From 'Runt Of The Litter' To 'Liberal Icon,' The Story Of Robert Kennedy Biographer Larry Tye says Kennedy wasn't always the "hot-blooded liberal" we remember today. The transformation wasn't a "flip-flop" he says; "he took things to heart in ways that few politicians do."
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From 'Runt Of The Litter' To 'Liberal Icon,' The Story Of Robert Kennedy

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From 'Runt Of The Litter' To 'Liberal Icon,' The Story Of Robert Kennedy

From 'Runt Of The Litter' To 'Liberal Icon,' The Story Of Robert Kennedy

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This election year has been filled with surprising dramatic twists. We're going to look back on an election year with a shocking twist - 1968. That year, a sitting president withdrew from his re-election contest. The nation's greatest civil rights leader was killed. Riots swept through American cities and an assassin's bullets ended the campaign of Robert Kennedy, a man many saw as a transformational leader for a divided nation.

Our guest, Larry Tye, has a new book about Robert Kennedy who's often remembered as a presidential candidate who stood for racial healing, fighting poverty and ending an unpopular war. Early in his career, though, Kennedy was a hard-edged anti-communist who worked for red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy. He authorized the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, supported American intervention in Vietnam and showed he could be a cunning, even ruthless, political operative. Tye was interested in understanding the journey that changed Kennedy's outlook. In researching the book, he was given access to Kennedy papers never seen by other scholars and did lengthy interviews with intimates of Kennedy, including his widow, Ethel. Larry Tye is an award-winning journalist who's written several other books and now runs a training program for medical journalists. FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke to Tye about his new book "Bobby Kennedy: The Making Of A Liberal Icon."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Larry Tye, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, you can't understand Bobby Kennedy or any Kennedy without knowing a bit about their father, Joe Kennedy, who was a huge figure in the 20th century. But a lot of our listeners probably don't know much about him. Tell just a bit about Joe Kennedy, the patriarch's accomplishments and his character.

LARRY TYE: Joe Kennedy was an extraordinary guy. He was the son of Irish immigrants, grew up in east Boston and went on at a very young age to start a lot of very successful businesses. He was, to his fans, one of the great American success stories. He was, to his critics, a classic American robber baron.

And he went to Washington a couple times for different jobs, but the one that he liked best that Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to was as ambassador to Great Britain. He went in with great fanfare and great hope, and he crashed and burned while he was there by being quite honest with newspapers in terms of his believing, at that moment in history, that we ought to be appeasing rather than standing up to Adolf Hitler.

DAVIES: Joe Kennedy had big ambitions for his sons. What was dinner at the Kennedy household like?

TYE: So Joe Kennedy had big ambitions, as you said, for himself. Initially, he wanted to be president. He never hid that fact. And when it was clear that wouldn't happen, he tried to encourage his sons at the dinner table and everywhere else to think about things that were important in the world. So instead of just relaxing and having dinner, it was a quiz in current events. It was speaking foreign languages at the dinner table.

It was anything that he thought of as self-improvement that would gear his kids up to think of themselves as able to do anything and, in fact, to be able to do anything. So it was partly trying to make them smarter, and it was partly trying to have no limits to their ambitions for themselves and for Joe Kennedy's family.

DAVIES: The eldest son was Joe Kennedy, Jr., who might have done great things but was killed in a bombing mission in World War 2. The next was John F. Kennedy, Jack Kennedy, who later became president. Bobby, he went to some of the best schools. What kind of student was he like? I mean, he wasn't the sort of easy charmer that his brother was, right?

TYE: He was never - nothing ever came especially easy to Bobby. He was an OK student but not a great one. And that was at the various prep schools that he went to, the last of which was Milton Academy and that was also at Harvard University. Academics clearly was something he could do well enough. But when we see the actual grades that he got in his various schools, that was all he did was well enough. That was true in prep school. It was true in college and it continued on through law school at the University of Virginia where he was solidly in the middle of his class.

DAVIES: Not a big guy, 5 foot 9, but got into fist fights.

