Dead at 42, cut off at the peak of his political career, JFK's brother is the focus of a new film, Bobby. But was the man himself the great leader the US never had, or another ruthless Kennedy player?
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
When Robert Kennedy hit the campaign trail in the late 1960s there was one book which he read again and again. It was a story of Greek myths. "He must have read and re-read it 20 times," says his senior aide and speech writer, Peter Edelman.
Maybe it felt like familiar territory, because the Kennedy family's own story - with murder, romance, scandal, conspiracy and tragedy - sounds more like Greek myth than party politics.
And in this exotic story, Robert Kennedy, younger brother of the assassinated president, is perhaps the most enigmatic character.
Described as a tough and ruthless man, he was also remembered as a slight, shy figure.
He was a rich kid from a family synonymous with power who transformed himself into an almost evangelical figurehead for the dispossessed and poor.
Against a background of race riots, the assassination of Martin Luther King and student protests, Kennedy's calls for social and racial justice appeared to offer a youthful, radical alternative.
And when he was murdered, in a Los Angeles hotel in June 1968, in touching distance of becoming the Democrats' candidate for president, it sparked a huge public outpouring of grief - not only for the man, but for the sense of lost idealism.
So what was Bobby really like? And what made him different?
In the 1960s, Dolores Huerta was a young political activist whose work in setting up a union for farm workers was supported by Robert Kennedy.
"Nowadays, too many politicians pander to what people want to hear - they're afraid to get into controversial areas, they follow the polls rather than their principles," she says, speaking from her union office in California.
Bobby was Joseph and Rose Kennedy's seventh child
But when Robert Kennedy spoke, she says, it sent "chills up and down my spine" - not because of his oratory, but because of his willingness to say what he believed, almost recklessly disregarding the political consequences.
There was nothing glamorous or opportunistic about helping such farm workers, she says, but he stuck with them, organising healthcare and providing lawyers.
"He was very direct, very sincere. He wanted to know what we needed - and you knew he would deliver. When you know people are going to stand up with you, you put your trust in them," she says.
After his assassination, Ms Huerta travelled on the funeral train carrying Kennedy's body - and she describes the mood of political optimism that was lost.
"We'd had the civil rights movement - and it showed that real changes could be made, people really had no doubt about what was possible. People would quit school, quit their jobs to get into activism."
Rock n' roll politics
Kennedy's campaign in 1968 had electrified the political scene, not least because of the rock-star treatment he received at meetings - and the intensity of his supporters, described by a veteran reporter as the "most emotional adulation I've ever seen in politics".
This sense of urgency reflected Kennedy's mood, says Professor Edelman, who is now in the law department at Georgetown University.
"He was quite aware that he could be killed at any time - and so he lived for the day, lived in the moment. You had to do everything today, because you didn't know if you were going to be here tomorrow. And for him this was entirely serious."
Kennedy wanted to find out face-to-face about life at the sharp end - and he went with Peter Edelman to visit black share-croppers in Mississippi and poor whites in the Appalachians.
"He learned by touching and seeing and talking. We'd go into people's houses and he'd get talking, asking how it was going, what are the problems. And people realised he wasn't making small talk - he really cared deeply. It was quite clear he was serious about these things," says Mr Edelman.
Of course, cold political astuteness can't been discounted - as a Democrat, the poor vote could help elevate Kennedy to the White House.
But what lay behind Robert Kennedy's commitment?
Mr Edelman, who later became assistant secretary in the health department in the Clinton administration (resigning over welfare cuts), points to a personal rather than a political answer.
"He was the seventh child, smaller of stature, competing for his father's attention - he was always someone who had a particular sympathy for people who were on the outside.
He had been a changed man after his brother John's death
"He always identified with people from very different backgrounds from his own, and these qualities became much more visible after his brother's death."
While his elder brother John had charmed his way through the corridors of power - not to mention the bedrooms - Robert Kennedy had a very different temperament.
"He was a very reserved person, he could be very pensive, capable of being silent for long periods of time, he had a sense of humour, mostly self-deprecating," says Mr Edelman.
"He was quite different in his private behaviour from his brother," he says.
Robert Kennedy's biographer, Evan Thomas, also emphasises the differences between the two brothers. And he concludes that despite the rumours, there was no affair between Robert Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
But Mr Thomas also shows that Kennedy wasn't any full-time knight in shining armour. Robert Kennedy was a tough, gritty fixer - when attorney general he'd been involved in covert operations against Cuba and had had Martin Luther King's phone tapped. And the word most often associated with his political operations was "ruthless".
In terms of a legacy, Jeffrey Buchanan, spokesperson for the Robert F Kennedy Memorial human rights foundation, points to the "gospel of political hope" that Kennedy delivered - inspiring people to believe that political action could make a difference.
And in terms of what was lost - "You can't know what would have been, but we lost an exceptional leader - he would have become president and quickly ended the war in Vietnam, he would have worked extremely hard in the areas of racial justice and poverty," says Mr Edelman.
