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POV: Remembering RFK, 50 Years Later

A complicated legacy of a complicated man

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The late presidential speechwriter and best-selling author Richard N. Goodwin once speculated that Robert F. Kennedy would have been either the greatest president in US history or the worst had he survived an assassin’s bullet 50 years ago this week.

Goodwin had a point. In coming to grips with the legacy of Kennedy the man, lawyer, and politician, there is no middle ground. You either love him or hate him. His staunchest admirers believe he was the only major public figure in the tumultuous late 1960s who could have bridged long-standing racial divisions between blacks and whites in American society while prematurely ending the Vietnam War and bringing overdue social and economic justice to the poor and underprivileged.

His harshest critics, though, see a different RFK. They believe he was an opportunistic demagogue who all too frequently sacrificed moral principle for personal ambition and political expediency. To them, he was “Ruthless Bobby.”

In truth, both sides are correct. Kennedy was equal parts saint and sinner—in other words, a very complicated person.

A product of wealth and privilege, he could have easily devoted his days to idle leisure and frivolity, but he chose instead to pursue a life of public service, just as most of his remarkable siblings did. Unfortunately, he started off on the wrong foot, working as an assistant counsel for the fervidly anti-communist Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wisc.) not long after graduating from law school in 1951. The Wisconsin lawmaker was at the height of his controversial witch-hunting powers and although Kennedy quickly became disillusioned with McCarthy’s brass knuckle tactics and resigned from his staff, he always kept a warm spot in his heart for the Republican. He even went so far as to attend the latter’s funeral in 1957. “I liked him,” Kennedy later confessed to journalist and biographer Dick Schaap.

Kennedy went on to earn plaudits as chief counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee and as manager of John F. Kennedy’s successful presidential campaign in 1960. Between 1961 and 1963, he served in his brother’s cabinet as attorney general, where he tackled a multitude of weighty issues, none more important than civil rights. Under his direction, unprecedented federal efforts were made to integrate public facilities in the old Jim Crow South. At the same time, Kennedy acquiesced when his brother’s administration appointed several segregationist judges to the region’s courts. He also gave official Justice Department approval to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59). Such actions opened him up to charges of hypocrisy and moral turpitude.

With the assassination of John Kennedy in November 1963, a personally shattered Robert gave serious thought to leaving public life altogether. But the thought of being away from the political arena ultimately proved too unappealing. He won a US Senate seat from New York in 1964, despite entering the race late. “Now I can go back to being ruthless again,” he joked after his convincing victory over popular Republican incumbent Kenneth B. Keating.

The Senate years that followed seemed to reenergize Kennedy as he became an outspoken and impassioned advocate for those on the margins of society. All the while, Kennedy became increasingly at odds with President Lyndon B. Johnson, his brother’s successor, whom Kennedy now personally blamed for embroiling the country deeper into the Vietnam War, a conflict he had been an enthusiastic supporter of back in the early 1960s. But apart from Vietnam, Kennedy and Johnson just plain did not like each other. LBJ derided the former AG as an arrogant “little shitass,” while Kennedy considered Johnson a vulgar usurper of his brother’s presidential throne. “He’s mean, bitter, vicious—an animal in many ways,” Kennedy said of Johnson in a 1964 oral history interview conducted for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

By spring 1968, the fierce political rivalry between the two came to a head. Kennedy directly challenged Johnson for that year’s Democratic presidential nomination. Typically, the decision was not reached without controversy. Johnson had earlier barely squeaked by underdog antiwar candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota in the New Hampshire primary. Up to that point, Kennedy had refused to throw his hat in the ring because he did not want to give the unseemly impression of splitting the Democratic Party over a personal vendetta. But the surprising events in New Hampshire forced him to reconsider. The once invincible Johnson now seemed politically ripe for the taking. Cynics like Richard Nixon sneered. “We’ve just seen some terrible forces unleashed,” the soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee remarked. “Something bad is going to come of this. God knows where this is going to lead.”

The action, in point of fact, led to a weary Johnson officially pulling out of the race in a dramatic televised Oval Office address at the end of March. “I wonder if he would have done it if I hadn’t come in,” Kennedy mused.

Even more significant, the unexpected turnabout resulted in Kennedy’s own untimely death, as he was gunned down in Los Angeles by a disturbed young assailant shortly after winning the California Democratic primary on June 5. He expired from his wounds the following day.

“I almost wish he had become president so the country could finally see a flesh-and-blood Kennedy grappling with the daily work of the presidency and all the inevitable disappointments,” Johnson told biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin afterward.

Alas, we’ll never know what might have been. And that frustrating uncertainty is the true legacy of RFK.

Thomas Whalen, a College of General Studies associate professor of social sciences, is the author of several books, among them JFK and His Enemies: A Portrait of Power (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014). He can be reached at tjw64@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

2 Comments

2 Comments on POV: Remembering RFK, 50 Years Later

  • Sam on 06.05.2018 at 9:11 am

    Fifty years later, it is Bobby’s vision for the future that resonates most deeply. In the face of personal grief and national unrest, Bobby spoke honestly and unflinchingly about an America of compassion and potential. His personal ability to connect with the disaffected and disenfranchised alike, as well as his hope for a better tomorrow, came from the heart. His record may have been equal parts ruthlessness and compassion, but the underlying theme was integrity. When Bobby spoke about this country, there was a truth in his voice that is rarely heard from elected officials today.

  • Jose Artigas on 06.11.2018 at 4:27 pm

    RFK would have been a great president, perhaps among the very best. The tragedy was that he lived — and died — in the second great Era of Assassinations.

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