“...We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in an endless amassing of worldly goods… The gross national product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” — Robert F. Kennedy, 1968
Number Seven of Nine
Robert Kennedy was his brother John’s most trusted adviser. Eight years younger than the president, Bobby did not compete directly with Jack, but he acquired the fierce commitment to winning that their father instilled in all his children. “I was the seventh of nine children,” he said, “and when you come from that far down you have to struggle to survive.” Perhaps his most distinguishing characteristic among his siblings was his piety.
After Naval service in World War II, Kennedy attended Harvard College in the class of 1948 and the University of Virginia Law School (1951). While in law school he married Ethel Skakel, a college friend of his sister Jean.
Starting in Politics
Managing his brother’s Senate race was Robert Kennedy’s first job in politics. In 1954 family connections helped him get a job working for Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Committee on Unamerican Activities, but Kennedy resigned after six months. Subsequently, he was chief counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee where he investigated corruption in the Teamsters Union.
After Robert managed Jack’s successful presidential campaign in 1960, their father Joe requested that the younger brother be given a cabinet position. Although critics cried nepotism, Robert Kennedy was an effective attorney general, positioned to be his brother’s adviser on every issue, foreign or domestic. In his brother’s campaign and administration Robert was the hatchet man and lightning rod, and his stubborn, righteous personality lent itself to his “bad cop” role.
Civil Rights and Communist Confrontations
As attorney general, Kennedy supported civil rights, ordering U.S. marshals to protect James Meredith, the first African American student admitted to the University of Mississippi. As the president’s brother, he was able to communicate a quid pro quo with the Soviet ambassador that ultimately resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis. Given Robert’s generally confrontational stance against opponents, his brother may have given more weight to his call for military restraint during those tense weeks in October 1962.
In the Senate
After his brother’s assassination, Robert, who harbored a fierce dislike of Lyndon Johnson, resigned as attorney general. In 1964, he ran for the Senate from New York State. Although labeled a carpetbagger, Kennedy and his family had lived in the suburbs of New York City since he was a child. As a senator, Kennedy raised awareness of poverty in both urban and rural America and sponsored legislation designed to lure private business to blighted communities to improve the welfare of the residents there. He also traveled abroad, advocating democratic reforms in Eastern Europe, Latin America and South Africa.
In 1968, he declared his candidacy for the presidency with an anti-war platform. His hesitancy allowed Eugene McCarthy to stake out the liberal wing of the party while Hubert Humphrey absorbed the centrist Democrats. The 1968 primary season was a mad scramble punctuated by tragedy. While campaigning in Indianapolis, Kennedy learned of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. He announced the news to the crowd and spoke extemporaneously of loss and anger. While African American crowds rioted in cities across the nation, Indianapolis remained calm.
The day after he won the California primary, Robert Kennedy was shot by an assassin, Sirhan B. Sirhan, in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Only 42 years old, he was survived by a pregnant wife and ten children.