Thursday, September 2, 2010

Candle #20: Robert F Kennedy: A Memoir

I have been interested in Robert F Kennedy since the high school history class where we were assigned an in-depth research paper. We had recently covered this period of history and I was drawn to the figure of RFK. At that time, I read from many biographies and other histories of the time...both those pro-Kennedy and those against. I soon became one of many who believe that Bob Kennedy could have made a difference (Yes, Bob. He never liked "Bobby.")

Jack Newfield's memoir covers the last few years of Kennedy's life--from the assassination of his brother to his own death in 1968. Newfield began his relationship with Kennedy a critic and wound up one of his biggest supporters. Newfield's memoir poignantly shows the changes that Kennedy experienced. Changes that took him from the "ruthless" younger brother of the President--who hounded the Teamsters and took on any one who would criticize his brother--to the compassionate presidential candidate who had a real chance to unite the black population and white, working class America. Ever since then historians have been wondering "what might have been."

Kennedy after JFK's assassination is revealed as a "sensual" politician. The pain he suffered in losing a brother made him more open to the pain of others. He didn't want statistics. He didn't want aides bringing him information on the plight of the poor blacks in Bedford-Stuuyvesant in New York or the migrant workers of the south and California. He had to go and see for himself. And after he went, he was changed. Kennedy became a real "people's politician" after he went out into America and saw how its citizens were living.

Many people of the time who were anti-Kennedy try to claim that this change in RFK was purely opportunistic. But reading the speeches quoted in this memoir, I cannot see what grounds they had for saying such things. The change in Kennedy is gradual, as if he's feeling his way into new territory--but the speeches get stronger and stay consistent through to the end. Even when it seemed his new stance would hurt him politically (and, given the charges made by his detractors, it certainly did to some extent), he continued to follow his conscience. A conscience which said after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all . We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land."

And a conscience which preferred this quote from Camus:

"Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children." To which he added: "And if you don't help us, who else in this world can help us?"

This book obviously didn't change my mind about Robert Kennedy. But reading it did remind me of what I had learned about him twenty (or so...) years ago and taught me even more. I've given this book four and a half stars out of five on Visual Bookshelf.

Only two more books to go and I'll have completed the Birth Year Reading Challenge!


Enbrethiliel said...


I've just read both this post and your September 1 W.W.W. post, and I have to leave this comment:

I've been fascinated by the Kennedys, particularly RFK, since I was in high school, too! I read this very book in my senior year (along with the Arthur Schlesinger biography) and then wrote my major Language Arts essay on RFK. You are making me nostalgic for an era I was too young to see. Thanks for the review. =)

J.G. said...

I remember being the first in my family to see on the t.v. that he'd been shot. What might have been, indeed.

Kristin said...

I am obsessed with the whole Kennedy family. I just got The Kennedy Men by Laurence Leamer and a memoir by Rose F. Kennedy. Nice review!