"We prayed every night that John Kennedy would be the best president ever, and that our father, Robert Kennedy, would be the best attorney general ever."
-- Kathleen Kennedy Townsend
After an assassin's bullet took his brother's life, Robert F. Kennedy was bereft, not only of someone he loved, but of a role that had given meaning to his life. He had devoted himself to his glamorous brother John, suppressing his own ambitions for the sake of the Kennedy name. JFK's death plunged him into unremitting pain and grief, and left him struggling to find his own voice. In his suffering he began to empathize with impoverished Americans and others who were marginalized or disenfranchised -- African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans. Just as he began to discover his own identity and move beyond the shadow of his brother, he, too, was assassinated.
American Experience presents RFK, written and directed by David Grubin (Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, TR: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, LBJ), and produced by David Grubin and Sarah Colt.
"RFK is a story about change and suffering," says Grubin. "Robert Kennedy not only changed his mind about the great issues of his day -- civil rights and the war in Vietnam -- he changed himself. I wanted to explore his enormous capacity for growth and its relationship to the death of his brother, clearly the defining moment in his life."
This new biography features interviews with historians, journalists and biographers, including Robert Dallek, Anthony Lewis, Jeff Shesol, and Ronald Steel, and the first-hand recollections of those who knew him well: Peter Edelman, Richard Goodwin, Nicholas Katzenbach, John Seigenthaler, Adam Walinsky, Jack Newfield, Roger Wilkins, and Harris Wofford. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend provides a perspective on her father as a family man.
The first hour, "The Garish Sun," focuses on Bobby's life as a young Kennedy. Born November 20, 1925, he was the third of the Kennedy boys, nearly ten years younger than Joe Jr. and Jack. Small, pious and shy, Bobby was determined to prove he was as tough as his brothers. But in 1944, the death of Joe Jr. changed the Kennedy family forever. Jack became the Kennedy standard bearer, and it was Bobby's role to help him.
In 1952, Bobby managed Jack's successful bid for the Senate, assuming the role of protector and defender, earning a reputation as ruthless. "I don't care if anyone around here likes me," he said, "as long as they like Jack." With his brother elected to the Senate, Bobby set out to make a career of his own. He turned his piety and strong sense of right and wrong toward crusading against evil in America, first working on the staff of Senator Joseph McCarthy, then as chief counsel on what became known as the Rackets Committee. But just as Bobby was gaining a reputation in his own right, Jack announced he would run for president. Bobby resigned his position to take on the messy, often dirty business of campaign politics once again.
With Bobby's help, Jack won the nomination, then chose Lyndon Johnson as his running mate. When it appeared to Johnson that Bobby wanted to deny him the vice-presidential spot, their relationship grew bitter and contentious; it would never change.
The newly elected President Kennedy named a new attorney general: Robert Kennedy. Bobby became the President's indispensable counsel. "There was only one person in the world that John Kennedy trusted unequivocally, and that was Robert Kennedy," says biographer Jeff Shesol. RFK was soon at the center of everything, from covert operations in Cuba, to foreign policy and civil rights. A thousand days into the Kennedy presidency, the brothers were already planning for the upcoming election, when Robert Kennedy received a call from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. "I have news for you," he said. "The president has been shot."
The second hour, "The Awful Grace of God," opens with RFK deep in mourning. "Every day, every hour, every minute, he felt the loss of his brother," says journalist Anthony Lewis. Brooding and inconsolable for months, he turned to Greek tragedies to help make sense of the chaos and suffering. He began to memorize lines of poetry. "In agony, learn wisdom," he read in Aeschylus. Gradually, because he had suffered, he would come to identify with the suffering of others.
While RFK grieved, President Johnson claimed the Kennedy legacy as his own and began to consolidate presidential power. Bobby resigned from the cabinet and ran for the Senate from New York, winning, much to his chagrin, with Johnson's help. Bobby was searching for a way to carry on his brother's legacy and at the same time find a voice of his own. He began to sympathize with Americans who had been left behind -- blacks, Latinos, Indians, the poor -- and came to be seen as a man of the people.
Meanwhile, LBJ was escalating the war in Vietnam. While Bobby believed that the Vietnamese communists needed to be defeated, he began to question Johnson's strategy. As the presidential election approached, aides, friends, and ordinary Americans pleaded with Bobby to run, but he refused. It was only after another liberal democrat, Eugene McCarthy, entered the race, and the Vietnamese Tet offensive demonstrated to Americans that the war was far from over, that Bobby announced his candidacy.
His campaign for the Democratic nomination was part politics, part crusade. As he spoke out against the war and railed against Johnson, rapturous crowds did anything they could to get close to him. "People treated him like he was some rock star," says Congressman John Lewis in the program. "It was young people, it was blacks, whites, Hispanics, just pulling for him." Johnson watched with undisguised panic. On March 31, 1968, a physically and emotionally exhausted LBJ put an end to the contest, announcing that he would no longer seek or accept the party nomination.
Kennedy's plan was to prove that he was the candidate of the people. "I have to win through the people," Kennedy told a reporter. "Otherwise I'm not going to win." With the overwhelming support of blacks and Mexican Americans, he gained a much-needed victory in California. Bobby still had a long road ahead of him, but at a celebration at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel, he confidently told an aide "I feel for the first time that I've shaken the shadow of my brother."
The party was in full swing just minutes after midnight on June 5, 1968, when Kennedy, on his way to a back exit, was fatally shot. Like his older brother less than five years before, Robert Kennedy passed on into legend. Carved on his gravestone are the words from Aeschylus that he could recite from memory: "He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God."