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Robert Kennedy : His Life Hardcover – September 13, 2000
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In the nation's varied memory, Robert Kennedy is a contradictory figure, a hard-bullying McCarthyite obsessed with Hoffa and Castro but also a gentle, poetry-reading herald of a new age bent on stopping the Vietnam War and lifting up the poor. As Evan Thomas (The Wise Men and Man to See) writes, both liberals and conservatives have their own spin on his legacy, with predictably different visions of what he would have done if he had lived to be our 37th president. As it turns out, none of the Good Bobby/Bad Bobby projections are right, and none are completely wrong either. In sorting through the myths and the truths, Evans provides a detailed portrait of a man centrally engaged in most of the important issues of the postwar era, and concludes that the best way to understand him is "fear":
He was brave because he was afraid. His monsters were too large and close at hand to simply flee. He had to turn and fight them.... He became a one-man underground, honeycombed with hidden passages, speaking in code, trusting no one completely, ready to face the firing squad--but also knowing when to slip away to fight again another day. Although he affected simplicity and directness, he became an extraordinarily complicated and subtle man. His shaking hands and reedy voice, his groping for words as well as meaning, his occasional resort to subterfuge, do not diminish his daring. Precisely because he was fearful and self-doubting, his story is an epic of courage.
RFK was born after the chosen siblings had been established in the Kennedy clan. He originally had low standing in the family hierarchy. Evans describes how the "runt" of the family, the one not born and raised for power and whose only ambition was to please the father who ignored him, turned into the essential son, the defender of the family and mediator between Joe Sr. and JFK. He fleshes out Bobby's role in JFK's campaigns, his testy relations with Martin Luther King, his middle-ground stance on integration, his performance during the Cuban missile crisis, and his genuine concern for the poor. He reveals the truth behind such events as the vice-presidential appointment of Lyndon Johnson as well as the famous calls from the Kennedy brothers, which got Martin Luther King out of jail. He also tries to untangle the webs obscuring the Kennedys' involvement in Castro assassination plots, their relations with Marilyn Monroe, and RFK's guilt over his brother's death. And finally, he, too, speculates on what kind of president one of history's great what-ifs might have made. The picture he paints--of a sensitive, courageous, and determined man on the verge of achieving greatness--is more complex and human than any we've had before, and reminds us again of the tragedy of his death. --Lesley Reed
From Publishers Weekly
Thomas has made a career writing about Washington insiders (he was co-author, with Walter Isaacson, of The Wise Men). A high-ranking editor at Newsweek, Thomas (an insider himself) has now written a nuanced biography of one of the 20th century's most iconic insiders. Although there are no startling revelations in this capably written, thick book, there is a lot of new information, thanks to the increasing openness of Kennedy's surviving colleagues and the new availability of oral histories, RFK's personal files, declassified national security documents and other sources. As a result, Thomas offers an illumination of the man's failings as well as his strengths, and unravels the complex knot of relationships within the Kennedy family. Portraying RFK as a man whose "house had many mansions," Thomas calls him "the lucky one"Ahe was raised in the shadow of his brothers, and his passion-filled life shined a light into "the family cave" of secrets. Throughout, Thomas highlights the contradictions of Kennedy's personaAhe was an extraordinarily wealthy individual who could act spoiled one day, then express empathy with the have-nots on the next; he was a devoted, sometimes around-the-clock protector of his often wayward older brother, John, but still established his own career; he was shy but sought out publicity; and he was an enthusiastic family man who ran for the presidency despite its obvious risks. Though primarily a tribute to a man whose potential for greatness was cut short, Thomas's book sheds new light on a manAand an era, and a familyAabout whom Americans will probably never know the whole truth. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Journalism Review (available on-line), Thomas stated he will remove the fabrications from future editions on his book. But the fabrications remain in the current edition. The fabrications originated with the late author C. David Heymann, whose literary fraud had been exposed on multiple occasions prior to publication of Thomas's book. One fabrication details RFK venturing out on narcotic raids with drug enforcement officers and RFK witnessing a drug dealer molesting a toddler and agents throwing the culprit from a tenement window. One is in reference to information Heymann fabricated and attributed to the late Peter Lawford, and one is an anecdote Heymann fabricated and attributed to the late Kennedy confidant Lem Billings about RFK and a prostitute. (Larry Tye used the same fabricated Billings storyline in the first edition of his RFK book, but the storyline was removed for the recently released paperback edition.) Given the fact Heymann had been publicly exposed as a fabricator on several occasions prior to the release of Thomas's book--and although I believe Thomas's book is in many aspects very well researched, well written, and far superior to many RFK biographies--Thomas acted recklessly in utilizing information from a renown fabricator.
From RFK's early days to his untimely death while reaching for the Presidency, Thomas gives us an unvarnished but at the same time a sympathetic look at the "ruthless" Kennedy. We see RFK molding his skills as the tireless/relentless campaign manager for his brother as JFK ran for Congress in '46 and the Senate in '52. His driven pursuit of Hoffa as a part of the Senate Rackets Committee brings RFK into the national spotlight and sets the stage for the monolithic JFK Presidential campaign and administration.
Awarded the Attorney Generalship for his work during the campaign, Bobby offsets the nepotism charges by becoming the most trusted advisor to his brother during one of history's most sublime and at the same time most dangerous Presidential terms. Thomas deftly covers the inside machinations of such historical events as the Bay of Pigs, the multiple assasination plots against Castro and the subsequent Missile Crisis. RFK's role is at once expertly and judiciously displayed as the manipulative bully who runs interference while JFK remains above the fray. Conversely, when challenged, he shows that he can become thoughtful and brilliant on the world stage as evidenced by his performance during the Missile Crisis.
Of lesser known historical events such as the burgeoning civil rights acts of the early 60's, the fight against the "mob" and organized crime and the constant and frustrating battles with J. Edgar Hoover, Thomas reveals RFK in the same light...the same intensity, the same propensity for error (notable in the tapping of Martin Luther King's phone)and the same caring leadership with his characteristically kindred feelings for the "underdog".
Following JFK's assasination, we see RFK's mythological transformation from follower to leader...Thomas covers his Senate election following that crippling "depression" period and shows how he slowly established his own policies and agenda. All this leads to the almost Shakespearian tragedy of the '68 campaign for the Presidency and a brilliant ending to the book where Thomas philosophizes on what a prospective RFK Presidential administration might have been: "He probably would have been devious in some ways, and it is not impossible to imagine him abusing the power of his office. But he would have surely tried to tackle the problems of poverty and discrimination, and he would have tried to end the killing in Vietnam long before President Nixon did."
A sweeping narrative of a fascinating man and a shrewd examination of his character, this work by Evan Thomas is both comprehensive and an entertaining read and should stand the test of time and be considered the best RFK biography of the many that are currently published. This is an essential read for any political or historical buff and I recommend it highly.