Robert F. Kennedy

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Robert Francis Kennedy
Robert F. Kennedy

Robert F. Kennedy at the White House, 1964

In office
January 3, 1965 – June 6, 1968
Preceded by Kenneth Keating
Succeeded by Charles E. Goodell

In office
January 20, 1961 – September 3, 1964
President John F. Kennedy,
Lyndon B. Johnson
Preceded by William P. Rogers
Succeeded by Nicholas Katzenbach

Born November 20, 1925(1925-11-20)
Brookline, Massachusetts,
United States
Died June 6, 1968 (aged 42)
Los Angeles, California,
United States
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse Ethel Skakel
Alma mater Harvard University
University of Virginia
Religion Roman Catholic
Military service
Service/branch United States Navy
Battles/wars World War II

Robert Francis "Bobby" Kennedy (November 20, 1925–June 6, 1968), also called RFK, was an American politician. He was United States Attorney General from 1961 to 1964 and a United States Senator from New York from 1965 until his assassination in 1968. He was one of the younger brothers of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and also one of his most trusted advisers, working closely with the president during the Cuban Missile Crisis. After his brother's November 1963 assassination, Kennedy continued as Attorney General under President Lyndon B. Johnson for nine months. After breaking with Johnson over the Vietnam War, he resigned in September 1964 and was elected as a Senator from New York that November.

After Eugene McCarthy nearly defeated Johnson in the New Hampshire primary in early 1968, Kennedy announced his own campaign for president, seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party. Kennedy defeated McCarthy in the critical California primary but was shot shortly after midnight of June 5, 1968, dying on June 6. On June 9, President Johnson assigned security staff to all Presidential candidates and declared an official day of national mourning in response to the public grief following Kennedy's death.


Early life, education, and military service

Robert Francis Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the seventh child of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald.

In September 1927, when he was almost 2, Kennedy moved with his family to a rented 20-room mansion in Riverdale, New York, then two years later, moved 5 miles (8.0 km) northeast to a 21-room mansion on a 6-acre (24,000 m2) estate in Bronxville, New York, purchased in May 1929. Kennedy spent summers with his family at their home in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, purchased in 1929, and Christmas and Easter holidays with his family at their winter home in Palm Beach, Florida, purchased in 1933. He attended public elementary school in Riverdale from kindergarten through 2nd grade, then Bronxville School, the public school in Bronxville from 3rd through 5th grade, then Riverdale Country School, a private school for boys in Riverdale for 6th grade.

In March 1938, when he was twelve years old, Kennedy sailed on his first trip abroad on the SS Manhattan with his mother and his four youngest siblings to England where his father had begun serving as American ambassador. Kennedy attended Gibbs School for Boys at 134 Sloane Street in London for 7th grade, returning to the United States just before the outbreak of World War II in Europe.

In September 1939, for 8th grade, Kennedy was sent 200 miles (320 km) away from home to St. Paul's School, an elite private prep school for boys in Concord, New Hampshire. However he did not like it and his mother thought it too Episcopalian, so after two months at St. Paul's, Kennedy transferred to Portsmouth Priory School, a Benedictine boarding school for boys in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, for 8th through 10th grades. In September 1942, Kennedy transferred to Milton Academy, a third boarding school in Milton, Massachusetts, for 11th and 12th grade.

In October 1943, six weeks before his 18th birthday, Kennedy enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve as an apprentice seaman, released from active duty until March 1944 when he left Milton Academy early to report to the V-12 Navy College Training Program at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His V-12 training was at Harvard (March–November 1944), Bates College in Lewiston, Maine (November 1944–June 1945), and Harvard (June 1945–January 1946). On December 15, 1945 the U.S. Navy commissioned the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. and shortly thereafter granted Kennedy's request to be released from naval officer training to serve starting on February 1, 1946 as an apprentice seaman on the ship's shakedown cruise in the Caribbean. On May 30, 1946 he received his honorable discharge from the Navy.

In September 1946, Kennedy entered Harvard as a junior having received credit for his two and a half years in the V-12 program. Kennedy worked hard to make the Harvard varsity football team as an end, was a starter and scored a touchdown in the first game of his senior year before breaking his leg in practice, earning his varsity letter when his coach sent him in for the last minutes of the Harvard-Yale game wearing a cast. Kennedy graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in government in March 1948 and immediately sailed off on RMS Queen Mary with a college friend for a six-month tour of Europe and the Middle East, accredited as a correspondent of the Boston Post, for which he filed six stories. Four of these stories, filed from Palestine shortly before the end of the British Mandate, provide an inside view of the tensions that would lead up to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.[1]

In September 1948, Kennedy enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, Virginia. On June 17, 1950, Kennedy married Ethel Skakel at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. Kennedy graduated from law school in June 1951 and flew with Ethel to Greenwich to stay in his father-in-law's guest house. Kennedy's first child, Kathleen, was born on July 4, 1951, and Kennedy spent the summer studying for the Massachusetts bar exam.

