Today, we remember former U.S. senator and attorney general Robert F. Kennedy. In the 18,262 days between his death and today, we’ve remembered a myth and forgotten the man.
We forgot that he worked for Joseph McCarthy in one of his earliest jobs in Washington politics outside of his family.
We forgot that he picked the Wisconsin senator, who dated two sisters and vacationed with the Kennedys on Cape Cod, to serve as the godfather to his first child, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
We forgot that he voted for Dwight Eisenhower for president in 1956 instead of Adlai Stevenson because the Illinois Democrat selected someone other than his brother as his running mate.
We forgot that his investigation of the Teamsters elevated Jimmy Hoffa to the group’s presidency and that despite Kennedy promising to jump off the Capitol Building if Hoffa avoided conviction in a trial stemming from the investigation, a jury acquitted the union leader, whose lawyer promised to send his client’s nemesis a parachute.
We forgot that, contrary to the flattering self-portrait in Thirteen Days, the man who oversaw Operation Mongoose and earned the nickname “Mister C.I.” (counterinsurgency) within the Kennedy administration initially supported an invasion during the Cuban Missile Crisis before embracing a blockade.
We forgot that he served as J. Edgar Hoover’s boss within the Justice Department and not the reverse.
We forgot that when U.S. Steel did not price its product the way the president wanted, his brother hectored executives with visits by agents, launched an antitrust investigation, and convened a grand jury—hassles that ceased once the company rolled back its price increase.
We forgot that he supported warrantless wiretaps as attorney general.
We forgot that he authorized wiretaps on a key congressional aide and lobbyists who opposed the Kennedy administration’s position on as trifling an issue as sugar.
We forgot that he authorized spying on American journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winner Hanson Baldwin.
We forgot that the Justice Department with his authorization harassed and spied on Martin Luther King.
We forgot that he opposed the 1963 March on Washington, organized by Bayard Rustin, and taunted an attendee, “So you’re down here for that old black fairy’s anti-Kennedy demonstration?”
We forgot that he supported the Vietnam War before he opposed it. “The United States has made a commitment to help Vietnam,” the senator explained early in 1965. “I’m in favor of keeping that commitment and taking whatever steps are necessary.”
We forgot that he tried to suppress William Manchester’s The Death of a President, the bestselling nonfiction book of 1967, because he felt some unflattering vignettes harmed his presidential ambitions. (Robert and Jacqueline Kennedy succeeded in compelling Manchester to cut over 1,000 words from the published edition, divert a portion of the profits to the John F. Kennedy Library, and seal some interviews for 100 years.)
We forgot that prior to his assassination, he had no chance to win the presidential nomination in 1968. As Joshua Zeitz recently noted at Politico: “In 1968 only 15 states chose their delegates by primary. Almost three-fifths of conventional delegates were selected by county committeemen, state party officers and elected officials, and those officials were squarely behind [Hubert] Humphrey.”
The cable news chyrons and talking heads remind us to remember Robert Kennedy on this, the 50th anniversary of his passing. But the kind of memory desired by the late senator’s well-wishers involves forgetting much.
Not every part of Robert Kennedy’s history tossed down the memory hole necessarily discredits him—and much of the history highlighted today brings him great credit. Robert Kennedy did not pick weaklings as his enemies in taking on Communists, the mafia, and organized labor. His conciliatory rhetoric quelled an incipient riot in Indianapolis in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. He threw water on the various conspiracy theories surrounding his brother’s assassination. He heeded Emerson’s warning that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” by fully embracing the civil-rights movement and eventually regarding the Vietnam War as damaging to the republic. All this deserves recognition, too.
But in remembering a symbol rather than a man, we manufacture an ideologically neat, hagiographic history that clashes with the fullness of the facts.
Photo: LBJ Presidential Library