Today, Robert Kennedy is remembered as an icon of the liberal movement, a staunch supporter of Civil Rights and dissident against the Vietnam War.
But he was not always that way. His political evolution, from Cold War hawk—serving under Senator Joe McCarthy's infamous Red Scare committee—to liberal champion is the subject of biographer Larry Tye's latest book, "Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon." Tye sat down with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan to discuss Kennedy's life, times, and the example he sets for politicians today.
On his childhood and relationship with his brother, John F. Kennedy
Jack at the early point thought he was a pain in the ass…He was the little brother, and the little brother who [their father] Joe Kennedy had described as the runt of the litter, who was always trying to show he was good enough to get his father’s attention and to get his big brother Jack’s attention. That was the relationship they had until they took a trip across Asia together. During the trip, Jack Kennedy nearly died. Jack Kennedy hugely didn’t want to take him on the trip, but like anything, if Joe said you did it, you did it.
Jack Kennedy took him on this trip—and Jack Kennedy was alive because he took him on this trip. He got deathly ill, Bobby went to Japan with him, sat with him in the hospital when Jack’s temperature went up to 105, and nursed him back to health. He saw that Bobby wasn’t the little pain in the neck he thought he was. In fact, he was a responsible guy, he was a smart guy, he was a guy for the rest of their life they’d have a relationship not just that two brothers rarely have, but that two people in senior levels of government never have.
On his relationship with Senator Joe McCarthy, who led the Red Scare in Congress
Bobby liked Joe McCarthy to start with for two reasons: one, because Joe Kennedy liked him; and two, because Bobby Kennedy said, in those days—and its tough today to remember just how much America bought into an anti-communist fervor—Joe McCarthy was to Bobby Kennedy the one person who had the guts to go after the Communists that both these people thought had infiltrated our government and were undermining democracy. The Kennedy machine has tried to write off those years as a footnote or aberration, but Bobby Kennedy adored Joe McCarthy, they were friends, he was his boss, and he attended his funeral....
That was two sides of Bobby: the side that remained incredibly loyal to Joe McCarthy until the very end, and on the other hand it was the one who knew he had a political career ahead of him, and—more importantly—his brother Jack did, and it wasn’t kosher for a liberal from Massachusetts to be seen at Joe McCarthy’s funeral.
On his role in the Cuban missile crisis
Bobby Kennedy, during the Missile Crisis, played what I thought was a really important role: he started out thinking that we ought to invade Cuba, that we ought to do a quick air strike and that was the only way to truly settle this issue. By the end he came around to the blockade and the more pacifist approach, and helped rally the cabinet to that approach, helped convince his brother and helped his brother convince everybody to go as one and push for this blockade.
It was a very compelling story of what he did. The only problem with it was he lied in his book. In his book "Thirteen Days," which became the definitive story of the Missile Crisis, and it had Bobby there as the great pacifist from the beginning. It would have been an interesting story and he would have gotten away with his version had they not been taping the cabinet room…His story was belied by the tapes he and his brother set up to get the true story out there.
On Kennedy's political evolution
I started out writing the book with Bobby Kennedy as one of my great heroes from 1968—not just a great hero from '68, but as the kind of tough liberal or tender conservative that I've spent 50 years hoping would be reincarnated somewhere. The idea he started out as something very different from that was shocking and initially disillusioning to me.
But then when I saw the way he changed, and not the flip-flopping kind of change we see today in politicians, the way he legitimately grew from experience and changed. I realized who he ended up as in the end could never have happened if he hadn’t been who he had been in the beginning. That’s why he brought blue collar and conservatives with him to the kind of coalition he was creating that I think would have taken him to the White House in '68.
The one epiphany moment which was the cataclysmic event of his life, which was the phone call from J. Edgar Hoover telling him that his brother had been shot and eventually that his brother had died. If anything changed his life and was an epiphany, that was it….
He started reading at that point for the first time in his life…Greek tragedy, pointed there in part by Jackie Kennedy and others. He started to see that this wonderful Kennedy hubris that had taken them, with nonstop trip, from Congress to the Senate to the White House and had put him in such a position of power, that he was vulnerable, that the country was vulnerable. He started showing the kind of empathy that Kennedys had never had to show before. I think he was always some combination of tough and tender, but I think the tough took a back seat after his brother’s death.
To hear more from Larry Tye, tune in to Boston Public Radio above.