A Runt, Defiant, Politician, Hero...

A Review of Robert Kennedy: His Life
by Evan Thomas

Author Biography

Evan Thomas was born in Cold Spring, New York in 1954. A graduate of Harvard University and the University of Virginia School of Law, he is currently the Assistant Managing Editor at Newsweek in Washington D.C. and a regular weekly panelist on the “Syndicated Public Affairs Talk Show.” His other book, The Wise Men, was released in 1995.

In the sixties, disaster struck in many forms, but through the ashes of chaos, heroes were born. But for Robert Kennedy, lightning struck time and time again, but these tragic incidents helped forge RFK into the hero he is known to be to today. Robert Kennedy: His life, by Evan Thomas, is a biography that explains the time period beginning with Kennedy’s childhood life and ending with his death. The book contains many exhilarating and out of the ordinary information about Kennedy’s life and his brother’s campaign. “Unlike his older brothers, Robert Kennedy was not born and raised for power, so he was not required to hide behind a mask of command.”1 His father never loved Bobby, even though he would do everything in his power to please his father. RFK’s mother would always refer to her son as “spectacularly prompt,”2 because he would rush to the dinner table and hurt himself along the way. From an attention-deprived adolescent, to a rebellious young adult defying his father’s word, to an elected official, and to a great hero, he was Robert Kennedy.

From chapter one through chapter four, Thomas talks about Robert Kennedy’s life as a “rebellious child,”3 and his brother’s sidekick. Thomas explains Kennedy’s life as a child in detail and portrays Kennedy as an attention deprived kid because he was one of the youngest children in the family. The eldest two sons’ were more athletic, smarter, and more masculine than Bobby, so Bobby “always tried to catch his father’s attention with his grades, football and other achievements,”4 but he failed to make his father happy. Through chapter one, Evan describes Bobby’s struggle through his college years and his efforts to become more athletic. In chapter two Evan explains how Robert’s brothers joined to fight in World War II, and how Robert was eager to join the Navy, but was discharged due to his aggressive behavior. Even after finding out his brother Joe’s death in World War II, Bobby still had a hard time getting the desired attention from his father.5 As the book proceeds, the readers discover that John had taken Robert’s first love, K.K. Hannon. Soon after this incident, Bobby found another love and married her and had eleven children. Later in the chapter he describes the presidential campaign with his brother. Although RFK had the opportunity to run for presidency, he decided not to campaign. Instead he supported his brother in his efforts to become president after realizing John was stronger and more ambitious than he was. Kennedy came across Hubert Humphrey who tried to manipulate the media and to corrupt the Kennedys who faced some ups and downs throughout their campaign. Bobby truly despised the politician, so worked towards getting him out of the campaign. Thomas seems to dwell on the negative events of RFK’s earlier years to help the readers contrast an image of a broken young man to the great American hero he is remembered as today.

Later in the book, Thomas Evan writes about the assassination plot of Fidel Castro, the invasion of Cuba, and efforts to avoid the Cold War. The Kennedys plotted up to eight different assassination plans to kill Fidel, yet each time Fidel amazingly survived. To kill Castro, RFK hired Joe Dolan, a top Justice Department aide whose discretion he valued and to whom Robert handed a top secret brown folder containing all the plots of assassination...6 Bobby wanted every possible way to give Cuba their freedom, and make sure that they could escape from Castro’s dictatorship. Robert considered himself a guardian, not just to the president, but also to his extended family. If Robert had campaigned, he would have run against Monroe, and it would seem that J. Edgar Hoover would have sided with Monroe, and blackmailed Robert Kennedy. Later in the book the author discusses how Monroe’s communist party in the United States put the country under suspicion and fear. Inspired by JFK’s inaugural address, James Meredith became the first black to enroll at an all-white university of Mississippi in 1963 and also “inspired many African Americans to start the Civil Rights Movement.”7 Soon JFK and RFK devised a plan known as “Operation Mongoose,” that tried to save the Cubans from the island, but it supposedly triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis. Shortly after Robert’s arrival at his Justice Department office on the morning of Tuesday, October 16, 1962 he received a phone call from his brother from the White House.8 JFK feared the problems and the possibility of a war with Russia. Both RFK and JFK tried to stop the war by sending a newsletter to USSR to ask them to retreat their ships. In these chapters, Thomas emphasizes RFK’s stress and hardships due to the difficult decisions he had to make, making RFK’s image a more heroic one.

