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Robert Kennedy, His Life

December 26, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: The book is a biography, “Robert Kennedy, His Life.” The author is Evan Thomas, the assistant managing editor of NewsWeek in Washington. He was the first biography since Arthur Schlesinger to have access to Kennedy’s private papers as attorney general. Welcome. With all the books that are out about Bobby Kennedy, why did you want to write another?

EVAN THOMAS, Author, “Robert Kennedy: His Life:” Well, a lot of those books are pretty terrible. There have been a couple thousand books written about the Kennedys over the years and a lot of them are full of conspiracy theories that aren’t true and a lot of mythology.

And I thought this was a good time to try to finally sort through and separate what’s true and what’s not true. I had access to papers that people hadn’t had before. I had access to people around Kennedy who were speaking more freely. So I thought that time had come.

MARGARET WARNER: One of the threads that runs through your book is that you felt his whole life, everything he did in his life, was shaped to an unusual degree by his position in his family, even as a young boy, and his stature in the family. Explain that.

EVAN THOMAS: Well, he was the runt. That was the term his father used for hi — no self-esteem movement back then. He was small and sort of hapless. His own self description was somebody who dropped things, who fell down a lot, who was only comfortable being alone. He was … today we would say he was a depressed child. Then his brother Jack called him “Black Robert.”

MARGARET WARNER: How did that play out in his life?

EVAN THOMAS: Well, in a couple of important ways. One is the older brothers were the ones who were going to be made to lead. That wasn’t Bobby’s role. Bobby was always in a supportive role behind the scenes. Also, he felt this need to win his father’s attention by being the tough guy. His father thought he was weak; therefore, Bobby was going to prove that he was tough. Bobby never saw combat in World War II like his hero older brothers. He felt a loss of that.

In fact, once at a dinner party people were going around the table and asking, Bobby, what would you do if you could do anything you want? Bobby said be a paratrooper. I mean, he really had the zest to show what a tough guy he was. That shaped him in the sense of putting a hard shell of toughness around what was sort of a soft interior.

The relationship between the Kennedy brothers

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s jump ahead to when they’re adults now. How different was his relationship with his brother than the myth?

EVAN THOMAS: Well, the myth is that they were blood brothers bound at the hip — maybe at the very end but surely not in the beginning. I mean Jack was 8 years older. He ignored his brother. When Bobby showed up to help Jack run for Congress, Bobby gave … Jack gave a friend two bucks and said, “Take Bobby to the movies.” Bobby did — Jack did snake Bobby’s girlfriend … I suppose that’s kind of noticing him. They were really not close.

Even when Jack was president, he only went to Hickory Hill, as far as I can tell, to dinner once. They were not social friends. Ethel and Jackie were not close. They were different types. I mean, Jack was … as an Irish pa once said, Jack was the first Irish Brahman and Bobby was the last Irish Puritan. Bobby was a grinder; I mean, he was tough, he was very gritty. Jack was cool and suave and detached — very different personality types. Jack thought that Bobby was a bit of a prig. I’m sure that Bobby thought that Jack was a little loose. They were different.

MARGARET WARNER: So what did Bobby Kennedy give his brother? If you had to say on balance, how was his presidency different bus of his brother’s deep, deep involvement?

EVAN THOMAS: Well in good and bad ways. He did all the dirty stuff for him: Running covert operations in Cuba, some very unsavory stuff. He helped him get elected by being the tough pile driver and shrewd campaign manager. I’m getting to the good stuff. He had good judgment. He was clever. And he was a moral force.

I mean, if you look, closely look at the record on civil rights, it’s Bobby who is the goad, who is saying we have to do this, we have to integrate the South, and Jack is going, “Oh, I don’t really want to. I’m going to lose a lot of votes. We’re going to lose the South.” It’s Bobby who makes Jack give the great civil rights address that he gave in June 1963 and use the word “moral.”

MARGARET WARNER: But you have pointed out that even Bobby Kennedy at first wasn’t too eager to embrace the civil rights movement.

