From Bare Knuckles to Idealism in ‘Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon’

Books of The Times
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI AUG. 15, 2016

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Reading about the life and death of Robert F. Kennedy, the reader can’t help but be reminded of the striking parallels between the late 1960s and today — polarized politics, racial tensions and growing social anxiety and tumult. It’s also impossible not to think about the vast gulf between the idealistic hopes Kennedy inspired among his young followers, and the fear and cynicism that have marked this year’s presidential campaign.

No one has captured Kennedy’s 1968 race with as much visceral immediacy as Thurston Clarke did in “The Last Campaign” (2008), but Larry Tye’s absorbing new biography, “Bobby Kennedy,” does a compelling job of showing how a tough-guy counsel to the red-baiting, demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s became, in the next decade, “a liberal icon” beloved for his dedication to the poor and disenfranchised.

In light of the abundance of works on Kennedy (including Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s massive “Robert Kennedy and His Times” and Evan Thomas’s “Robert Kennedy: His Life”), there’s not a lot substantially new in this volume, but Mr. Tye — the author of a critically acclaimed biography of Satchel Paige — has a keen gift for narrative storytelling and an ability to depict his subject with almost novelistic emotional detail.

Instead of echoing the young Kennedy’s own proclivity for seeing things in absolutist Manichaean terms, Mr. Tye does not rely on the reductive “good Bobby” and “bad Bobby” dichotomies that the scholar Ronald Steel employed in his judgmental 1999 book, “In Love With Night.” Instead, the fair-minded Mr. Tye thoughtfully maps the many contradictions in his subject’s life, and his gradual evolution over the years, as he began to clarify his own beliefs (as opposed to those handed down by his father and older brother), shedding his “Cold Warrior” reflexes and growing increasingly concerned about the poverty and injustice that plagued his country.

The assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, is frequently cited as the watershed moment in Robert’s life — the grief cracked open his “hard-as-nails shell” and sent him into a profound depression from which he would emerge transformed: more fatalistic, more empathetic, more inclined to display in public the tenderness his family and friends knew at home. He immersed himself in reading (Camus and Aeschylus and Shakespeare) and contemplated going away to study for a year, and there was a gradual softening of his hard edges and righteousness.

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