"Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not?'"
Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of slain U.S. president John F. Kennedy, was himself assassinated while campaigning for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. He was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, and died on June 6, 1968, in Los Angeles, California.
Robert Francis Kennedy was the seventh of nine children born to Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Sr., a multimillionaire business executive and onetime ambassador to Great Britain, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Outshone by his iron-willed father, two handsome, charming, and accomplished older brothers (Joseph, Jr., and John), and four overpowering sisters, Robert--slight of build and "unblessed by any obvious gifts of scholarship or intellect," according to a Newsweek reporter--learned at a very early age that he had to be especially scrappy and determined in order to survive in his fiercely competitive family.
After graduating from prep school, Kennedy enrolled at Harvard University. His education was interrupted during his sophomore year when young Joseph (a navy pilot and the son being groomed for a political career) went down with his plane following a bombing mission over Germany. Several months later, Robert dropped out of school to join the navy. He returned to Harvard in 1946 and graduated in 1948, then obtained his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1951. That same year, he entered government service as an attorney in the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice and spent most of the next two years prosecuting graft and income tax evasion cases.
With the death of Joseph, Jr., the Kennedy family pinned its political hopes on the next-oldest son, John, who in 1952 decided to run for the U.S. Senate and asked Robert to be his campaign manager. John won the election, and Robert returned to government service in early 1953, this time as one of fifteen assistant counsels to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Chaired by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the subcommittee quickly gained notoriety for using threats and intimidation to force witnesses to testify about an alleged communist conspiracy in the government and throughout American society. Kennedy resigned from the subcommittee in mid-1953 following a walkout by Democratic members protesting McCarthy's methods. He returned in early 1954 as chief counsel to the Democratic minority, and in early 1955, after McCarthy's downfall, Kennedy became chief counsel to a revamped version of the subcommittee and earned a reputation as a thorough investigator and persistent questioner.
Two years later, these same qualities helped Kennedy land the job of chief counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, popularly known as the Senate Rackets Committee. As head of a staff of sixty-five, he conducted an aggressive investigation into the Teamsters union, focusing on the organization's officials and their handling of union funds as well as their ties to organized crime. The clashes between Kennedy and Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa made headlines nationwide, and Hoffa was eventually imprisoned for jury tampering and misusing union funds.
In 1959, John Kennedy announced his intention to run for the presidency of the United States, and again he tapped Robert to manage his campaign. John successfully captured the Democratic nomination and then squeaked past his Republican challenger, Richard Nixon, by a margin of only 119,000 votes out of 68 million cast.
After the election, John appointed his brother attorney general. By virtue of his relationship to the president, Robert wielded an unusual amount of influence; in fact, he was often described as an unofficial "assistant president." He was his brother's chief adviser on domestic and foreign policies, playing a key role in the decision-making process during the infamous Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis and supporting an expanded U.S. role in Vietnam. He also resumed his investigation of Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters and took some controversial stands on a variety of sensitive issues, including civil rights, immigration, crime, labor law, and the federal judiciary. He was especially active on the civil rights front, taking steps to protect demonstrators from harassment and enforcing voting laws and school desegregation in the South.
John Kennedy's assassination in November, 1963, plunged Robert into a profound melancholy for a time. But the experience also seemed to mellow and deepen his character. It made him less conservative politically and more willing to take risks no matter what the consequences. "There's no use figuring out where you're going to be later on; you may not be there at all," he explained. "So the sensible thing is to do the very best you can all the time."
Now that the Kennedy torch had passed into his hands, Robert set about laying the groundwork for his own political future. There was no doubt that he would one day run for the presidency; the only question was when. He served as attorney general under the new chief executive, Lyndon Johnson, until September, 1964, when he resigned to run for a U.S. Senate seat in New York. He easily won the Democratic nomination and went on to defeat the popular Republican incumbent.
As an energetic man of action, Kennedy found the slow-paced process of deliberation and compromise in the Senate rather frustrating, and he bristled at the time-honored rules and traditions and clubby atmosphere. But he worked hard and long to familiarize himself with the issues facing the nation, assembled a large and talented staff, and gradually made a name for himself as an opponent of the administration by espousing a curious blend of liberal and conservative thought. For example, he supported many of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs, but he favored more jobs rather than more welfare on the grounds that it was not wise for the government to take on the full burden of caring for the poor. On the subject of Vietnam, at first he adopted a moderate antiwar position and refrained from being too critical of Johnson. Later, he spoke out forcefully against escalation and the bombing of North Vietnam.
In time, Kennedy emerged as a leading voice of dissent and a wildly popular figure among Black and Hispanic Americans, and the young. As early as 1966, with Johnson expected to run for reelection in 1968, the senator began laying plans for a 1972 bid at the presidency. He stood by his decision to remain out of the 1968 fray until antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy's strong showing in the March New Hampshire primary revealed the extent to which voters were fed up with Johnson and the war. Kennedy then threw his hat into the ring.
