BOBBY KENNEDY: The Making of a Liberal Icon. By Larry Tye. Random House. 608 pages. $32.
It seemed an unlikely start for the career of a man who would become one of the nation’s most fierce liberal heroes.
One of Bobby Kennedy’s first assignments in Washington was to assist Sen. Joe McCarthy’s investigation into communists in the U.S. government.
Larry Tye’s fascinating new book, “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” helps connect the dots in how Kennedy made that dramatic transition to a liberal icon over 15 years.
He briefly worked as assistant counsel with McCarthy’s investigative subcommittee, then served as a combative Senate investigator of organized crime; a relentless campaign manager for his ambitious older brother; a brash young attorney general; a restless New York senator; and finally a charismatic presidential candidate whose campaign was violently cut short.
But how did Bobby Kennedy get started with McCarthy, the right-wing Republican who led the infamous campaign to rid the government of communists?
Kennedy’s powerful millionaire father, Joe Kennedy, was an admirer of McCarthy, a fellow Irish-American who was making a name for himself in Washington and who was a family friend. After discussions about what Bobby Kennedy could be doing in Washington, the young Kennedy soon had a job as an assistant counsel with the subcommittee. At that point in the early 1950s, Kennedy was something of a cold warrior who could see the need, as he put it, to “expose Communists in government.”
As Kennedy worked on his new assignment, he soon became involved in a heated rivalry with the lead counsel, Roy Cohn. Both were young, ambitious lawyers, with very different backgrounds. Kennedy didn’t like Cohn’s hardball tactics and he was also wary of Cohn’s homosexuality. Kennedy left the job after several months.
In later years when he was running for senator from New York, he downplayed his involvement in the investigations.
Kennedy was much better suited for a subsequent assignment: Senate investigator of organized crime. Kennedy’s feisty, combative style was a perfect match for ornery Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa. Eventually, politics intervened and the younger Kennedy was asked to play a familiar role — helping his brother John run for office — this time for president in 1960. Bobby Kennedy’s skill in that job helped lead to his job as attorney general.
During his brother’s campaign, the younger Kennedy was becoming increasingly aware of abject poverty in places like Appalachia and the inner cities. As attorney general, he quickly realized he had the authority to change some of these conditions and the responsibility to try. In the struggle for civil rights, his initial impatience and frustration with the demands of black activists gradually turned into growing empathy with their complaints.
While the biography includes many fascinating aspects of Bobby Kennedy’s life, the book is most successful in tracing Kennedy’s transition from a brash, patrician lawyer to a skilled liberal politician who overwhelmingly identified with those in the greatest need.
As senator, he toured the Mississippi Delta and visited a rundown shack where more than a dozen people lived. The only thing in the refrigerator was a jar of peanut butter. He and an aide were walking away when Kennedy leaned over and whispered: “I’ve been to Third World countries, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”
By the time of his presidential run, Kennedy had grown into a political rock star: passionate about the needy, eager to end the Vietnam War and gaining momentum as he won state primaries ranging from Indiana to California.
With his assassination right after winning California, the loss of such a passionate liberal, skilled infighter and talented politician raised the haunting question that had surfaced when his brother was shot five years earlier.
What might have been?