On June 5, 1968, 50 years ago, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy died after being shot the night before by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just won California’s Democratic presidential primary.
Kennedy—whose brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated less than five years earlier—was a complicated and important figure during a tumultuous time in America’s history.
The author of “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” biographer Larry Tye, spoke to The Daily Signal’s Ginny Montalbano earlier this year about RFK’s life and legacy. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Ginny Montalbano: What do you think is most misunderstood about Bobby Kennedy?
Larry Tye: I think his roots are the most misunderstood bit.
He was an iconic liberal figure, but one of the things that made him credible in building bridges was starting out working for Joe McCarthy.
Even people who knew Bobby pretty well, I’ve discovered, either didn’t know about that early period, the McCarthy period, or they downplayed it, including his children, who talk to me about it being a month or couple months and it being a footnote or asterisk, and in fact, he worked for [anti-communist Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin], as you know from the book, for 7-1/2 months, and as Ethel Kennedy made clear, and as Bobby always made clear throughout his life, that was a really important time in his life, and he continued believing in Joe McCarthy and defending him until McCarthy’s death.
So, I think to understand this iconic liberal figure at the end you have to understand his conservative roots and his transformation. That was a big piece of who he was.
Montalbano: What would you say was his biggest strength and what was his biggest flaw?
Tye: I think his biggest strength was his capacity to learn.
His entire life was one of listening and evolving and learning, whether that was starting out clueless when he was attorney general on an issue like civil rights and ending up as probably the most effective attorney general on civil rights in the history of America.
It was the question of his capacity to admit what he didn’t know and to be willing to learn. To me, the idea of somebody in politics admitting when they’re wrong and admitting when they don’t know something is very counterintuitive and something incredibly refreshing.
I think his biggest weakness was his arrogance.
Even at the end, when he was a much more tender and empathetic and caring figure, he still carried with him an arrogance that partly had to do with being a Kennedy.
It was partly having grown up rich and entitled, and it was partly just his natural personality. I think that that was with many people an undoing for him, but I think lots of people learned to look beyond that, including lots of journalists, came to adore him, who had hated him at the beginning when they first met him.
Montalbano: He worked hard for everything. Things didn’t necessarily come naturally to him like they did to Jack [John Kennedy], so I wanted to ask you: Do you think it’s a fair characterization to say that Bobby had this transformation from a realist to an idealist, and that Jack maybe went the opposite, from an idealist to more of a realist?
Tye: Yes. So, the way that I characterized the difference of who they were is, I like to think … Joe Kennedy’s expectation for each of his sons was that one after the other, they would become president of the United States.
He had high expectations—one would have said unrealistic, except it wasn’t so unrealistic it turned out.
Rose Kennedy’s expectation for her children was a much more modest expectation—that one of them would make the church their calling, and if Jack Kennedy had wanted to do that, he would have wanted to be the pope, because he was more of an elitist, and he liked being in charge and being a little bit more separate from people.
Had Bobby Kennedy gone into the church, and he came a lot closer to doing it, he would have been a parish priest, and that captures the sense of who they were and the difference.
Jack Kennedy really was an elitist, and he always wanted to be the guy who was running things. Bobby learned at the grass-roots level, and was much more open and was much more evolving.
They were incredibly different even though they were great friends and they were brothers. That’s the best way that I can characterize how they were different.
Montalbano: I love that analogy to the church. I wrote an academic research paper on Jack and Bobby, and I argued that yes, they had a co-presidency, but that it was good for the country. What are your thoughts on the did they/didn’t they have a co-presidency?
Tye: They came the closest to a co-presidency that we had ever seen and that we will ever see. What that means in that Bobby on a domestic front as the attorney general was clearly the most important domestic person in Jack’s Cabinet.
He did everything from wage a war against organized crime to took the lead in civil rights, and he was the one who helped Jack craft a sense of what an anti-poverty program ought to look like.
On the foreign front, on the most important issues, whether it was the Bay of Pigs, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, or waging a secret yearlong war against Cuba and Castro, he was Jack Kennedy’s most important foreign policy adviser … .
I think on a domestic front, and on a foreign policy front, he was Jack’s most trusted lieutenant, but beyond that, he was the one who, when Jack Kennedy needed politically to assess the situation for anything, that he would turn to a trusted adviser, it was not his vice president, and it was nobody on his Cabinet that he trusted, it was his brother.
We will never have that again, partly because the anti-nepotism rule will prevent a president from ever appointing his brother or a close relative like that, a son-in-law or close relative, to a formal position in his Cabinet, and certainly no president would ever turn over the kind of authorities that Jack did to Bobby.
It was partly that Bobby had proved himself by running the successful campaign in 1960. It was also that he was the one who Joe Kennedy had anointed as the guy who would be there having Jack’s back.
Montalbano: I was reading Joe Scarborough’s review of your book back in 2016, and two quotes in his review stood out. At one point in his review, he said, “Like Alexander Hamilton during our nation’s founding, Kennedy was the most dominant figure of his time not to be elected.”
Then later on in his review, he said that Bobby’s personal creed was that he “blended FDR’s New Deal collectivism with the self-reliance of his boyhood hero, Herbert Hoover.” To me, that’s the epitome of why Bobby is such a complicated figure.
Tye: … His passion, his intensity, his willingness to take risk, would have made Bobby a much more interesting president, I think, and a more effective one than Jack.
Montalbano: Can you discuss Bobby’s relationship with Martin Luther King?
Tye: Sure. They started out … Bobby had no use for Martin Luther King. He thought that he was not an especially effective leader.
