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Robert Kennedy : His Life Hardcover – September 13, 2000

4.2 out of 5 stars 76 customer reviews

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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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (September 13, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684834804
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684834801
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #503,775 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Of all the books written about Robert Kennedy, this one is by far the most even-handed and objective. Evan Thomas approaches his subject with neither the hero worship of previous Camelot chroniclers nor the detraction of revisionist historians. The Robert Kennedy that emerges from Thomas's research, his pouring through RFK's personal papers, and his interviews with those who knew Kennedy is a complex one. Thomas shows us that RFK was capable of being both expediant and just. For example, Thomas examines RFK's decision during his brother's 1960 presidential campaign to secure Martin Luther King Jr.'s release from jail and lets us see that RFK's efforts might have been motivated by both the political rewards such a move might yeild as well as the injustice of King's situation and a devotion to the principles of the United States Constitution. We see a man who, as Thomas writes, was "capable of...internal contradictions-not contradictions, really, but parallel instincts that coexisted within him." Thomas also gives us a portrait of a man who was changing throughout his life, evolving from a morose, sullen boy, hot-tempered and eager to fight, to a philosophical man of reflection who carried greek plays and the works of Albert Camus in his briefcase and whose sense of the injustice in the world grew stronger as he grew older. Here Thomas provides us with an RFK who was very much a work in progress, and therein, suggests Thomas, was the real tragedy of his death, that RFK was cut down before he could evolve fully into the philosophical crusader against injustice he was becoming.
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Format: Hardcover
After several new studies on the life and career of Robert Kennedy in the past 3 years, Evan Thomas had a tall order in offering a work with something new to say. Thomas had a distinct advantage over other recent authors, however: access to RFK's personal papers. What is somewhat surprising is how small a part of the source base for his biography references to Kennedy's papers are. Perhaps this should not be surprising given RFK's disinclination toward self-disclosure. Thomas also conducted a very impressive number of interviews with Kennedy associates, and he utilitzes these to good effect. What emerges is a work of great balance and breadth, and following the lead of James Hilty's judicious assessment of some areas of Kennedy myth, Thomas debunks many popular ideas about RFK and humanizes him. What I found lacking in the book is some sense of the vitriolic nature of opposition to Robert Kennedy, or any analysis of devotion to the man on either the popular level or that of his subordinates. While detachment in a biographer's perspective is important, a greater sense of Kennedy's milieu was absent. Two final critiques: Thomas doesn't really make a case for where Kennedy fits in the big picture of American history (perhaps evidence of Thomas as journalist as opposed to historian), and he slights Kennedy's senatorial career, the largest part of his public life (if not the most important). Overall, the book is very well done, and his use and range of sources is commendable.
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Format: Hardcover
Luckily for me, my neighborhood bookstore had this book by September 5, 2000. I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. Mr. Thomas gives a very credible, in-depth analysis of Robert Kennedy and, to his credit, treats him with respect. One thing that I neglected to mention in my first review is Mr. Thomas' trenchant view on Robert Kennedy's pursuit of mafiosi. The late Senator's father was reported to have had mafia sympathies. Whether or not he did, Joe Sr.'s third son was the only one determined to quell the mafia. Suggesting that Robert Kennedy, then a man in his 30s was showing an albeit delayed rebellious side to the old patriach was indeed thought provoking. Most accounts of the late Senator's life describe him as being a "dutiful" son, an "obedient" and even "deferential." It is a refreshing viewpoint on the part of Mr. Thomas and certainly a valid one.
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Format: Hardcover
Evan Thomas successfully catches the complexity of Robert Kennedy. Thomas' book enables the reader to understand the myriad of different influences which resulted in the RFK who so captivated this country for a short period of time in the 1960s. Thirty-two years after his death at age 42 it is often forgotten that for every American who saw RFK as a hero, there was another American who saw a demon. In an America where politicians struggle to avoid powerful emotions and controversial positions Robert Kennedy embraced them. What Thomas captures is that the embrace was not always intentional. Robert Kennedy's very nature compelled him to be a lightning rod for emotion.
Thomas' picture of RFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis is perhaps the most compelling part of the book. More so than any other Kennedy biography this book displays a man, not yet 37 years old, dealing with the possiblity that his own actions might bring about the deaths of millions. Thomas effectively shows how amazing it was that Kennedy was not frozen into indecision or bullied into a military response by others with more credentials. Thomas captures a man driven to his limits and functioning effectively.
Thomas, although apparently an admirer of Kennedy, effectively protrays the darker side of his life. However, what comes out of this biography that is missing in others is the context of Kennedy's actions which are so criticized today. For example, Thomas does not excuse the recklessness of the early days of the Kennedy administration that resulted in the clandestine attempts on Fidel Castro's life.
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