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RFK's Enemies

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Sam Halpern Early in the Kennedy administration, a group gathered in the White House kitchen for a late-night meal of scrambled eggs. The mood was light until Vice President Lyndon Johnson cornered the attorney general. "Bobby, you do not like me," he complained. "Your brother likes me. Your sister-in-law likes me. Your daddy likes me. But you don't like me. Now, why? Why don't you like me?"

Johnson was right, of course -- and the feeling was mutual. Ever since an incident at the 1960 Democratic convention, the two men had been at odds. The vice president was never part of the Kennedy inner circle, and he knew that the Kennedys made fun of him behind his back.

"[Johnson] was, in many ways, the antithesis of John Kennedy," explains historian Ronald Steel. "Ungainly rather than handsome, provincial rather than cosmopolitan, shrewd rather than sophisticated, emotional rather than detached."

RFK's dislike of Johnson worsened in the wake of John Kennedy's assassination. Though President Johnson enshrined JFK's legacy through legislation, RFK would always view him as an unworthy usurper. "Our president was a gentleman and a human being... this man is not," Bobby said in a 1964 interview, with shocking candor. "He's mean, bitter, vicious -- an animal in many ways."

Johnson could do little but fume at such treatment from the man he privately referred to as "that little runt." With public sympathy for the Kennedy family still running high, any shoddy treatment of a grieving brother would surely backfire, and harm Johnson's claim to the slain president's legacy.

In early 1964, President Johnson confronted Robert Kennedy about John Corbin, a Kennedy aide and member of the Democratic National Committee. Corbin was organizing a New Hampshire write-in campaign for Robert Kennedy as vice president in 1964.

Johnson's message was simple: he wanted Corbin out of New Hampshire and off the national committee. "He was loyal to President Kennedy; he'll be loyal to you," Johnson barked. "Get him out of there. Do you understand? I want you to get rid of him."

"I don't want to have this kind of conversation with you," Bobby replied. He wasn't sure Corbin actually was in New Hampshire, though he didn't doubt it. He suggested gamely that Johnson find out himself, betraying a trace of amusement at Johnson's rage. Paul's not my responsibility, Bobby said. "He was appointed by President Kennedy, who thought he was good."

This was stretching the truth, but to Johnson it was beside the point. "Do it," he demanded. "President Kennedy isn't president anymore. I am."

In its naked bitterness, Johnson's comment was shocking. Never had he been so openly brutal to Robert Kennedy, who struggled to maintain his dignity: "I know you're president," he said flatly, "and don't you ever talk to me like that again." He stormed out of the White House in a cold rage.

Excerpt from Jeff Shesol, Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1997.

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