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RFK | Article

RFK and Tragedy

Courtesy: Corbis

On November 20, 1963, Robert Kennedy celebrated his 38th birthday. Friends observed that he was in a dark mood, his mind already turning to the difficult task of getting his brother re-elected in the coming year. Two days later, he was having lunch beside the pool at Hickory Hill when a call came from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. "I have news for you," Hoover said, his voice devoid of emotion. "The president's been shot."

"So Much Bitterness"
Kennedy's body contorted with grief, and his wife moved to comfort him. A few minutes later, he mumbled to aide Ed Guthman, "There's so much bitterness... I thought they'd get one of us... I thought it would be me."

Veil of Grief
Later in the day Kennedy met Air Force One at Andrews Air Force base. He rushed past the newly sworn-in president, Lyndon Johnson, to the side of his brother's widow, Jacqueline, still in her blood-stained pink dress. Though his eyes were rimmed with red, for most of that first day Robert Kennedy was too busy to lose his composure. But that night at the White House, the veil of grief fell. "I was with Bobby and I talked with him for a while," remembers family friend Charles Spalding, "then it came time to go to bed and I closed the door. I waited outside and I heard him just sobbing, and he was saying, 'Why? Why God? Why?'"

In the weeks that followed, Robert Kennedy was a shattered man. His friend John Siegenthaler observed, "it was a physical blow to him, that loss of his brother. An emotional blow, intellectual blow, but it took a physical toll on him. He was physically in pain." The family had certainly known tragedy before. His oldest brother, Joe, had been killed in World War II, and his oldest sister, Kathleen, was killed in a plane crash in 1948. But RFK had worked side-by-side with his brother John for years, first in his campaigns then in his Cabinet.

Identity Crisis
Everyone who came in contact with Robert Kennedy in those days could see the loss etched in his face. He seemed wracked with "survivor guilt," often wondering aloud why he -- the Kennedy brother with the "ruthless" reputation -- had not been killed instead. He was also haunted by his brother's memory. He quoted Jack constantly in his public speeches. He adopted some of his physical mannerisms, such as stabbing a finger in the air for emphasis. He began wearing one of Jack's old, worn-out tweed coats. Aides remember that he would sometimes leave it behind, as if trying to unburden himself, before sending one of them back to retrieve it.

The Awful Grace of God
Bobby and Jacqueline Kennedy, the two people who felt Jack's loss most keenly, grew very close during this time. At her suggestion, he began reading the classics, finding solace in what the Greek dramatists and poets had to say about tragedy. Bobby often quoted Aeschylus by heart. One of his favorite passages, for obvious reasons, was this: "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." He remembered the quote again on April 4, 1968, when he spoke extemporaneously to African American audience upon hearing the news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed.

On His Own
Turning inward in his grief, RFK was dealing not just with the loss of a brother, but of his own identity. For more than a decade his career had been harnessed to his older brother's. Jack's goals were his goals, Jack's problems his as well. Now, he faced an existential but very real question: who was he and what would he do with his life? Biographer Jack Newfield puts it well: "During the months following the death of his brother, Robert Kennedy almost certainly experienced the classic identity crisis most of us go through during adolescence. For the first time he began to try to find out who he was -- an exploration that was far from completed when he was shot down."

Courtesy: Yoichi R. Okamoto, LBJ Library

Serving the "Usurper"
Bobby's distress only grew when he considered the man who now occupied his brother's chair. RFK and LBJ had eyed each other with barely disguised contempt since the 1960 election season, and Kennedy had taken great pleasure in making sure that the vice president stayed out of the administration's inner circle. Now the tables had turned, and the man that neither Kennedy had fully trusted was in charge.

An Uneasy Compromise
Despite their animosity, the two men had a very good reason to make it work. Both considered it their mission to enshrine John Kennedy's reputation and build on his legacy. Though he stopped short of making Kennedy his vice president as some had wished, Johnson asked Bobby to remain in the cabinet and did his best to be cordial. The attorney general, however reluctantly, returned the favor. The public truce worked, and President Johnson masterfully guided major legislation on civil rights and other issues associated with JFK's agenda through Congress.

Politics and Loathing
This fragile relationship was again put to the test in the election year of 1964. RFK had begun to think about the vice presidency as a way to continue his brother's legacy. Johnson would not hear of it and even mocked RFK's reaction to his refusal to accept the idea to the press. A memorable and symbolically rich moment came at the Democratic convention in Atlantic City in August. Anticipating that Kennedy would receive an emotional reaction barely ten months after his brother's death, Johnson arranged for him to speak on the final night, after his own acceptance speech and after Hubert Humphrey was securely nominated vice president. Even LBJ had underestimated the situation: as the 22 minute ovation washed over him, one could almost see the Kennedy mantle settle on Bobby's shoulders.

A Side Step
Both were relieved when Kennedy decided to leave the administration and run for the Senate from New York. Ever the masterful campaigner, and in the midst of his own landslide victory, President Johnson stumped for Kennedy and gained another Democrat in the Senate.

Courtesy: Cecil Stoughton, LBJ Library

Forging a New Identity
RFK's immersion in the classics makes sense: the ordeal he went through reads like a Greek tragedy. He was the dutiful brother forced to take the place of the slain king. Like most of RFK's friends and observers, historian Ronald Steel sees it as the transformative event in Robert Kennedy's life:

"Only gradually and partially did he emerge from his grief. It left a melancholy that could be seen in his eyes, and it tempered his arrogance and impatience. Grief helped humanize him. It pulled him into the world of human imperfection and suffering. It even made him more tolerant. And it forced him, bit by bit, to begin the effort to reevaluate a life based on power, will, and the drive to conquer."

"It was during these months that the 'new Bobby' is said to have emerged from the chrysalis of the old," Steel concludes. "This is where the legend of John Kennedy leaves off and the legend of Robert Kennedy begins."

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