EVAN THOMAS: We forget that civil rights was a nuisance, a distraction, a side show. The main game in 1961 was the Soviet Union. It was facing off against the Kremlin. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, they were a distraction and an embarrassment to the Kennedy administration. Bobby at first was quite cranky about it and wanted it all to go away. It was only over time as he experienced … as he went down South and actually saw conditions down there that he realized that the government better get in the game.

MARGARET WARNER: You talked about the focus on Communism. One of the things that amazed me about the book was that Bobby Kennedy was doing things in government that had nothing to do with being attorney general, like this involvement in the movement to get Castro. What did you conclude … there have been a lot of rumors about how involved he was in the CIA/Mafia plots to actually kill Castro.

Influence on foreign policy

EVAN THOMAS: I do think this is the first book to really walk through the evidence and see what’s true and what’s not. I mean, there’s been a lot of conspiracy theories. The Kennedys were mobbed up and all that. Here’s the truth: Bobby Kennedy created the conditions for the plotting. I mean, he created an environment in which the CIA was willing to do crazy stuff. But I don’t think that he knew the operational detail. I think he was usually a step behind what the CIA was actually doing. The other point is the plots were kind of dumb.

MARGARET WARNER: Exploding cigar.

EVAN THOMAS: They were a joke. Even the CIA was embarrassed about them. They were not the monstrous things that we’ve made them out to be in the movies. They were hapless and they didn’t work.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain why Bobby Kennedy himself though was so obsessed with Castro and Cuba.

EVAN THOMAS: Partly revenge. Jack Kennedy, the searing experience at the Bay of Pigs — that was April 1961, he had just got into office. It was a massive humiliation. Although Jack handled it gracefully by talking about how victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan, Bobby had this desire to avenge his brother, to get even with Castro, and so instead of seeing big yellow flashing light to slow down on Cuba, he hit the gas and he went right at Castro and mounted this massive CIA infrastructure to destabilize the government to try to run covert actions against Castro’s government. It was a … it was pathetic really. It really didn’t work at all.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet he did conclude or, no, he did fear that perhaps those activities had somehow contributed to his brother’s assassination.

EVAN THOMAS: There’s no question that Bobby Kennedy was absolutely wracked by guilt when his brother was shot, Bobby Kennedy said to his chief aide about 20 minutes after they learned the news, “I thought they were going to get me.” He thought the Cubans had done it. He called to a safe house where he kept his covert operators and said, “you guys did it” — his own Cuban operators in Washington. He called out and thought maybe the mob had killed his brother. He had really prosecuted the mob. He had really gone after the mob. He was afraid that that in some terrible way had blown back on him. He was filled with dread and guilt that he had gotten his own brother killed.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, one thing you said was that … and it also involved Cuba policy, but you thought that his involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis was his finest hour. That was one myth that was true.

EVAN THOMAS: Yeah. I do. I mean, you can actually listen to the tapes. You can listen to maybe half … I mean, it’s an astonishing experience. Those 13 days of maximum peril to the United States, that’s not an exaggeration. We were really on the brink of World War III.

You can listen to the conversations that the president’s advisers had, and Bobby and Jack looked pretty good. The president really, on the last day, is the one guy in the room who has the most common sense and the soundest instincts. These men are exhausted. I mean, two weeks of worrying about doomsday has wrung them out. And Jack sounds good. Bobby sounds good. You look at the record of the missile crisis and they are kind of intuitive sense of how far to push the Russians, push them but not so far that they don’t have a chance to back out, giving them a chance to back out was key here.

And Bobby had a very keen sense of power and pressure and how much you can lean on people and how much you need to back off. You can make a pretty good argument that but for that instinct we’d all be dust.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, in the introduction to your book, you actually say that he was … this is the story of an unpromising boy who died as he was becoming a great man. You laid out the case for the unpromising boy. What’s the case for great man?

EVAN THOMAS: I think that he had a feel for the down-trodden and dispossessed that was real, and he had it at a time in our country’s history, 1968, when the country was splitting apart, and I think that he had a chance to do something about the racial divide in the country. He was the last white politician except for maybe (former President) Clinton that blacks really flocked to. He had that chance possibly to unite the country. Of course, he was killed so we’ll never know.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Evan Thomas, thanks very much.

EVAN THOMAS: Thanks, Margaret.