At first, his candidacy seemed haunted by the ghost of his brother. Besides the physical resemblance between the two men, there was a sense that Robert had not forged a clear identity of his own, that his campaign had more style than substance, and that his heart really wasn't in it. But within a few weeks after entering the race, that perception underwent a noticeable change. Stung by criticism that he was relying too much on John's legacy, Robert quit invoking his name and memory and began taking an urgent, harder-edged approach that addressed the issues as he saw them: ending the war, reducing crime, fostering compassion for the rural and urban poor and finding ways to improve their quality of life, decentralizing government, and encouraging the private sector to become involved in social programs. The result was a campaign that packed a powerful emotional appeal and thus drew huge, frenzied crowds. As a Time reporter noted, the charismatic Kennedy had "the capacity to make the past seem better than it ever was, the future better than it possibly can be."
But a barely-acknowledged fear cast a pall over every moment of his quest for the presidency--the fear of assassination. Robert himself shrugged off the danger, refusing police protection and ignoring pleas that he exercise more caution in his public appearances. "I play Russian roulette every time I get up in the morning," he once said. "But I just don't care.... If they want you, they can get you."
Throughout April and May, Kennedy scored respectable primary victories in Indiana, Nebraska, and South Dakota, then lost Oregon to McCarthy. (It was the first time a Kennedy had ever lost an election.) The defeat made winning the upcoming California primary that much more crucial, so the candidates--especially Kennedy--pulled out all the stops. The result was a narrow victory for the Kennedy forces and the realization that while Robert was not likely to win the nomination, he would control enough delegates to wield considerable power at the Democratic convention that summer.
Long before that day arrived, however, the nightmare so many had feared came true. Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, following his victory speech to cheering California supporters at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel, Robert Kennedy left the celebration to attend a news conference in a nearby press room. Passing through a narrow kitchen area, he was shaking hands with a few hotel employees when a disturbed young Jordanian immigrant named Sirhan Sirhan fired several shots, two of which struck Kennedy. The senator clung to life for a little more than twenty-five hours before dying on June 6. He was later buried at Arlington Cemetery, about fifty feet from his brother John's grave.
Because Robert Kennedy was, as a Newsweek reporter stated, "a vital young man of unfulfilled promise and uncompleted destiny" from a family that had already sacrificed two sons to the country, his death was viewed as an especially disturbing and tragic loss. Few men in public life had evoked such extremes of hatred and love, yet as a writer for Christian Century observed, "To Americans weary of cold war orthodoxies and political platitudes, Robert Kennedy afforded a gracious hope of change for the better." Kennedy himself once declared: "The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and the fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason, and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American society. It will belong to those who see that wisdom can only emerge from the clash of contending views, the passionate expression of deep and hostile beliefs.... This is the seminal spirit of American democracy.... It is this which is the hope of our nation."
On June 6, 2018--the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination--members of his family and hundreds of dignitaries gathered at his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery for a tribute. Among those speaking were former President Bill Clinton and several members of Congress. Just days before the ceremony, Kennedy's son, Robert Kennedy Jr., spoke of a meeting he had with Sirhan Sirhan, and said he believes the wrong person was convicted in his father's death. Kennedy called for a new investigation into the assassination.
- "Bill Clinton, Kennedy Family Pay Tribute to RFK on 50th Anniversary of his Assassination," USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2018/06/06/robert-f-kennedy-remembered-arlington-cemetery-50th-anniversary/677083002/ (August 22, 2018).
- Fairlie, Henry, The Kennedy Promise: The Politics of Expectation, Doubleday, 1973.
- Halberstam, David, Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, Random House, 1969.
- Kennedy, Robert F., To Seek a Newer World, Doubleday, 1967, rev. ed., Bantam, 1968.
- O'Neill, William L., Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s, Quadrangle, 1971.
- Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, Houghton, 1968.
- Christian Century, "Robert F. Kennedy," July 10, 1968, pp. 891-894.
- Economist, "An American Tragedy," June 8, 1968, pp. 11-12; "Spokesman for Change," June 6, 1968, pp. 17-20.
- McCall's, "RFK: My View of Life," August, 1968.
- Newsweek, June 17, 1968.
- New York Times, June 6, 1968.
- New York Times Magazine, "The Making of a Candidate, 1968," March 31, 1968; "Said Robert Kennedy, `Maybe We're All Doomed Anyway,'" June 16, 1968.
- Time, October 10, 1960; February 16, 1962; June 21, 1963; September 16, 1966; "The Politics of Restoration," May 24, 1968, pp. 22-27; June 14, 1968 (opening quote); "Second Thoughts on Bobby," June 21, 1968, p. 48; "R. F. K. Remembered," June 6, 1969, p. 3.
- U.S. News and World Report, "RFK: The Man, the Dream, the Tragedy," June 17, 1968, pp. 16-18.
- "Who killed Bobby Kennedy? His Son RFK Jr. Doesn't Believe It Was Sirhan Sirhan," Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/05/26/who-killed-bobby-kennedy-his-son-rfk-jr-doesnt-believe-it-was-sirhan-sirhan/ (August 22, 2018).