Castro still posed the threat during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when RFK tried to find a way to break Castro’s morality. However, at the same time, Bill Donovan and Castro talked on the phone for hours, trying to negotiate a treaty to end the threat and crisis. In late November, Castro began to kill his own people to instill fear and order in his nation. In response, RFK pulled up his top Justices and demanded that the Cuban citizens, who were prisoners in their own country, be rescued by Christmas. He eventually became so troubled by the Cuban Missile Crisis that he would stress out about it for days and nights. On April 3rd, Robert sent 500 men to raid the Cuban beach; although they hoped to get independence, they failed miserably. After the invasion attempt in Cuba, he abandoned the problem for a while and pursued a greater issue, which was to get equal rights for the African Americans by 1963 and to bring equality all around United States. Robert Kennedy looked towards Martin Luther King Jr. for help in his efforts to get their equal rights for African Americans. Both Kennedy and King argued angrily on the phone, the Civil Rights leader encouraged southern cities to “ignore the federal courts when faced with a school desegregation ruling.”9 Later in October of 1963, RFK asked the FBI to wiretap King, because he wanted to know what he was doing and to hear his speeches, but eventually Hoover, one of RFK’s enemies, wanted to blackmail Kennedy for trying to stop segregation between whites and blacks. By the end of 1963, the new problem was Cuba, and the Vietnam War was approaching. Within the time period of 1963, Kennedy worked towards finding the assassin of his brother, discovering that the assailant is Lee Harvey Oswald. Eventually RFK began to look towards Lyndon B. Johnson who became the new president. The author once again uses the same tactic he used in the first chapter; he brings up the tragedy of his brother’s death and shows that RFK is strong enough to fight on for what he and his brother believed in.

LBJ tried to help Robert run for presidency and guided him through his years. RFK became a New York Senator on August 22, 1964. As a U.S. Senator, he used his powers very effectively. First, he decided to fight poverty. During his campaign, he took vacations to the Amazon Jungle to escape his grief about his brother’s death and climbed a mountain in Canada that was named after his brother. During his time as a senator, he also traveled around the world, trying to ensure peace and prosperity in each country. As soon as 1966 hit, he campaigned on behalf of the Democrats, but especially for the man who he looked up to, Lyndon B. Johnson, who ran for presidency in 1965. When RFK ran for presidency he quoted “I didn’t run for presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies…”, meaning he wanted the country to be a better place and wanted to lessen the discrimination around the world. RFK moved to California which became his last resort to win presidency. At 1:44 a.m., on June 6, 1968, RFK was shot several times by his assailant, Sirhan.10 Kennedy’s resting place is to the side of the Lincoln Memorial site, down a narrow alley and shielded by some small trees.

Thomas Evan’s thesis of the book was that RFK lived his life as a hero, and will always be remembered as one. His death shall be remembered along with the time when he helped out his brother with his campaign.11 Evan wanted to set out the great things RFK could and would have done if he was the president. The author’s point of view was great and glorified RFK as a renounced great hero in the United States. The author also tried to express the harsh and depressing events of his life. When his brother JFK passed away, it became his destiny to become the next president, but he couldn’t achieve his goal.

The influence of historiography was summed up to a beautiful, well written book. Evan Thomas who is from the New Left age of historians gathered up information and summed up his book, His Life, with many insightful details from Kennedy’s life all the way through his campaign. If RFK had fully understood the existence of these radical groups, he may have prolonged his death.

His Life, by Thomas Evan, had strong details and points such as the plots of assassination of Fidel Castro and Robert Kennedy’s campaign for presidency. A weakness of this book was the author’s inability to incorporate more details and explain more about Hoover and why his hatred has continued on for the Kennedys. Also, Thomas could’ve further explained the roles of some of the Kennedys, brothers, friends, and Senators around them. It causes confusion for the readers. One of the strengths of this book is the variety of sources, which contained mostly of primary sources from the media. Overall the book was extravagant, very insightful, and inspiring.

To the author, this period of time sums up to the beginning of Vietnam War, the end of the Cuban war, and end of segregation. In the 1960s the segregation was caused by racism and put blacks through more troubles, pain, and suffering. The impact it left today has united the world into unison. Thomas truly believed that RFK was a hero, and stressed both his misfortunes and his great achievements, to show readers that even though his life was struck by catastrophe, he still did what he thought was best for America and its people.

From the book, readers can infer that RFK had a great impact on American society, especially the African American population due to his battle for desegregation of whites and blacks in all aspects of life. The author accurately portrayed RFK as a hero, because he played an important role in pulling America back from the brink of war. In addition, he battled poverty on many fronts, in the United States as well as other countries across the globe. He lived to see his vision of equality for all people slowly come to life. In truth, RFK was a great American hero, as he was portrayed in His Life because of his valiant battles against racism and poverty, among many other things. Even though his life was bombarded with tragic events, he still had the will to fight on and kept his spirits high.

Many Americans who lived in the 1960s and later could see the great history change of the world. Those who lived during this period can understand the importance that Robert Kennedy has made in history. The new generation yet has to seek to read and try to understand why RFK was such a great leader, while others still say, “If Robert Kennedy lived up till today, he would next to the next great heroine known to history of America.”

review by David Nguyen

  1. Thomas, Evan. Robert Kennedy: His Life. New York: Touchstone 2000, 43.
  2. Thomas, Evan 32.
  3. Thomas, Evan 65.
  4. Thomas, Evan 70.
  5. Thomas, Evan 72.
  6. Thomas, Evan 120.
  7. Thomas, Evan 157.
  8. Thomas, Evan 132.
  9. Thomas, Evan 203.
  10. Thomas, Evan 311.
  11. Thomas, Evan 349.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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