In September 1951, Kennedy went to San Francisco as a correspondent of the Boston Post to cover the convention concluding the Treaty of Peace with Japan. In October 1951, Kennedy embarked on a seven-week Asian trip with his brother John (then Massachusetts 11th district congressman) and his sister Patricia to Israel, India, Vietnam, and Japan. Because of their eight-year separation in age, the two brothers had previously seen little of each other. This 25,000-mile (40,000 km) trip was the first extended time they had spent together and resulted in their becoming best friends in addition to being brothers.

Career until 1960

In November 1951, Kennedy moved with his wife and daughter to a townhouse in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. and started work as a lawyer in the Internal Security Section (which investigated suspected Soviet agents) of the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice. In February 1952, he was transferred to the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn to prosecute fraud cases. On June 6, 1952, Kennedy resigned to manage his brother John's successful 1952 Senate campaign in Massachusetts.

In December 1952, at the behest of his father, he was appointed by Republican Senator Joe McCarthy as assistant counsel of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.[2] He resigned in July 1953 but "retained a fondness for McCarthy."[3] After a spell as an assistant to his father on the Hoover commission, Kennedy rejoined the Senate committee staff as chief counsel for the Democratic minority in February 1954.[4] When the Democrats gained the majority in January 1955, he became chief counsel. Kennedy was a background figure in the televised McCarthy Hearings of 1954 into the conduct of McCarthy.[5]

Kennedy soon made a name for himself as the chief counsel of the 1957–59 Senate Labor Rackets Committee under chairman John L. McClellan. In a dramatic scene, Kennedy squared off with Jimmy Hoffa during the antagonistic argument that marked Hoffa's testimony.[6] Kennedy left the Rackets Committee in late 1959 in order to run his brother John's successful presidential campaign.

Attorney General

Kennedy speaking to a Civil Rights crowd in front of the Justice Department building on June 14, 1963.

Appointed following John F. Kennedy's election victory in 1960, Robert Kennedy's tenure as Attorney General was easily the period of greatest power for the office; no former United States Attorney General had enjoyed such clear influence on all areas of policy during an administration. Yet to a greater extent, it was President Kennedy who sought the advice and counsel of his younger brother, and it is to this extent that Robert Kennedy remained the President's closest political advisor. Kennedy was relied upon as both the President's primary source of administrative information and as a general counsel with whom trust was implicit, given the familial ties of the two men.

President Kennedy once remarked about his brother that, "If I want something done and done immediately I rely on the Attorney General. He is very much the doer in this administration, and has an organizational gift I have rarely if ever seen surpassed."

Yet Robert Kennedy believed strongly in the separation of powers and thus often chose not to comment on matters of policy not relating to his remit or to forward the enquiry of the President to an officer of the administration better suited to offer counsel.

Organized crime and the Teamsters

As Attorney General, Kennedy pursued a relentless crusade against organized crime and the mafia, sometimes disagreeing on strategy with FBI head J. Edgar Hoover. Convictions against organized crime figures rose by 800% during his term.[7]

Kennedy was relentless in his pursuit of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, resulting from widespread knowledge of Hoffa's corruption in financial and electoral actions, both personally and organizationally. The enmity between the two men was something of a cause célèbre during the period, with accusations of personal vendetta being exchanged between Kennedy and Hoffa. Hoffa was eventually to face open, televised hearings before the Attorney General, which became iconic moments in Kennedy's political career and which gained him equal praise and criticism from the press.

Civil rights

Kennedy expressed the administration's commitment to civil rights during a 1961 speech at the University of Georgia Law School: "We will not stand by or be aloof. We will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law."

In 1963, Kennedy authorized the FBI in a written directive to wiretap civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.[8] under the auspice of concern that King was a communist. The wire tapping continued through 1966 and was revealed in 1968, days before Kennedy's death.[9] No evidence of Communist activity or influence was uncovered. Kennedy remained committed to civil rights enforcement to such a degree that he commented, in 1962, that it seemed to envelop almost every area of his public and private life— from prosecuting corrupt southern electoral officials to answering late night calls from Coretta Scott King concerning the imprisonment of her husband for demonstrations in Alabama. During his tenure as Attorney General, he undertook the most energetic and persistent desegregation of the administration that Capitol Hill had ever experienced.[citation needed] He demanded that every area of government begin recruiting realistic levels of black and other ethnic workers,[citation needed] going so far as to criticize Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson for his failure to desegregate his own office staff.

