Memories of RFK BY RICHARD RYAN ROBERT KENNEDY: In His Own Words Edited by Edwin 0. Guthman and Jeffrey Shulman New York: Bantam, 1988 493 pages, $22.50 THIS IS MY FIRST political memory: I was six years old when my mother shook me out of a June sleep and told me I should come watch the television because “Bobby Kennedy’s been shot.” As I sat on the living room floor, listening to commentators repeat the vote totals that indicated the fallen candidate would win the California primary, I didn’t understand, of course, the horrifying implications of the moment. I knew only the alert curiosity that children feel when confronted with epochal but distant events foreign wars, moon landings. Years passed before I recognized that the deaths of Kennedy and King had created a vacuum also known as the 1970s in which my generation was forced to construct a social philosophy. I have come to dislike and distrust charismatic politicians of all stripes but I have made an exception for Robert F. Kennedy, the only politician whose photo hangs on my wall. I emphasize “politician” because that’s what Bobby was: a manipulator of public opinion, a calculator of odds, a tactician. This year, the 20th anniversary of RFK’s death, important primary material has appeared which illuminates this remarkable eccentric and his role in the Kennedy White House. The material was prepared by the oral his’ory project of Kennedy Memorial Library, launched in 1964 shortly after the President’s assassination. Because Robert Kennedy grasped the importance of preserving recollections of his brother’s administration while events were still fresh in participants’ minds; he agreed to several lengthy interviews. Only three months after his brother’s death, at a time when he was often overwhelmed with grief, Kennedy first sat down with a questioner and a tape recorder to reconstruct his memories. Those interviews have recently been published as Robert Kennedy: In His Own Words. The dialogues cover a remarkable range of topics, but the two subjects that have created the most controversy since excerpts of the transcripts first appeared in Newsweek this summer have been RFK’s discussion of the civil rights movement and his harsh commentary on many of the personalities Freelance writer Richard Ryan lives in Washington, D.C. within the Kennedy White House. On the later subject, some of Bobby’s vitriol was certainly justified. Kennedy partisans have long felt that the appointment of the irredeemable Dean Rusk as Secretary of State was the great blunder of the White House transition team \(which Bobby that by the time of the Bay of Pigs disaster the Kennedy brothers were aware of their mistake but felt that replacing such a highlevel official before a prospective second term would be too disruptive. Robert Kennedy also spares no spleen on the subject of Lyndon Johnson, whom he describes as. “mean, vicious, bitter an animal in many ways.” According to Kennedy, the Vice President, despite his connections in the Senate, provided no help in swaying votes on key legislation and actually opposed many of the administration’s important initiatives, such as the Civil Rights Bill of 1963. He also discloses that while Johnson might very well have been willing to accept the younger Kennedy as vice president, if RFK had been appropriately conciliatory, Kennedy himself felt Johnson was too untrustworthy and abusive to serve under. The Kennedy-Johnson antagonism has been well-known \(though not the fact that RFK might have patched things up between himself and Johnson at least in the short denigration of such liberal idols as Adlai Stevenson and Chester Bowles, as well as his irksome regard for Maxwell Taylor, the military aide who was the author of the modern doctrine of low-intensity warfare. But the truly inflammatory section of this volume is a long conversation with New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis on the subject of civil rights. As the President’s brother and closet confidant, Bobby Kennedy was without question the most powerful attorney general in history. He was also one of the most controversial; while the Eisenhower administration did its best to ignore the growing Black unrest in the South, the Kennedy Justice Department regarded the extension and enforcement of civil rights as a priority. During his time in the Cabinet, however, Robert Kennedy was not the ardent populist he would later become. Kennedy makes clear in his conversation with Lewis that he had little use for such dramatic protests as the Freedom Rides of 1961 \(although he also makes it clear that he had every intention of protecting the protestors from assaults by racist mobs that with achieving judicial and statutory remedies to the problems. He was also unnecessarily influenced by J. Edgar Hoover’s assertion that Martin Luther King was surrounded by Communist party members. \(Kennedy didn’t believe this, but he spent a great deal of time worrying that Nevertheless, despite RFK’s misconceptions and lapses in judgment, the perverse attacks of historian Garry Wills, who reviewed this volume for the New York Review of Books, are simply wrong. Robert Kennedy did not have to be “dragged unwillingly into the civil rights movement.” No one forced Robert Kennedy to make the famous phone call in 1960 that got Martin Luther King, who was being held in a Georgia jail on a trumped-up traffic violation, out on bail. And no one forced the Kennedys to introduce the 1963 Civil Rights Bill that both brothers thought might very well be the downfall of their administration. Also under discussion throughout these interviews is the Kennedys’ celebrated contempt for the bureaucracy. In RFK’s recollections of the events surrounding the steel price crisis of 1962, the non-linear methodology of Camelot receives its most attractive presentation. In the spring of that year, the President had leveled considerable pressure on the steel unions to agree to noninflationary contracts. The economy was starting to recover from the recession that began late in Eisenhower’s term, and JFK and his economists were convinced that a steel price hike would undercut recent productivity gains. After intensive mediation between the White House, the unions, and the mill owners, the labor negotiations were concluded to the White House’s satisfaction. At this point the industrial malefactors tried to cash in their chips. As Bobby tells it, U.S. Steel’s president Roger Blough showed up in JFK’s office announcing that his corporation intended to ride the price of steel to $6 a ton. The President was outraged, and deciding he had been doublecrossed, set the administration’s resident pit Bobby ordered the FBI to investigate a number of steel executives, subpoenaing their records, auditing their taxes, and so on. The steel companies quickly backed down. BOBBY KENNEDY understood, however, that the power he had unleashed on the steel industry could be used for less noble ends. “I can decide whose phone is going.to be tapped,” 12 JANUARY 6. 1989
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