TYE: He was a ferocious guy. He never wanted to back down. It was part of the sense that he was a Kennedy, that he was tougher than he looked and that he was going to prove it to people. When he'd be somewhere with his his younger brother Ted, who was actually bigger than him, it was Bobby who would stand up and challenge whoever it was, whether it was on the football field or in a bar, to fight him. He was tougher than he looked and that he was darn well going to show it to anybody who challenged him, his family, Irish Catholics, just about anybody else. He took offense at just about everything.

DAVIES: Now, people who remember Bobby Kennedy as a great American progressive and a champion of civil rights and an opponent of the Vietnam War would be surprised at what he did in his younger years, including working for Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy who, in the 1950s, was the famous red-baiter who made accusations he couldn't substantiate, damaged the lives and careers of so many people. Let's talk a bit about that part of Bobby Kennedy's life. How do he know Joe McCarthy the senator?

TYE: He knew Joe McCarthy because Joe Kennedy knew Joe McCarthy. They were pals. When Joe McCarthy would come through Palm Beach, he would stop off at the Kennedys. He would have a drink and a conversation with Joe. He had a little bit of a crush on two of Bobby's sisters. And it was natural when Bobby was finishing up with his law school and his early jobs and looking for how to launch a career, it was natural for Joe Kennedy to offer guidance and for Bobby to take it. And that guidance was go to work for my pal Joe McCarthy.

DAVIES: Who was making a name for himself finding communists everywhere in the government. What kind of work did Bobby Kennedy do for McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations?

TYE: He did some of the best investigations that McCarthy ever did, the ones that stood up to scrutiny. He took on, for instance, an investigation - at the time, we were in the war in Korea - why our allies were shipping not just supplies but even shipping troops to our enemies. And he asked the tough questions that the British didn't like our asking, that other allies like the Greeks didn't like and that Joe McCarthy did like. So he was doing work involved with an anti-communist cause that Bobby very much believed in but. He was doing much more solid and much less of the witch hunt kind of investigations that Joe McCarthy was known for and that brought down McCarthy.

DAVIES: Did he believe in McCarthy's, you know, intense hatred and, you know, let's be honest, paranoia about the influence of communism in American society?

TYE: He absolutely believed in that. He said that McCarthy was one of the few people who had the courage to stand up to communism. Bobby also thought whatever excess there was in McCarthy had more to do with Roy Cohn, who was his nominal boss in the McCarthy office and somebody he despised from the beginning.

So the way he justified the bad side of McCarthy was that was Roy Cohn. In terms of the sense that there were communists out there in the State Department and other parts of the U.S. government who could be undermining what we were trying to do, Bobby believed in that almost as fiercely as Joe McCarthy and the rest of his supporters.

DAVIES: I think he did two tours working for McCarthy, right, adding up to a year or less.

TYE: Yeah, a total of just seven and a half months in all. But that was seven and a half months where he believed in the mission. It wasn't accidental that he stayed there that time.

DAVIES: And did he break McCarthy with McCarthy because he became disillusioned with the cause?

DAVIES: He actually rejected McCarthy because he wasn't going anywhere, it was clear to him, in terms of the office because of Roy Cohn. But it was never a break over the cause. It was never a break with McCarthy personally. It was a separation because he felt that he wasn't going anywhere there.

DAVIES: Joe McCarthy was an alcoholic, didn't live very long. He died in 1957 at the time Bobby Kennedy was still a young Senate staffer. Tell us about his funeral and Bobby.

TYE: Sure. So at the McCarthy funeral - this is in Appleton, Wis. - senators - 19 senators in total, seven congressmen, lots of other luminaries, all people who believed in McCarthy, flew in for the funeral. And they were - as soon as the plane landed, they were whisked away from Green Bay - the airport - to Appleton, where the funeral was going to be.

And after everybody had gone, there was one small guy who walks off the plane at that point. He had sat there waiting to make sure everybody else was gone. He slipped on the exit ramp unnoticed. And that was Bobby Kennedy.

And this was, to me, a reflection of the two sides of Bobby Kennedy. On the one hand, he was ultimately loyal to him as a person. He still believed in the cause. And he wasn't about to do what Jack Kennedy did, which was - stay away because it wasn't politically popular to be there for a Democrat and for a Democrat who wanted liberal support.