Although it has become commonplace to assert the phrase "The Kennedy Administration" or even "President Kennedy" when discussing the legislative and executive support of the civil rights movement, between 1960 and 1963, a great many of the initiatives that occurred during President Kennedy's tenure were as a result of the passion and determination of an emboldened Robert Kennedy,[citation needed] who through his rapid education in the realities of Southern racism, underwent a thorough conversion of purpose as Attorney General. Asked in an interview in May 1962, "What do you see as the big problem ahead for you, is it Crime or Internal Security?" Robert Kennedy replied, "Civil Rights."[10] The President came to share his brother's sense of urgency on the matters at hand to such an extent that it was at the Attorney General's insistence that he made his famous address to the nation.[11]

During the attack and burning, by a vast white mob, of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, at which Martin Luther King, Jr. was in attendance with protesters, the Attorney General telephoned King to ask his assurance that they would not leave the building until the U.S. Marshals and National Guard had secured the area. King proceeded to berate Kennedy for "allowing the situation to continue". King later publicly thanked Robert Kennedy for his commanding of the force dispatched to break up an attack that might otherwise have ended King's life. The relationship between the two men was to undergo great change over the years that they would know each other—from a position of mutual suspicion to one of shared aspirations. For King, Robert Kennedy initially represented the "softly softly" approach that in former years had disabled the movement of blacks against oppression in the U.S. For Robert Kennedy, King initially represented what was then considered the unrealistic militancy that many in the white-liberal camp had regarded as the cause of so little governmental progress.

In September 1962, he sent U.S. Marshals and troops to Oxford, Mississippi, to enforce a federal court order admitting the first African American student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi. Riots ensued during the period of Meredith's admittance, which resulted in hundreds of injuries and two deaths. Yet Kennedy remained adamant concerning the rights of black students to enjoy the benefits of all levels of the educational system. The Office of Civil Rights also hired its first African-American lawyer and began to work cautiously with leaders of the civil rights movement. Robert Kennedy saw voting as the key to racial justice, and collaborated with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to create the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped bring an end to Jim Crow laws.

He was to maintain his commitment to racial equality into his own presidential campaign, extending his firm sense of social justice to all areas of national life and into matters of foreign and economic policy. At Ball State University, Kennedy was to question the student body as to what kind of life America wished for herself; whether privileged Americans had earned the great luxury they enjoyed and whether such Americans had an obligation to those, in U.S. society and across the world, who had so little by comparison.

Responding to allegations that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a communist whose close confidants were insurrectionists, Kennedy, as Attorney General, issued written approvals to the FBI in order for the Bureau to track and eavesdrop on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King's civil rights organization. The source of the original allegations was none other than J. Edgar Hoover, who had a burning hatred for King, whom he viewed as an upstart troublemaker. Although Kennedy only gave written approval for limited wiretapping, the Bureau, as was common under Hoover's leadership, extended the clearance to encompass whichever areas of King's life they deemed worthy of examination—without Kennedy's knowledge.

After the assassination of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy undertook a 1966 tour of South Africa in which he championed the cause of the anti-Apartheid movement. The tour was greeted with international praise at a time when few politicians dared to entangle themselves in the politics of South Africa. Kennedy spoke out against the oppression of the native population and was welcomed by the black population as though a visiting head of state. In an interview with Look Magazine he had this to say:

"At the University of Natal in Durban, I was told the church to which most of the white population belongs teaches apartheid as a moral necessity. A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve. 'But suppose God is black', I replied. 'What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?' There was no answer. Only silence."[12]

In South Africa, a group of foreign press representatives chartered an aircraft, after the National Union of South African Students failed to make sufficient travel arrangements. Kennedy not only accommodated a suspected Special Branch policeman on board, but took with good grace the discovery that the aircraft had once belonged to Fidel Castro.[13]

Civil liberties

Kennedy also used the power of federal agencies to influence US Steel not to institute a price increase.[14] The Wall Street Journal wrote that the administration had set prices of steel "by naked power, by threats, by agents of the state security police."[15] Yale law professor Charles Reich wrote in The New Republic that the Justice Department had violated civil liberties by calling a federal grand jury to indict US Steel so quickly, then disbanding it after the price increase did not occur.[15]

Death penalty issues

During the John F. Kennedy administration, the federal government carried out its last pre-Furman federal execution (Victor Feguer in Iowa, 1963[16]) and Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General, represented Government in this case.[17]

In 1968 Kennedy expressed his strong willingness to support a bill then under consideration for the abolition of the death penalty.[7]


Kennedy giving a speech in 1964.

As his brother's confidant, Kennedy oversaw the CIA's anti-Castro activities after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. He also helped develop the strategy to blockade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis instead of initiating a military strike that might have led to nuclear war. Kennedy had initially been among the more hawkish elements of the administration on matters concerning Cuban insurrectionary aid. His initial strong support for covert actions in Cuba soon changed to a position of removal from further involvement once he became aware of the CIA's tendency to draw out initiatives and provide itself with almost unchecked authority in matters of foreign covert operations.