But it's difficult to predict how such a youthful politician as Robert Kennedy's views would have developed. He was only 36 years old when he was centre stage with John Kennedy during the Cuba missile crisis.
By the time he was killed he was just 42, frozen in time as the eternal younger brother, the tragic contender rather than the champion.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
You did not mention why he died. He supported Israel and was the first innocent American victim of Islam's war with the west - a prelude of things to come, which we should have been more savvy about.
Robert Supino, Bremerton Washington USA
This is a very interesting story. I don't remember ever hearing much about Robert Kennedy as a person in his own right, he mostly is in the shadow of his brother John F. or else Robert Kennedy in the context of his running as an anti-war presidential candidate the year he was assassinated. As usual real human beings are more interesting than cardboard characters.
Christopher Hobe Morrison, Middletown, NY, USA
"Liberal" is a term that gets bandied about nowadays to describe anyone who isn't "conservative". the american political spectrum has shifted so far to the right that i say "what liberals?" liberalism died with bobby.
jj, rhode island usa
I was 12 years old when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and at the time it seemed everyone who wanted to do good things in the world were being killed. It changed my view of the world and sadly other than Nelson Mandela I have not seen anyone who could light one's imagination the same way JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King did.
Terry Dillon, North Vancouver, Canada
Is it any wonder the human race has become so unworthy of itself, of the lives we are given to lead. We are capable of wonderful and glorious things, yet we languish in our most sickening and horrible acts. Always asking why? Instead of acting to better our situation. We never change. Maybe we don't deserve better.
William Thomas Wilson, Glasgow, Scotland
I loved him because he cared for and had respect for human life therefore he must have known and loved God. I cried when he was wickedly killed .One could feel his positive energy vibrations.that's why they had to kill him to maintain the status quo because he would have changed the system as they knew it because they could not envision a differant plan to run society in any other way than how it was being run at the time. They did not want to change horses in the middle of the stream
erika pair, baltimore,md,u.s.a
Bobby Kennedy was the best candidate in 1968. He would have changed U.S. political/military/social agenda. Now, the US, is just big bully in international affairs, and a rudderless ship internally. How sad we lost him.
Mike Meyer, Washington, D.C.
Bobby Kennedy is, like many politicians, a complex character that a simple analysis cannot cover to any great effect.
Whether he did or did not sleep with Marilyn, his likely involvement in events leading up to her death suggests that he too had a shadier side like all the men in his immediate family. However, he inspired people to question the status quo, and demand change. Like his brother, the question will always remains "What if..." and whether you presonally like RFK or not, he had the right to do his job without being murdered for it.
K Brett, London
40 years on I'm heartened to be reassured that all I heard and read of RFK continue to hold true. The loss clearly was ours.I'm glad my teenage instincts did't deceive me.THANK YOU RFK FOR THE 42 YEARS
MRS CATHERINE FITZPATRICK, LONDON UNITED KINGDOM
Bobby Kennedy was the kind of political figure that does not come around that often, and sadly that we are lacking in the world today. He inspired people, he had a clear vision based on hope, and people believed in him. Today I see potential in the likes of US Senator Barack Obama, in bringing back to politics the inspiring leadership and drive that Bobby had back in 1968.
Chris Evans, Liverpool, England
Robert Kennedy died long before i was born, but i have long admired him. he unlike many polititians today inspired people to dream of the impossible. to strive to be a better person. and he will continue to inspire as long as his speeches are read and taken to heart.
rebecca seal, leicester england
I was around when Robert Kennedy was killed in the 60s and remember it as a shocking, tragic event that really did dash some of people's hopes.Thanks for a well-balanced and fair story about him. No politician is a saint - not even a Kennedy.
Mark Long, London, England
The world would have been a better place if he (and to a lesser extent his brother) hadnt been gunned down. His character is shown by when he announced the death of Martin Luther King to an all black rally, most (white) politicians would have got in their armoured cars and to safety. Very few with such a priviledged background champion the causes he did.
Luke Bilcliffe, Winchester
A very good and balanced article. RFK's death was a huge loss, not just to the US, but to the world. This was a man who learned from his own mistakes, as he wasn't always so patient, or so compassionate and he learned to act out of conscience rather than the political opportunism of his early career. He seemed to reach out to ethnic groups in a way that no-one before or since, did. Reading some of his later speaches, he passionately spoke of tolerance between races and religions, of the damage pollution was having on our environment, of the dangers of violence and the need to protect the vulnerable and the impoverished. All these problems are still present today and sadly we are left only to speculate about the difference RFK could have made to them.
David Callaghan, Glasgow, Scotland
I am those few Malaysians, perhaps, have taken interest in the Kennedy's rise and fall, in particular the late President John Kennedy, of whom I have the honour to received a handwritten letter and a personal copy of his photo before his tragic death. I came to know Robert when he was the AG. I admired him in the way he had fought the underworld and fighting racialism.I am confidence with his working style, high idealism and good moral behaviour, he would have been an the icon for his country unsurpassed by any contenders for the Presidency. It is regrettable that none of the present Kennedies have yet to follow the footsteps of their Uncles. Time will tell, I hope.
