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Friday, June 5, 1998 Published at 07:14 GMT 08:14 UK

World: Americas

Radical RFK revisited

Thirty years ago, America mourned the loss of its second great hope: Robert F Kennedy. Shot down in the kitchen of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles where he was celebrating victory in the California primary, his death was seen as the murder of promise for America.

Michael Beran: RFK was "a man somewhat at odds with the spirit of his age"
Since his assassination, Kennedy has been remembered as a liberal icon, a man who shared the stage with the era's great thinkers including Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy. For the flower children of the 1960s and today's American liberals, Bobby Kennedy was a man who stood for the discontented and the oppressed.

[ image: RFK: Liberal icon?]
RFK: Liberal icon?
But with the 30th anniversary of his death comes a new book that revisits the life of Bobby Kennedy and calls into question his commitment to traditional liberal ideals. The book, The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of the American Aristocracy by Michael Knox Beran, even goes as far as to suggest that Bobby Kennedy was not so much a classical liberal but a what some might call neo-conservative.

According to Mr Beran, Bobby Kennedy was misunderstood. The perception that Kennedy embodied the excesses of the 1960s' radical chic - praising Che, letting his hair grow long, and listening to Jefferson Airplane - is misleading.

"He was critical of some of the fundamental assumptions of the great society liberalism of the time," said Mr Beran. "He declared - before anyone else in his party was willing - that the heritage of the New Deal was fulfilled and that the methods and techniques of the welfare states weren't working.

I think he was a man who was somewhat at odds with the spirit of his age and in fact somewhat ahead of the spirit of his time."

Revisionists reviled

[ image: The Kennedy family: Always seen as a bastion of liberalism]
The Kennedy family: Always seen as a bastion of liberalism
For many Kennedy admirers, Beran's suggestions are likely to seem heretical. Most of the dozens of RFK biographies to date have portrayed Kennedy as the man who might have sped major social reform in America and pulled the United States out of its disastrous involvement in Vietnam.

Glowing titles such as A Ripple of Hope: The life of Robert F Kennedy and Robert F Kennedy: Man Who Dared to Dream cast Bobby Kennedy as America's would-be saviour. The latest in this genre, also published this month, is written by Kennedy's son and namesake Robert F Kennedy Jr.

Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F Kennedy and the Words That Inspired Him is a collection of inspiring liberal quotes that illustrate Kennedy's dedication to the liberal cause. One, a speech on welfare reform, is precisely the kind of quote that convinces the public of Kennedy's liberal idealism:

"We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognise that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land."

Beran: RFK's "conservative" policy goals
Before writing the book, Mr Beran says that he too subscribed to the conventional wisdom that he was a utopian radical who wanted to go to far to fast.

"One of his favourite songs was To Dream the Impossible Dream," said Mr Beran. "I thought that was an apt characterisation of his politics but when I started to think about writing about him seriously, I discovered that I had a very mistaken impression.

"He was not at all a utopian radical. He had a real sense of the problems of American society ... and possessed a pessimistic streak that made him believe that the country was going to get worse before it got better."

Kennedy mystique

[ image: On the campaign trail in 1968]
On the campaign trail in 1968
While myth and mystique has always shrouded the Kennedy family, until now there has been no doubt of the family's commitment to liberal ideals. Linking the Kennedy name to conservatism is not an argument that is likely to please die-hard fans of Bobby Kennedy.

Nor would it have been likely to please Bobby Kennedy himself. Kennedy would have certainly rejected the label of conservative.

Nevetheless after 30 years, a revisionist history of Bobby Kennedy is welcome. And Mr Beran's new interpretation of Bobby Kennedy is faithful to the hopes invoked by Teddy Kennedy at his brother's funeral.

"My brother need not be idealised, 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. Those of us who loved him and who take him to rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world."

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