Allegations that the Kennedys knew of plans (by the CIA) to kill Fidel Castro, or approved of such plans, have been rejected by many historians over the years. Until 2007, the lack of any evidence linking even close advisors to the Kennedys, coupled with statements from figures such as Maxwell Taylor (concerning the two men's personal/political beliefs), indicated that the Kennedys allegedly had no part in the many and various attempts by the CIA (with help from organized crime elements) to murder the Cuban leader. Schlesinger, for example, is of the opinion that operatives linked to the CIA were among the most reckless individuals to have operated during the period — providing themselves with unscrutinized freedoms to threaten the lives of Castro and other members of the Cuban revolutionary government regardless of the legislative apparatus in Washington — freedoms, unbeknownst to those at the White House attempting to prevent a nuclear war, placed the entire US/Soviet relationship in perilous danger.

However, according to the Family Jewels documents declassified by the CIA in 2007, Robert Kennedy personally authorized one such assassination attempt before the Bay of Pigs invasion, which involved the mafioso boss of the Chicago Outfit, Salvatore Giancana, and Miami boss Santos Trafficante.[18][19]

During the Cuban Missile Crisis Kennedy proved himself to be a gifted politician, with an ability to obtain compromises from key figures in the hawk camp concerning their position of aggression. The trust the President placed in him on matters of negotiation was such that Robert Kennedy's role in the Crisis is today seen as having been of vital importance in securing a blockade, which averted a full military engagement between the US and Soviet Russia. His clandestine meetings with members of the Soviet government continued to provide a key link to Khrushchev during even the darkest moments of the Crisis, in which the threat of nuclear strikes was considered a very present reality.[20]

On the last night of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy was so grateful for his brother's work in averting nuclear war that he summed it up by saying, "Thank God for Bobby".[21]

The assassination of President Kennedy

The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was a brutal shock to the world, the nation and, of course, Robert and the rest of the Kennedy family. Robert was absolutely devastated, and was described by many as being a completely different man after his brother's death.

During the two days after the assassination, Kennedy wrote letters to his two eldest children, Kathleen & Joseph II, telling them about the tragedy, as well as to follow what their uncle started, as his son, Max, who was born in 1965, said in Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy and the Words That Inspired Him.

Robert Kennedy was asked by Democratic Party leaders to introduce a film about his late brother John F. Kennedy at the 1964 party convention. When Bobby Kennedy was introduced, the crowd (including party bosses, elected officials and delegates) applauded thunderously and tearfully for a full 22 minutes before they would let Bobby speak.[22] He was close to breaking down before he spoke about his brother's vision for both the party and the nation, and quoted Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (3.2):

[...] and when [he] shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Kennedy remained as Attorney General for President Lyndon B. Johnson, but the bad blood between them forced him to make new plans, running in New York for the U.S. Senate.

Senator from New York

Nine months after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Robert Kennedy left the Cabinet to run for a seat in the United States Senate, representing New York.

President Johnson and Robert Kennedy were often at severe odds with each other, both politically and personally, yet Johnson gave considerable support to Robert Kennedy's campaign, as he was later to recall in his memoir of the White House years.

His opponent in the 1964 race was Republican incumbent Kenneth Keating, who attempted to portray Kennedy as an arrogant carpetbagger. Kennedy emerged victorious in the November election, helped in part by Johnson's huge victory margin in New York.

In 1965 Robert Kennedy became the first person to summit Mount Kennedy.[7] At the time it was the highest mountain in Canada that had not yet been climbed. It was named in honor of his brother John Kennedy after his assassination.

In June 1966, Kennedy visited apartheid-ruled South Africa accompanied by his wife, Ethel Kennedy, and a small number of aides. At the University of Cape Town he delivered the Annual Day of Affirmation speech. A quote from this address appears on his gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery. ("Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope....")[23]

During his years as a senator, Kennedy also helped to start a successful redevelopment project in poverty-stricken Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in New York City, visited the Mississippi Delta as a member of the Senate committee reviewing the effectiveness of 'War on Poverty' programs and, reversing his prior stance, called for a halt in further escalation of the Vietnam War.

As Senator, Robert endeared himself to African Americans, and other minorities such as Native Americans and immigrant groups. He spoke forcefully in favor of what he called the "disaffected," the impoverished, and "the excluded," thereby aligning himself with leaders of the civil rights struggle and social justice campaigners, leading the Democratic party in a pursuit of a more aggressive agenda to eliminate perceived discrimination on all levels. Kennedy supported desegregation busing, integration of all public facilities, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and anti-poverty social programs to increase education, offer opportunities for employment, and provide health care for African-Americans.

Kennedy's presidential campaign was powered by an aggressive vision on behalf of African Americans, who flocked to his banner.

