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Robert F. Kennedy appearing before Platform Committee, on August 19, 1964. Photo: Wikimedia
Robert F. Kennedy appearing before Platform Committee, on August 19, 1964. Photo: Wikimedia

3 insightful books about Bobby Kennedy you should read

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the murder of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy as he campaigned for the presidency.

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This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Senator Robert "Bobby" Kennedy in Los Angeles. Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Kennedy was mortally wounded by a 24-year-old Palestinian because he had advocated for U.S. support pf Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War. Kennedy died the following day and the shooter was sentenced to life in prison. But for RFK, who had just won the primary election in California for the Democratic party, it meant the loss of a promising presidential candidate.  

In the last 50 years, many articles, essays and books have been published about the murder of this political figure, which led the U.S. into one of its darkest stages.

"This is the story of an unpromising child who became a great man," wrote Jeff Shesol, a scholar of Bobby Kennedy and author of Mutual Contempt:Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade, an exhaustive book published in 1997 on the enmity between Lyndon Johnson, successor of John Kennedy to the presidency of the United States after the murder of JFK in Dallas, in 1963, and Bobby Kennedy, who always wanted to take care of his brother's political legacy.

Numerous books have also tried to analyze the figure of RFK as a key senator.

In the half-century since his death, Bobby Kennedy has come to embody the Democratic Party’s lost dream. "He alone, it seemed, could draw working-class white, black and Latino voters into an umbrella coalition. He was an 'activist champion of the country’s disinherited,'” argued Chris Matthews, the MSNBC host and longtime political observer, as quoted in The Atlantic.

In addition, he seemed to be the only one able to preach a message of reconciliation in a country marked by the 1968 civil rights movement, with the Vietnam War in the background and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, which occurred just two months before the death of Bobby Kennedy.

Could Bobby Kennedy have become a good candidate for the presidency? Could he have achieved the racial harmony that the country so badly needed at that time? Could he have managed to reduce the differences between the north and south in the United States?

Three new books, three different authors, three different perspectives on the issue were published in the past year and a half:

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Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit by Chris Matthews, New York: Simon & Schuster

In his new book, Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball and author of a bestselling biography of JFK, returns to the Kennedy family with an in-depth, behind-the-scenes portrait of one of the great figures of the American twentieth century.

Overlooked by his father, and overshadowed by his war-hero brother, Bobby Kennedy was the perpetual underdog, according to Matthews’s book. When he had the chance to become a naval officer like Jack, Bobby turned it down, choosing instead to join the Navy as a common sailor. It was a life-changing experience that led him to connect with voters from all walks of life: young or old, black or white, rich or poor. They were the people who turned out for him in his 1968 campaign. RFK would prove himself to be the rarest of politicians—both a pragmatist who knew how to get the job done and an unwavering idealist who could inspire millions.

Drawing on extensive research and interviews, Matthews pulls back the curtain on the public and private worlds of Robert Francis Kennedy. He shines a light on all the important moments of his life, from his early years and his start in politics to his crucial role as attorney general in his brother’s administration and his tragic run for president.

The book includes humorous episodes such as the moment in 1985 when Bobby's widow Ethel Kennedy met Pope John Paul II in Washington, D.C. and the Pope told her, “I’ve met you once before! I made you a grilled cheese sandwich!” recalling when she and Bobby visited Poland in 1964.

The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protest After JFK, by John R. Bohrer: Bloomsbury 

In The Revolution of Robert Kennedy, journalist John R. Bohrer focuses in intimate and revealing detail on Bobby Kennedy's life during the three years following JFK's assassination. Torn between mourning the past and plotting his future, Bobby was placed in a sudden competition with his political enemy, Lyndon Johnson, for control of the Democratic Party. No longer the president's closest advisor, Bobby struggled to find his place within the Johnson administration, eventually deciding to leave his cabinet post to run for U.S. Senate and establish an independent identity. Those overlooked years of change, from hardline attorney general to champion of the common man, helped him develop the themes of his eventual presidential campaign.

The Revolution of Robert Kennedy follows him on the journey from memorializing his brother's legacy to defining his own.

This is the first book by John R. Bohrer, a New Jersey native working as a reporter, historian, and television news producer. His writing has appeared in New York Magazine, The New Republic, Politico, and USA Today, among others.

“Mr. Bohrer proves that the personal is political, showing readers how Bobby Kennedy's evolution from shadow to savior was, in fact, revolutionary… how Bobby Kennedy, who aged a lifetime in three years, grew from the president's brother to a man who might have become the president himself,” wrote Rachel Treisman, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, Larry Tye: Random House

In this powerful and perceptive biography, Larry Tye, former reporter of The Boston Globe, underlines different aspects that composed the personality of R.F.K: bare-knuckle operative, cynical White House insider, romantic visionary…

History remembers RFK as a racial healer, a tribune for the poor, and the last progressive knight of a bygone era of American politics. But Kennedy’s enshrinement in the liberal pantheon was actually the final stage of a journey that began with his service as counsel to the red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy. In Bobby Kennedy, Larry Tye peels away layers of myth and misconception to capture the full arc of his subject’s life. Tye draws on unpublished memoirs, unreleased government files, and fifty-eight boxes of papers that had been under lock and key for forty years.

He conducted hundreds of interviews with RFK intimates, many of whom have never spoken publicly, including Bobby’s widow, Ethel, and his sister, Jean. Tye’s determination to sift through the tangle of often contradictory opinions means that Bobby Kennedy will stand as the definitive biography about the most complex and controversial member of the Kennedy family.

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