that, to give us his assessment of whether the American romance with Robert Kennedy was justified. (No suspense here: It wasn't.)

According to Steel, before JFK's assassination, Bobby was humorless, impatient, result oriented, angry, a strict Catholic conservative. He "served his family as an obedient son and loyal brother." Typically, as counsel to the Senate Rackets Committee, this former assistant to Senator Joseph McCarthy once forced Teamster chief Dave Beck to invoke the Fifth Amendment 65 times, which led Alexander Bickel to observe in The New Republic, "No one since the late Joe McCarthy has done more to confer the impression that the plea of self-incrimination is tantamount to a confession of guilt... . "

Most Kennedy observers would endorse Steel's description of the early Bobby as the harsher Kennedy, although I would add a few footnotes. In 1965, when I embarked on my book about RFK's attorney generalship, I quickly concluded that I was up against two of the great bureaucracies of our time--the FBI and the Kennedys. Each believed that if you were not for them, you were against them. At first Kennedy, like the FBI, declined to cooperate. But as it became evident that I intended to persist regardless, he would make self-deprecating jokes en passant. "I hear you saw Burke Marshall last week. Did you find out anything good about me yet?" I liked him.

While Steel dutifully records RFK's famous remark (when he was named attorney general) about not lying awake at night worrying about the Negro, he fails to credit Bobby with on-the-job education (by the time of his brother's death, Bobby was the chief civil rights lobbyist in JFK's cabinet). One wouldn't know from Steel's account that at every phase of RFK's career, starting with his work on the Rackets Committee, he won the loyalty and affection of those close to him--men as different as the Hoffa-obsessed Walter Sheridan and Ivy League lawyer Burke Marshall, who headed up Kennedy's civil rights division. Nor does Steel make it sufficiently clear that Kennedy was a superb leader who was not merely adroit at the franchising--by confident delegation--of the Kennedy charisma, but also, in the words of the late columnist Joseph Kraft, "got everybody to play above their heads."

My problem, however, is not with Steel's description of Kennedy in phase one. As Jack's campaign manager, confidant, and lightning rod, Bobby had the characteristics Steel ascribes, and I would add that the Justice Department indeed lagged well behind the movement for equal rights. My problem is rather with Steel's assumption that the post-1963 RFK is a direct descendant of the stereotypical pre-assassination Kennedy, whose actions can mostly be explained in terms of the negative attributes contained in the Bad Bobby of Jules Feiffer's marvelous cartoon.

On the surface, RFK, the senator and presidential candidate, had traveled a considerable distance from RFK the First Brother. He let his hair grow long; he consulted with New Left theorists like Staughton Lynd and organizers like Tom Hayden; he questioned the war in Vietnam (after earlier volunteering to be American ambassador); he defended Ralph Nader in the interrogation of the president of General Motors on the company's minuscule safety budget; he visited South Africa over official protests; he asserted that blood donating--even to the Vietcong--was in the American tradition; he quoted not just Shakespeare (whence the title of Steel's book) but Bob Dylan and Marshall McLuhan; he criticized the administration's refusal to let the remains of Robert Thompson, a World War II hero who had been a Communist Party leader, rest in Arlington National Cemetery; he reached out to students, the poor, and the dispossessed. There was much more.

Were these all merely examples of Scheer and Kopkind's style-oversubstance Kennedy? Although advo-cacy journalist Jack Newfield's belief in his friend Bobby's character and potential for national leadership has always struck me as a triumph of hope over evidence, for my money Newfield captured something authentic when he wrote that after 1963, Kennedy displayed many of the same sort of "survivor guilt" symptoms that Professor Robert Jay Lifton perceived in the hibkusha of Hiroshima. As Newfield put it, Kennedy had

a feeling that if fate were fair, he would have died and the President should have lived. He also began to feel a sense of community with other victims like the poor and the powerless. Lifton describes several Hiroshima survivors who dedicated the rest of their lives to working among the dispossessed. Kennedy also experienced an "immersion in death" of which Lifton wrote "the embrace of the identity of the dead may, paradoxically enough, serve as the means of maintaining life."

The matter of survivor guilt is complicated by the possibility that Robert Kennedy was complicit in a CIA-Mafia plot to assassinate Castro--a plot that RFK may have believed led to the retaliatory assassination of his brother.

Contrast Newfield's sympathetic analysis of Kennedy's mood after his brother's death with Steel's less gener-ous hypothesis: "To redeem his brother he would first immortalize and then replace him." Thus, the heir apparent set about to "create a living memory to his brother" as a base on which he would "build his own political future." His cynical strategy analysis: Capitalize on JFK's public relations success with the Peace Corps abroad by focusing on youth and image at home.

For Steel, when presidential candidate Kennedy told a Native American, "I wish I had been born an Indian," or when he otherwise reached out to the young, the minorities, the alienated, it was nothing more than the old Kennedy UNIVAC doing its electoral calculation. He was picking up support where he could. For Steel, Kennedy's critique of American involvement in Vietnam, unlike the radical opposition of Senator Eugene McCarthy, was merely a preference for counterinsurgency over containment; his announcement that he would run for president only after McCarthy's strong showing in New Hampshire was an act of opportunism by a man afraid that if he didn't run he would be politically "irrelevant."

Steel dismisses the claim by Newfield, Village Voice writer Paul Cowan, and others that Robert Kennedy was the one politician in America capable of uniting blacks and blue-collar whites as "a combination of wishful thinking, misperception and spin control" belied by the results of the Indiana primary, where Kennedy took only 11 of 70 blue-collar precincts in Gary.

Because we are dealing here with "the future conditional," what he would have been, what he would have become--a source, according to Steel, of his allure--one cannot say with certainty that the so-called American romance with Robert Kennedy (of which, by the way, one has not heard that much lately, anyway) deserves to be debunked. But, leaving that aside, it seems to me there is a contradiction at the heart of Steel's project.

Perhaps Robert Kennedy visited campuses "to drum up support as the candidate of youth." Perhaps he entered the race in 1968 only because he would have been rendered "politically irrelevant" had he stayed out. Perhaps he had his electoral future "in mind" when he reached out to youth as the agent of change. Perhaps he insisted on talk-ing to students because "he wanted to establish himself as an ill-defined but forward-sounding 'youth-revolution.'" But if all those moves were part of RFK's Machiavellianism, then it is wrong for Steel to conclude, as he does, "The Bobby Myth is our own creation, not his."

How can Steel take apart the myth without more credibly delineating the arc of Robert Kennedy's life? Steel may well be right about what Robert Kennedy started out to be, but on his own evidence he is at best ambiguous about what Kennedy was becoming. Steel does allow for Bobby's daredevil streak, which both antedated and survived JFK's assassination--his football-playing with broken bones, his reckless rafting, his scaling a 14,000-foot peak named after his brother, and all the rest. Steel even reports that after the trauma of his brother's death, RFK underlined in his diary the precept of Emerson: "Do what you are afraid to do." But who is to say whether this "need to conquer his demons" was self-destructive (as Steel assumes) or part of his sad way of finding and defining himself, or both? I believe, with Steel, that Robert Kennedy's death occurred somewhere in the middle of a strange journey "which he did not understand." But then, Steel doesn't understand that journey, either. The closest he comes to a unified theory of the man whose myth he would deconstruct is to ask us--on the basis of no new evidence--to accept Jules Feiffer's bad Bobby as the real McCoy. ยค