The administration of President Kennedy had backed U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world in the frame of the Cold War. Robert Kennedy vigorously supported President Kennedy's earlier efforts, but, like President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy never publicly advocated commitment of ground troops. Senator Kennedy had cautioned President Johnson against commitment of U.S. ground troops as early as 1965, but Lyndon Johnson chose to commit ground troops on recommendation of the rest of brother John F. Kennedy's still intact staff of advisors. Kennedy did not strongly advocate withdrawal from Vietnam until 1967, within a week of Martin Luther King taking the same public stand. Consistent with President Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, Senator Kennedy placed increasing emphasis on human rights as a central focus of U.S. foreign policy.

Presidential candidacy

Tired, but still intense in the last days before his Oregon defeat, Robert Kennedy speaks from the platform of a campaign train.

In 1968, President Johnson began to run for reelection. In January 1968, faced with what was widely considered an unrealistic race against an incumbent President, Senator Kennedy stated he would not seek the presidency. After the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, in early February 1968, Kennedy received a letter from writer Pete Hamill (later acclaimed author of the novel Snow in August). Hamill wrote an anguished letter to Robert Kennedy noting that poor people kept pictures of President Kennedy on their walls and that Robert Kennedy had an "obligation of staying true to whatever it was that put those pictures on those walls." Kennedy traveled to California, to meet with civil rights activist César Chávez who was on a hunger strike. The weekend before the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy announced to several aides that he would attempt to persuade little-known Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to withdraw from the presidential race. Johnson won an astonishingly narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968, against McCarthy. Kennedy declared his candidacy on March 16, 1968 in the same room that his brother declared his candidacy 8 years earlier, he stated, "I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I'm obliged to do all I can."

According to linguist Desmond Derbyshire Kennedy had already decided to run for presidency years earlier in November 1965, while visiting the linguist and taking a bath in the Nhamundá river in Brazil.[24]

McCarthy supporters angrily denounced Kennedy as an opportunist, and thus the anti-war movement was split between McCarthy and Kennedy. On March 31, 1968, Johnson stunned the nation by dropping out of the race. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, long a champion of labor unions and civil rights, entered the race with the support of the party "establishment," including most members of Congress, mayors, governors and labor unions. He entered the race too late to enter any primaries, but had the support of the president and many Democratic insiders. Robert Kennedy, like his brother before him, planned to win the nomination through popular support in the primaries.

Kennedy stood on a platform of racial and economic justice, non-aggression in foreign policy, decentralization of power and social improvement. A crucial element to his campaign was an engagement with the young, whom he identified as being the future of a reinvigorated American society based on partnership and equality. A good idea of his proposals come from the following extract of a speech given at the University of Kansas.

"If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America. And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.[25]

Kennedy's policy objectives did not sit well with the business world, in which he was viewed as something of a fiscal liability, opposed to the tax increases necessary to fund such programs of social improvement. When verbally attacked at a speech he gave during his tour of the universities he was asked, "And who's going to pay for all this, senator?", to which Kennedy replied with typical candor, "You are." It was this intense and frank mode of dialogue with which Kennedy was to continue to engage those whom he viewed as not being traditional allies of Democratic ideals or initiatives. He aroused rabid animosity in some quarters, with J. Edgar Hoover's Deputy Clyde Tolson reported as saying, 'I hope that someone shoots and kills the son of a bitch.'[26]

It has been widely commented that Robert Kennedy's campaign for the American presidency far outstripped, in its vision of social improvement, that of President Kennedy; Robert Kennedy's bid for the presidency saw not only a continuation of the programs he and his brother had undertaken during the President's term in office, but also an extension of these programs through what Robert Kennedy viewed as an honest questioning of the historic progress that had been made by President Johnson in the 5 years of his presidency. Kennedy openly challenged young people who supported the war while benefiting from draft deferments, visited numerous small towns, and made himself available to the masses by participating in long motorcades and street-corner stump speeches (often in troubled inner-cities). Kennedy, a recent convert to LBJ's War on Poverty, made urban poverty a chief concern of his campaign, which in part led to enormous crowds that would attend his events in poor urban areas or rural parts of Appalachia.

On April 4, 1968, Kennedy learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and gave a heartfelt, impromptu speech in Indianapolis's inner city, in which Kennedy called for a reconciliation between the races. Riots broke out in 60 cities in the wake of King's death, but not in Indianapolis, a fact many attribute to the effect of this speech.[27]

Kennedy finally won the Indiana and Nebraska Democratic primaries, but lost the Oregon primary. If he could defeat McCarthy in the California primary, the leadership of the campaign thought, he would knock McCarthy out of the race and set up a one-on-one against Hubert Humphrey (whom he bested in the primary held on the same day as the California primary in Humphrey's birth state, South Dakota) at the Chicago national convention in August.