Clement Jaikul, Sabah, MalaYsia
What the article alleges about Kennedy's good side may be true, but my father maintained that Bobby was "a power-hungry little rat," which likewise seems true.
Dr M Wimsatt, Columbia, SC USA
How many spelling mistakes in this article?! "Spin-chilling"? "great leader the US never hand"?
Ben, Kenilworth, UK
I remmeber that RFK only stood for the Presidency once Eugene McCarthy had shown that LBJ was vulnerable to a challenge from the liberal wing of the Democratic party. If anyone deserved to be remembered from that campaign it would be McCarthy. But he didn't have the glamour, did he? It could well be argued that RFK's entry into the race was pretty cynical.
Ian Niven, Liverpool, UK
Unlike when his brother was killed the world did'nt stand still, it just paused for a moment.
People where walking on the moon, bodies where being shipped back from Vietnam, While Jimmy Hendrix played The Star Spangled Banner.
The slaying of another Kennedy seemed to be just another piece of a surreal jig-saw puzzle.
In real terms both political and humanitarian it is impossible assess the significance of his loss, my own feeling was and still is that had he have lived his contrbution in these areas would have hugely significant.
Ray Ricketts, Leeds
Without doubt the greatest American president who never was. Ruthless where necessary - his dealing with the mafia as Attourney General showed true guts but a man of ideals who was prepared to listen and then act - so unlike the current incumbant at the white house or our own dear PM. A sad loss and for me a far greater loss than his brother.
David Cooke, Milton Keynes
I had just lived the first decade of my life when Bobby Kennedy ran for America's highest office. I remember the hopes, the dreams and the promise of what might have been and then tragically, he was gone and the light been died with him. If only he had lived, I really think the world might have been a different place.
Weenson Andrew, London
A nice piece - but why isn't his role in helping McCarthy with his witchhunt mentioned? From this it would seem that he didn't exist before 1960
There is a famous cartoon in Arthur Schlesinger's "Robert Kennedy & His Times," one which liberals of today could learn much from. 'The Bobby Twins' cartoon expresses on one hand how Kennedy was both a passionate supporter of liberal causes, but on the other how he utilized wiretapping and other measures to attack enemies of democracy, organized crime, etc. The message today should be clear: if we believe in democracy, we must defend it, even if it means using unpleasant methods. RFK was only too aware of the dangers of using sanitized (read "politically correct") methods against a ruthless enemy. His world view was formed after a weak democracy failed in Weimar; we cannot weaken democracy today to meet the demands of people who often view Castro or Chavez as great leaders, or who hark back to the good old days of Soviet-style socialism.
D Brookes, London
He was killed by the Mafia before he could turn the heat up on them too highly. Had he survived and won the Presidency the course of late 20th Century history would have been very different as the Republicans would not have got a look in for another 20 years.
S M Evans, Potters Bar, UK
Probably the third greatest Catholic moral leader of the 20th century - after Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa.
Desmond Persaud, Wimbledon, London
Had Bobby Kennedy gone on to live and become president I very much doubt he'd have lived up to his supporters' Expectations. If Blair was assasinated just before May '97 we probably would be saying the same about him as we do about the Kennedys (some people were even comparing him to JFK back then). And look how he turned out.
I regard RFK as possibly the most significant political figure of the second half of the 20th century. With JFK people had a flavour of what he was like, and could imagine what he would've achieved or otherwise. With Bobby that is all conjecture, and so you are left with the speeches and ideas of such an attractive figure being cut down at 42 without any of the disappointments that may have followed had he become President. I think it is safe to say though that had RFK lived Nixon would probably never have been President, the Vietnam war would have ended sooner and therefore the US would be an entirely different and probably better place now.
Ewan Marshall, Stirling
So Robert Kennedy wasn't perfect and he wouldn't have solved all the world's problems but isn't it strange that since his generation there isn't a politician of any party or country who comes close to motivating people to get involved. Not even Clinton can lay such a claim. People no longer believe in politics and while they might support a party they no longer actually believe the hype. The likes of Tony Blair has done so much damage to the political process. Elected with so much goodwill and potential and 10 years later he is one of the most hated politicians ever. Cameron is meant to be the next great success but you can tell people can't be bothered as they feel in 10 years time he'll be as much of a disappointment as Blair. But the irony is the type of person which is needed to get people interested in politics is the very type ofp erson the political system makes sure never gets within a whisker of being selected as they speak their own mind rather then the party line. One thing is clear if RFK had become President the Vietnam war wouldn't have happended, Richard Nixon wouldn't have happened and Gerald Ford wouldn't become President and the people in his administration such as Rumsfield and Cheney and Bush senior would not have had their day and while we don't know how different the world would be we know it would be very different and that's why the appeal of Kennedy is so strong. Not that he was a Kennedy but that he would have made things different and given how bad things are now that different couldn't possible have been any worse.
Des FitzGerald, London UK
As Attorney General, his campaign against organised crime could have been interpreted as a betrayal of the people who had organised his elder brother's election to the presidency.
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