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Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon

Review

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon

In Larry Tye’s BOBBY KENNEDY: The Making of a Liberal Icon, readers follow the journey of RFK’s life beginning in an unlikely place, in a time unknown to many Americans as it relates to his private life and professional career.

Set to the backdrop of the Cold War, with which Bobby Kennedy was intimately involved, Tye studies in detail the working relationship between the seemingly incongruous allies of future liberal hero Bobby Kennedy and Senate architect of the Red Scare --- none other than Joe McCarthy himself. In fact, it is indisputable that Bobby is hardly a liberal in the 1950s and is overtaken by anti-communist fervor like much of the nation, compelled to work on the front lines yet behind the scenes as Senator McCarthy’s close counsel. Family is a factor that is explored to explain Bobby’s early political leanings, with his influential father Joe being a committed believer in capitalistic enterprise and the patriotism perceived to protect it. Connections to family are plentiful throughout the book, as it features valuable material drawn from personal interviews of Bobby’s widow Ethel, his sister Jean and others. Rife are the themes of family and country, which also in many ways were the themes of his life.

"[Tye’s book] reveals much about Bobby Kennedy the elusive, transformative man --- a passionate figure willing to change with the times."

If you are seeking a long look into Bobby’s famous 1968 presidential campaign, you will have to wait until the book’s end, because what is featured here is a detailed account of his career in full, much of it not spent as the iconic, liberal crusader he is remembered as today. Tye defines the Cold War era only as the important beginning of Bobby’s transformation, moving on to other eras of extreme importance to the United States, in which he was unsurprisingly on the frontier.

There is Bobby the senator, who took center stage in investigating union boss Jimmy Hoffa at a committee hearing. The complex relationship between them is both informative and entertaining. There is Bobby wielding his influence to help elect his brother to the presidency over Nixon. Then there is Bobby the attorney general, when corruption is fought and remediating race relations is attempted, but not before giving FBI director J. Edgar Hoover the approval to wiretap Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the anti-communist experience of his early days is put to the ultimate test, and though his foresight and handling of the situation can be questioned, the result heaped incomparable foreign policy experience upon him, readying him for his eventual presidential run. It is a pleasure to hear the exchanges between Bobby and Ethel throughout all these trying times, and the entire book.

In his political transformation, Bobby’s ideology did not move chronologically from conservative to liberal, and Tye attempts to dispel the fables of this conversion by studying the people closest to him --- the Kennedy family. The varied characters mingle with the times and each other, constantly reminding the reader of the link between the family of the man, and his dealings with political friends and foes alike. In the book’s final segment, one can experience his ’68 campaign for the presidency. Racial healer, unifying figure and abhorrer of injustice, Bobby sought to bond a country divided. While including further interviews with those close to him, there is not much new that is gleaned from this final period of his life.

When Bobby died, a large segment of a way of life in America died with him, as did the momentum of his movement. Without his tragic death, would he have been elected president? And would he have continued on his idealistic ’60s path? Tye’s book does not necessarily answer these ambitious and frankly unknowable questions, yet reveals much about Bobby Kennedy the elusive, transformative man --- a passionate figure willing to change with the times.

Reviewed by John Bentlyewski on July 7, 2016

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon
by Larry Tye