Robert F. Kennedy's Grave in Arlington National Cemetery
Headstone of Robert F. Kennedy

On June 4, 1968, Kennedy scored a major victory when he won the California primary. He addressed his supporters in the early morning hours of June 5, 1968 in a ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Leaving the ballroom, he went through the hotel kitchen after being told it was a shortcut,[28] despite being advised to avoid the kitchen by his bodyguard, FBI agent Bill Barry. In a crowded kitchen passageway, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian, opened fire with a .22 caliber revolver and shot Kennedy in the head at close range. Following the shooting, Kennedy was rushed to The Good Samaritan Hospital where he died early the next morning.[29]

His body was returned to New York City, where it lay in state at St. Patrick's Cathedral for several days before the funeral Mass held there. His brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, eulogized him with the words, "My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."

Senator Kennedy also added, "Those of us who lived him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass through all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him."[30]

Senator Kennedy concluded his eulogy, paraphrasing his deceased brother Robert by quoting George Shaw: "Some men see things as they are and say 'Why?' I dream things that never were and say, 'Why not?'" During Kennedy's 1968 campaign, he would often quote Shaw's words.[31]

The Mass concluded with the sound of ahem by singer Andy Williams.[32] Immediately following the Mass, Kennedy's body was transported by special train to Washington, D.C. Thousands of mourners lined the tracks and stations, paying their respects as the train passed by.

Kennedy was buried near his brother, John, in Arlington National Cemetery.[33] He had always maintained that he wished to be buried in Massachusetts, but his family believed that, since the brothers had been so close in life, they should be near each other in death. In accordance with his wishes, Kennedy was buried with the bare minimum military escort and ceremony. Robert Kennedy's burial at Arlington National Cemetery was the only one to ever take place at night. Coordinates: 38°52′52″N 77°04′17″W / 38.88118°N 77.07150°W / 38.88118; -77.07150

After the assassination, the mandate of the Secret Service was altered to include protection of presidential candidates.

Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery

Personal life


The Kennedy brothers: John (Jack), Robert (Bobby) and Edward (Ted)

In 1950, he married Ethel Skakel, who would eventually give birth to 11 children:

  1. Kathleen Hartington (b.1951)
  2. Joseph Patrick II (b.1952)
  3. Robert Francis, Jr. (b.1954)
  4. David Anthony (1955–1984)
  5. Mary Courtney (b.1956)
  6. Michael LeMoyne (1958–1997)
  7. Mary Kerry (b.1959)
  8. Christopher George (b.1963)
  9. Matthew Maxwell Taylor (b.1965)
  10. Douglas Harriman (b.1967)
  11. Rory Elizabeth Katherine (b.1968)

The last child, Rory, was born six months after her father's assassination.

Kennedy owned a home at the well-known Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, but spent most of his time at his estate in McLean, Virginia, known as Hickory Hill, located just outside Washington, D.C.. His widow, Ethel, and his children continued to live at Hickory Hill after his death in 1968. Ethel Kennedy now lives full time at the family's vacation home in Hyannis Port.

Attitudes and approach

Despite the fact that his father's most ambitious dreams centered around his older brothers, Robert maintained the code of personal loyalty that seemed to infuse the life of the Kennedy family as a whole. His competitiveness was admired by his father and elder brothers, while his loyalty bound them more affectionately close. A rather timid child, Robert was often the target of his father's dominating temperament.

Working on the campaigns of John Kennedy, Robert was more involved, passionate and tenacious than the candidate himself, obsessed with every detail, fighting out every battle and taking workers to task. Robert had, all his life, been closer to older brother Jack than the other members of the Kennedy family.

Kennedy's opponents on Capitol Hill maintained that his collegialist magnanimity was sometimes hindered by a tenacious and somewhat impatient manner. His professional life was dominated by the selfsame attitudes that governed his family life — a certainty that good humor and leisure must be balanced by service and accomplishment. Schlesinger comments that Kennedy could be both the most ruthlessly diligent and yet generously adaptable of politicians — at once both temperamental and yet forgiving. In this, Kennedy was very much his father's son; lacking truly lasting emotional independence and yet possessing a great desire to contribute. He lacked the innate self-confidence of his contemporaries and yet found a greater self-assurance in the experience of married life, an experience that he stated had given him a base of self-belief from which to continue his efforts in the public arena.

Upon hearing yet again the assertion that he was "ruthless", Kennedy once joked to a reporter, "If I find out who has called me ruthless I will destroy him." And yet he also openly confessed to possessing a bad temper that required self-control: "My biggest problem as counsel, is to keep my temper. I think we all feel that when a witness comes before the United States Senate he has an obligation to speak frankly and tell the truth. To see people sit in front of us and lie and evade makes me boil inside. But you can't lose your temper — if you do, the witness has gotten the best of you"[34]

Religious faith

Central to Kennedy's politics and personal attitude to life and its purpose was his Catholicism, which he inherited from his family. Throughout his life, Kennedy made reference to his faith, how it informed every area of his life, and how it gave him the strength to re-enter politics following the assassination of his elder brother. His was not an unresponsive and staid faith, but the faith of a Catholic Radical — perhaps the first successful Catholic Radical in American political history.[35]

Robert Kennedy was easily the most religious of his brothers. Whereas John maintained an aloof sense of his faith, Robert approached his duties to mankind through the looking glass of Catholicism. In the last years of his life, he found great solace in the metaphysical poets of ancient Greece, especially the writings of Aeschylus. At his announcement of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Kennedy quoted these lines from Aeschylus in a memorable speech:

"He who learns must suffer. Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, and against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God."

