Robert Kennedy : His Life

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9780684834801: Robert Kennedy : His Life

Robert Kennedy has been viewed as hero and villain -- as the "Good Bobby" who, as his brother Ted eulogized him, "saw wrong and tried to right it, ...saw suffering and tried to heal it" -- or as the "Bad Bobby" of countless conspiracy theories, the ruthless and manipulative bully who plotted with the Mafia to kill Castro and lusted after Marilyn Monroe. Evan Thomas's achievement is to realize RFK as a human being, to bring to life an extraordinarily complex man who was at once kind and cruel, devious and honest, fearful and brave. Thomas had unusual access to his subject's life. He is the first biographer since Arthur Schlesinger to see RFK's private papers, and he interviewed all of Kennedy's closest aides and advisers, many of whom were forthcoming in ways that they had not been before. The portrait that emerges is unvarnished but sympathetic, fair-minded and always readable. It is packed with new detail about Kennedy's early life and his behind-the-scenes machinations: his involvement in a cheating incident in prep school; his first attempt at romance; and his many back-channel political operations -- with new revelations about the 1960 and 1968 presidential campaigns, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his long struggles with J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom were subtly and not-so-subtly trying to blackmail the Kennedys. In a clear and fast-paced narrative, Thomas cuts through the mythology to reveal a character who, though he died young just as he was reaching for ultimate power, remains one of the century's most fascinating men.

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Review:

In the nation's varied memory, Robert Kennedy is a contradictory figure, a hard-bullying McCarthyite obsessed with Hoffa and Castro but also a gentle, poetry-reading herald of a new age bent on stopping the Vietnam War and lifting up the poor. As Evan Thomas (The Wise Men and Man to See) writes, both liberals and conservatives have their own spin on his legacy, with predictably different visions of what he would have done if he had lived to be our 37th president. As it turns out, none of the Good Bobby/Bad Bobby projections are right, and none are completely wrong either. In sorting through the myths and the truths, Evans provides a detailed portrait of a man centrally engaged in most of the important issues of the postwar era, and concludes that the best way to understand him is "fear":

He was brave because he was afraid. His monsters were too large and close at hand to simply flee. He had to turn and fight them.... He became a one-man underground, honeycombed with hidden passages, speaking in code, trusting no one completely, ready to face the firing squad--but also knowing when to slip away to fight again another day. Although he affected simplicity and directness, he became an extraordinarily complicated and subtle man. His shaking hands and reedy voice, his groping for words as well as meaning, his occasional resort to subterfuge, do not diminish his daring. Precisely because he was fearful and self-doubting, his story is an epic of courage.

RFK was born after the chosen siblings had been established in the Kennedy clan. He originally had low standing in the family hierarchy. Evans describes how the "runt" of the family, the one not born and raised for power and whose only ambition was to please the father who ignored him, turned into the essential son, the defender of the family and mediator between Joe Sr. and JFK. He fleshes out Bobby's role in JFK's campaigns, his testy relations with Martin Luther King, his middle-ground stance on integration, his performance during the Cuban missile crisis, and his genuine concern for the poor. He reveals the truth behind such events as the vice-presidential appointment of Lyndon Johnson as well as the famous calls from the Kennedy brothers, which got Martin Luther King out of jail. He also tries to untangle the webs obscuring the Kennedys' involvement in Castro assassination plots, their relations with Marilyn Monroe, and RFK's guilt over his brother's death. And finally, he, too, speculates on what kind of president one of history's great what-ifs might have made. The picture he paints--of a sensitive, courageous, and determined man on the verge of achieving greatness--is more complex and human than any we've had before, and reminds us again of the tragedy of his death. --Lesley Reed

About the Author:

Evan Thomas is the author of The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the C.I.A.; Robert Kennedy: His Life; The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1989; Sea of Thunder: The Last Great Naval Command, 1941-1945; and John Paul Jones. His most recent book is Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World.

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