He had [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover whispering in his ear that King was a communist. He thought that he would compromise Jack Kennedy’s summit with [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev by distracting people with domestic issues when what mattered was world peace.
So, at the beginning, he had very little use for King, and at the beginning, King and his associates didn’t have a whole lot of faith in Bobby, but I think Martin Luther King was smart enough that when all of his young proteges in the civil rights movement had given up on Bobby Kennedy, King said, “We can’t give up on him. Within this guy, there is good, and we’ve got to reach down and somehow bring the good out of him.”
The fact that he had done that was most apparent ironically and tragically the night of King’s assassination [in April 1968], when Bobby delivered the best speech of his life in Indianapolis, and got people in that city to go home and not riot the way people were doing in a hundred different cities across America that night, and I think, by the end, had they both lived, they would have become not just great collaborators, they would have become great pals, because they were both evolving in a similar direction.
I think it was one of the most effective relationships by the end that any politician had with any civil right leader.
Montalbano: You went right into my next question about his most famous speeches. I had Indianapolis down, but I also wanted to get your thoughts on his 1964 [Democratic National Convention] speech.
Tye: Yep. The three best speeches that Bobby delivered in his life, and I would rank them in this order: No. 1, Indianapolis, because that was the least scripted, the most off-the-cuff, the shortest, and the most easily effective in terms of measuring the effectiveness of a speech. He gave a speech, Indianapolis didn’t riot, and that was just a clear cause and effect.
No. 2 most effective speech I think was his “Ripple of Hope” speech in South Africa, the most effective speech a white politician had ever given. Incredibly important speech in terms of giving great hope to lots of white and black South Africans at a time when they needed hope.
No. 3 was clearly the DNC, the Democratic convention speech. That was the most emotional that he had ever given, and it was effective not only for Lyndon Johnson in terms of helping say, “Lyndon Johnson has legitimacy, and I endorse him,” but in terms of telling people in the party that there would be a Kennedy someday who would come back, and I think everybody who heard Bobby’s speech that night knew that someday he would run for president and that he would be a Democratic nominee.
Montalbano: During all of your interviews that you had with the Kennedys, which of his children do you think embodies his spirit the most? Can you give us some insight into Ethel?
Tye: Sure. I think one of his children that I thought embodied his spirit is the one who just lost … in the Illinois gubernatorial primary [in March]. It was Christopher Kennedy.
I think, politically, Christopher captured in that campaign a Bobby Kennedy kind of passion, and it didn’t work. He got outspent by $70 million, and it just didn’t work.
The Kennedy child who, in terms of a non-politician, captures his spirit the best is his daughter Rory, who is the 11th child, who was in the womb and never knew her father, and I think if Ethel had to pick one, she would say, Rory may be the closest to Bobby’s spirit.
The Kennedy offspring that best captures his spirit is his grandson, Joe Kennedy III, who I think someday is going to go national effectively, and Ethel thinks that Joe, her grandson, is the closest thing the family has produced to Bobby. [Joe Kennedy II is a third-term congressman from Massachusetts.]
Montalbano: What is your take on the relationship and friendship between first lady Jackie Kennedy and Bobby?
Tye: My take is that they were the two people who were most damaged by Jack’s assassination, and they came together in a profound way to comfort one another.
I think Bobby helped her with the kids in a time when she was going through hell, and I think that then they “got” one another. They understood one another in a really important way.
I think whether there was anything more than that in terms of anything romantic, I’m not even going to guess, I don’t know, but I think they had a friendship that even while Jack was alive was extraordinary. It was Bobby who was always there for Jackie when Jack wasn’t, and I think that that was just very special.
Montalbano: What do you think conservatives and liberals alike can take away from Bobby?
Tye: Ah. I think the most important lesson that Bobby had … if I had to pick two words to characterize him and why he resonates half a century after his death, the two words would either be he was a tough liberal, or depending on somebody’s politics, he was a tender conservative.
He had the potential, given the conservative that he started out as, and given the iconic liberal that he became, he had the potential to build bridges in a way that we’ve seen no politician do.
He could build a bridge between Donald Trump’s angry white supporters and Hillary Clinton’s coalition of minorities and liberals, and he did that by doing something we don’t expect a politician to ever do these days, which is telling people the tough truth.
He went into black communities and he said, “Before we can have racial justice, we need to have safe streets.” He went into white communities and said, “Before we can have safe streets, we need racial justice.”
He told people the opposite of what they wanted to hear, and they listened because of that.
Montalbano: What do you think about his final resting site at Arlington? Some say it’s exactly how he’d want it—understated, to the side of JFK.
Tye: I think that’s exactly right. It is what he would have wanted. He was never president, he didn’t deserve what his big brother had, and he wouldn’t have wanted that, but being there is just where he would have wanted to be.
I think that, had he lived, he would have become the Democratic nominee, and he would have become the president … .
Montalbano: Can you explain what happened in the “Forgotten Debate” between RFK and [Republican California Gov. Ronald] Reagan back in 1967?
Tye: Public debating seldom was easy for Bobby, which is one reason he would avoid debating Gene McCarthy for so long in the 1968 race for the Democratic nomination.
But as with so many things in his life, Bobby got demonstrably better over time, learning in a way few politicians did and using experiences like his poor performance against Ronald Reagan, not just to marshal more clearly his arguments against the Vietnam War, but to study his opponent’s weaknesses.
Had RFK-Reagan debates become a mainstay of American politics in the ’60s and ’70s, the way they inevitably would have, had Bobby lived, Kennedy would have been an imposing adversary even for the masterful actor-turned-politician Reagan.