Electoral history

1964 New York United States Senatorial Election

Robert F. Kennedy (D) 53.5%
Kenneth Keating (R) (inc.) 45.4%


Justice Department building being renamed in honor of Robert Kennedy

D.C. Stadium in Washington, D.C. was renamed Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in 1969. In 1978, the United States Congress posthumously awarded Kennedy its Gold Medal of Honor. In 1998, the United States Mint released a special dollar coin that featured Kennedy on the obverse and the emblems of the United States Department of Justice and the United States Senate on the reverse.

In Washington, D.C. on November 20, 2001, US President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft dedicated the Department of Justice headquarters building as the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, honoring Robert F. Kennedy on what would have been his 76th birthday. They both spoke during the ceremony, as did Kennedy's eldest son, Joseph II.

1998 Robert Kennedy special dollar coin

Numerous roads, public schools and other facilities across the United States were named in memory of Robert F. Kennedy in the months and years after his death. The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial organization[36] was founded in 1968, with an international award program to recognize human rights activists. In a further effort to not just remember the late Senator, but continue his work helping disadvantaged, a small group of private citizens launched the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps in 1969, which today helps more than 800 abused and neglected children each year. A bust of Kennedy resides in the library of the University of Virginia School of Law, from where he obtained his law degree.

In 1994 the City of Indianapolis erected a monument in Kennedy's honor in the space made famous by his oration from the back of a pickup truck the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died. The monument depicts Bobby Kennedy as a piece of a large metal slab reaching out to Dr. King, who is also part of a similar slab. This is meant to symbolize their attempts in life to bridge the gaps between the races — an attempt that united them even in death.

The site of the monument is Kennedy King Park and is located at 17th Street and Broadway, in Indianapolis. A historical marker has also been placed at the site. A nephew of Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Congresswoman Julia Carson (D) presided over the event; both made speeches from the back of a pickup truck in similar fashion to Robert Kennedy. On June 4, 2008, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Kennedy, the New York State Assembly voted to rename the Triborough Bridge in New York City the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge in honor of the former New York Senator. New York State Governor David Paterson signed the legislation into law on Friday, August 8, 2008. [37]


Considered an eloquent speaker generally, Kennedy also wrote extensively on politics and issues confronting his generation:


  • "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."[7]
  • "Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital, quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change."
  • "The sharpest criticism often goes hand in hand with the deepest idealism and love of country."[38]
  • "Men without hope, resigned to despair and oppression, do not make revolutions. It is when expectation replaces submission, when despair is touched with the awareness of possibility, that the forces of human desire and the passion for justice are unloosed."[39]
  • "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were and ask why not."[40]
  • "Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation ... It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."[41]
  • "At the University of Natal in Durban, I was told the church to which most of the white population belongs teaches apartheid as a moral necessity. A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve. "But suppose God is black", I replied. "What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?" There was no answer. Only silence." South Africa, June 1966[42]
  • "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black." Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968 Announcing to the crowd that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.
  • "Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it." From his last speech, June 5, 1968[43]
  • "Laws can embody standards; governments can enforce laws — but the final task is not a task for government. It is a task for each and every one of us. Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted — when we tolerate what we know to be wrong — when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy, or too frightened — when we fail to speak up and speak out — we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice." June 21, 1961[44]


