A Straw Man Vanquished: Bobby Kennedy’s Camelot II

In Love With Night: The American Romance with Robert Kennedy , by Ronald Steel. Simon & Schuster, 220 pages, $23.

Here’s the argument, bluntly stated: Robert Francis Kennedy is overrated in the memory of Americans. He accomplished little of value in the offices of state he held, and the belief that he would have made a great President is false. Moreover, he had a narrow character and a mean temperament, neither of which was much improved by the grief he experienced after the assassination of his older brother.

In order to make this argument compelling, Ronald Steel must first establish that there is in fact a Bobby myth cherished by a significant number of people. Do many really believe that Bobby’s death deprived the nation of the one politician who could have reconciled the divisions in American life? The divisions were everywhere: race hatred, which in those years burst into fire in city after city; blue-collar, white-collar distinctions that Lyndon Johnson’s “war” on poverty had signally failed to ameliorate; and the intergenerational battles that were largely fueled by a real war, in Vietnam, a war that seemed to be out of the control of the political classes.

Mr. Steel assures the reader that “millions believe that [Kennedy] embodied a new kind of liberalism, compassionate yet strong, supportive but not indulgent. And they are convinced that if he had made it to the White House … he would have transformed America.” I have no idea how he knows this, or if it is true, but as one of the millions of young, registered Democrats in the 60’s-one who now makes his living writing in the British press about American politics-I must say that years go by without my giving Bobby Kennedy the slightest thought.

Mr. Steel is a professional commentator, and he calls on fellow scribblers to aid in establishing his premise. The critic Jonathan Yardley wrote of a “lasting and mysterious sense of unexplored promise”; the late Michael Harrington thought Bobby was a “man who actually could have changed the course of American history”; and the historian William O’Neill “described him as an ‘extraordinary human being … more deeply loved by his countrymen than any man of his time.'” Having proven, to his own satisfaction at least, that this opinion is commonplace and strongly held, Mr. Steel sets out to explain its foundation. Raking through the secondary literature on Bobby-there is only one citation in the book of an “interview with the author” and no new documentary evidence-he guides us through the well-known episodes of a truncated life and concludes that the Bobby myth answers to no reality.

The reality, in Mr. Steel’s view, is that Bobby was loyal to a fault to his brother John, for whom he acted as campaign manager, Attorney General and “deputy President”; and that he rode his obsessions ruthlessly, gunning for the conviction of Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa for criminal abuse of power, the elimination of Fidel Castro’s revolution (and, if possible, the man himself) and the waging of all-out war against the Mafia bosses of organized crime. In an imaginative bit of speculative psychology and creative myth-making of his own, Mr. Steel postulates that one of the targets of Bobby’s persecution might have been behind his brother’s assassination, and that Bobby himself guiltily believed this to be the case.

A question occurs to the reader (but not apparently to the author): Why, if Bobby was so loyal to his brother, did he seek, as Attorney General, to prosecute the very Mafia men with whom he knew both John and his father Joseph were close? Could Bobby have had his own ideals of justice?

In any case, Mr. Steel assures us that after his brother’s death, Bobby ran for the Senate for no better reason than that he thought it was his family duty to succeed his brother, and then vacillated in a cowardly, unprincipled manner while Eugene McCarthy took up the anti-Vietnam War cudgels to attack Lyndon Johnson. According to Mr. Steel, Bobby’s part in the short campaign he mounted for the 1968 Democratic nomination garnered what support it received mainly from outcasts, particularly blacks whose “allegiance to him” came from their “sense of common suffering”; the poorly educated took him for “a living reincarnation” of his martyred brother. An analysis of the votes in the primaries he entered shows that the better educated voters plumped for Mr. McCarthy.

Mr. Steel’s account of the thin support for Kennedy’s candidacy, even among Democrats, rings true. I didn’t support him, and no one I knew did, either. But I felt his strange personal attraction-which Mr. Steel calls charisma-on two occasions when I encountered him by chance on the streets of New York.

Once in the early 60’s, when I was a student at New York University and Bobby was Attorney General, he came out of the offices of a labor union on Astor Place, accompanied by a small entourage, and began shaking hands with a group of onlookers. I was wearing a lapel button that depicted a handshake between a black hand and a white one, below the letters S.N.C.C. (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). At the time, Bobby was a hate figure to S.N.C.C. for having appointed a number of “racist” Southern judges to the Federal circuit, so he drew back when he saw my button. We exchanged glances, then both of us shrugged and shook hands, anyway. I surprised myself by muttering words of encouragement.

And when he was campaigning for Senator, I got caught up with a crowd sweeping into the Dom, a Polish club on St. Marks Place. After his speech, which I have forgotten entirely, he left in a limousine and was followed down the street by enthusiastic supporters. I found myself resisting with difficulty a powerful urge to join them. I had no use for the man, but something about him reached out to me.

Unfortunately, Mr. Steel’s book takes me no further in understanding what that something was; nor does he prove that it’s important. He suggests that when times are difficult, people search for a hero to lead them out of their difficulty. Fair enough. But was Bobby Kennedy a hero, or just a celebrity in deep waters?

Mr. Steel’s book is unaccountably simplistic, repetitious and unoriginal. Chapter after chapter, page after page, even paragraph after paragraph, he makes the same observations, sometimes even in the same words. In a short preface, Mr. Steel tells us grandly that his essay is written in the style of Plutarch’s Lives . Curiosity drove me to the bookshop, where I picked up Plutarch’s account of the Spartan kings . Leafing through it, I was struck by a “saying” attributed to King Agesilaus: “When somebody was praising an orator for his ability to magnify small points, he said: ‘In my opinion, it’s not a good cobbler who fits large shoes on small feet.'”

Robert F. Kennedy is not a large figure in American history, nor does his “myth” take up inordinate space. Ronald Steel’s book is short, which is good, but it’s still too big for the little he has to say.