  • Altschuler, Bruce E. (1980). "Kennedy Decides to Run: 1968". Presidential Studies Quarterly 10 (3): 348–352. ISSN 0360-4918. 
  • Brown, Stuart Gerry (1972). The Presidency on Trial: Robert Kennedy's 1968 Campaign and Afterwards. Honolulu: U. Press of Hawaiʻi. ISBN 0824802020. 
  • Burner, David; West, Thomas R. (1984). The Torch Is Passed: The Kennedy Brothers and American Liberalism. New York: Atheneum. ISBN 0689114389. 
  • DiEugenio, James; Pease, Lisa (2003). The Assassinations: Probe Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK and Malcolm X. Los Angeles: Feral House. ISBN 0922915822. 
  • Dooley, Brian (1996). Robert Kennedy: The Final Years. New York: St. Martin's. ISBN 0312161301. 
  • Goldfarb, Ronald (1995). Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes: Robert F. Kennedy's War against Organized Crime. New York: Random House. ISBN 0679435654. 
  • Grubin, David, director and producer, RFK. Video. (DVD, VHS). 2hr. WGBH Educ. Found. and David Grubin Productions, 2004. Distrib. by PBS Video
  • Hilty, James M. Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector (1997), vol. 1 to 1963. Temple U. Press., 1997. 642 pp.
  • Murphy, John M. (1990). "'A Time of Shame and Sorrow': Robert F. Kennedy and the American Jeremiad". Quarterly Journal of Speech 76 (4): 401–414. ISSN 0033-5630.  RFK's speech after the death of Martin Luther King in 1968.
  • Navasky, Victor S. Kennedy Justice (1972). Argues the policies of RFK's Justice Department show the conservatism of justice, the limits of charisma, the inherent tendency in a legal system to support the status quo, and the counterproductive results of many of Kennedy's endeavors in the field of civil rights and crime control.
  • Newfield, Jack., RFK: A Memoir. Nation Books, 2003.
  • Niven, David. The Politics of Injustice: The Kennedys, the Freedom Rides, and the Electoral Consequences of a Moral Compromise. U. of Tennessee Press 2003. 269 pp.
  • Palermo, Joseph A. In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Columbia U. Press, 2001. 349 pp.
  • Schlesinger Jr. Arthur M. Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978)
  • Shesol, Jeff. Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade (1997)
  • Thomas, Evan. Robert Kennedy: His Life (2002). 509 pp.
  • Zimmermann, Karl R., The Remarkable GG1 (1977)
  • RFK (documentary Film from the Public Broadcasting Service, USA) online transcript

See also


  1. ^ Ben-David, L., Robert Kennedy and Israel June 2008
  2. ^ Schlesinger (1978) p 101
  3. ^ Schlesinger (1978) p 106
  4. ^ Schlesinger (1978) p 109.
  5. ^ Schlesinger (1978) p 113, 115
  6. ^ Schlesinger (1978) pp 137–91
  7. ^ a b c d "Robert F. Kennedy". 
  8. ^ Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. p. 41. ISBN 0465041957. 
  9. ^ Garrow, David J. (2002-07/08). "The FBI and Martin Luther King". The Atlantic Monthly. 
  10. ^ Bob Spivack, Interview of the Attorney General, May 12, 1962.
  11. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (2002).
  12. ^ Ripple of Hope in the Land of Apartheid: Robert Kennedy in South Africa, June 1966
  13. ^ "Flying with Bobby K", Empire volume 1, issue 3.
  14. ^ "Smiting the Foe". TIME. 1962-04-20.,9171,873526-3,00.html. 
  15. ^ a b O'Brien, Michael. John F. Kennedy. Macmillan. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ The Smoking Gun: Archive
  18. ^ January 4, 1975 memorandum of conversation between President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, made available by the National Security Archive, June 2007
  19. ^ CIA's 'family jewels' on show, The Telegraph, June 23, 2007
  20. ^ Schlesinger, "The Cuban Connection", Robert Kennedy and His Times
  21. ^ Clarity Through Complexity, October 2000,, Retrieved 2007-6-10
  22. ^ Grubin, David. RFK. American Experience, 2004.
  23. ^ Robert F. Kennedy in South — Overview
  24. ^ LINGUIST List 19.1: Obituary: Desmond Derbyshire (1924-2007)
  25. ^ Remarks of Robert F. Kennedy at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968
  26. ^ Clyde Tolson, qu. in: Thurston Clarke, 'The Last Good Campaign', Vanity Fair, No. 574, June, 2008, p. 173.
  27. ^ See e.g. Statement of Mayor Bart Peterson April 4, 2006 press release
  28. ^ Taraborrelli, J. Randy (2000). Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot. Warner Books. pp. 333. ISBN 0446524263. 
  29. ^ Slaying gave US a first taste of Mideast terror
  30. ^ "1968 Year In Review,"
  31. ^ Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. p. 10. ISBN 0465041957. 
  32. ^ "1968 Year In Review"
  33. ^ "1968 Year In Review"
  34. ^ Schlessinger, p.150.
  35. ^ Schlesinger, p.191 Cf. Murray Kempton, The Progressive, Sept 1960.
  36. ^ RFK Memorial
  37. ^ Newsday article about the rename
  38. ^ Address, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 24, 1967 JFK Library Quotations of Robert F. Kennedy
  39. ^ (Berkeley, October 22, 1966)
  40. ^ (Robert F. Kennedy paraphrasing Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw)
  41. ^ Robert F. Kennedy, University of Cape Town, South Africa, N.U.S.A.S. "Day of Affirmation" Speech, June 6, 1966
  42. ^ (Article for LOOK Magazine following visit to South Africa, 1966) Ripple of Hope in the Land of Apartheid: Robert Kennedy in South Africa, June 1966
  43. ^ From the last speech he gave, June 5, 1968
  44. ^ (ROBERT F. KENNEDY, attorney general, remarks before the Joint Defense Appeal of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith, Chicago, Illinois)

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