On the other hand, Bobby understood that what he was doing was controversial. So not only did he get off the plane quietly. At the church with the funeral, he sat in the choir by himself, basically hiding out a bit. At the graveside, he stood apart from everybody else who was there from official Washington.

And after all of this was done, he asked the reporters who were on hand to basically not put in their stories that he had been there. And that was a day when reporters obliged in that kind of request. And Bobby - so this was Bobby the loyalist and Bobby the practical guy who understood the implications of what he had done by going to his pal Joe's funeral.

DAVIES: So what did this experience of serving for this, you know, anti-communist witch hunter do for Bobby Kennedy's career, his character, his worldview?

TYE: I think it did a couple things. One was - the later Bobby Kennedy would have been even more critical of that early period, I think, than we're being right now. I think that he saw over time the excesses. He began to understand John McCarthy's victims. And it made him, like lots of things in his early life, more sensitive and more empathetic later on.

But I also think, in practical terms, while most of what McCarthy did ended up being discredited, Bobby's investigation stood up in a way that nobody else's did. And while it was ultimately Democrats and Republicans who came together to censor Joe McCarthy, what many people don't realize is the report that both the Democrats and uncharacteristically, the Republicans signed onto in this censure was a report that was prepared largely by Bobby Kennedy.

So even as he stayed loyal to him as a friend, he understood the excesses. And he understood those excesses as being mainly the fault, as we've said, of Roy Cohn, not Joe McCarthy.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Larry Tye. His new book is "Bobby Kennedy: The Making Of A Liberal Icon." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Larry Tye. He has a new book about Bobby Kennedy called "Bobby Kennedy: The Making Of A Liberal Icon."

Bobby Kennedy was intensely loyal to his family, as I think all the Kennedys were. And his older brother John Kennedy, Jack, was elected to Congress in 1946, I believe, into the United States Senate from Massachusetts in '52. In '56, he made an effort for vice president, and then in 1960 successfully campaigned for president. And Bobby Kennedy was called upon to play critical roles in those campaigns. What kind of mettle did he show as a political operative?

TYE: He was the perfect consigliere or lieutenant for Jack Kennedy. Jack could be out there smiling and trying to say yes to people, and he knew that Bobby was backstopping him and saying no where he had to be saying no. He would go into a situation like a divided New York delegation and he would tell them I don't give a damn what happens to any of you the day after the election. I want my brother to be president.

And he would basically knock heads together in a way that he knew just how far he could go and in a way that Jack could never do on his own. And so I'm convinced that without Bobby Kennedy running that campaign in 1960, there's no way that Jack Kennedy would have been president. If I could tell you just one quick story...

DAVIES: Please.

TYE: ...From that '60 race that I think captures both Bobby's effectiveness and Bobby's willing after the fact to fudge a little bit in telling the true story, and that is when we look back to 1960 and see how incredibly close this election was, lots of people over the years have speculated on why Jack Kennedy won. Some people say that in the first televised presidential debates, he outperformed and out-looked (ph) Richard Nixon. Others say it was having LBJ as his vice president. I'm convinced the way that Dwight Eisenhower, the outgoing president, was convinced that it was two phone calls that Jack and Bobby Kennedy made just before the election.

Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested in Atlanta for driving with an out-of-state license on sort of trumped-up charges. He was in jail. His supporters were worried that something bad could happen to him in jail. And Richard Nixon and the Eisenhower administration stayed silent on that arrest.

Jack Kennedy made a phone call from his hotel room to Martin Luther King's wife Coretta basically just expressing his sympathy for what had happened to Martin. And that phone call became very controversial, and supposedly Bobby was very upset. He worried that it could alienate white supporters in the South.

Well, it turns out after the fact, we now know that Bobby Kennedy was not only enthusiastic about that phone call that he made his own second phone call to the trial judge who was the one who was deciding whether or not to let King go - it was a phone call for a lawyer that was totally inappropriate. It was a phone call politically that was exactly what was needed. He made the call. The judge agreed that there were - it was easy for him to leave - to let Martin Luther King out of jail.

And what ended up happening because of those phone calls is leaflets went out in every black church in almost all of America the Sunday before the election saying essentially don't vote for heartless Richard Nixon. Vote for the candidate with a heart - Jack Kennedy. When Martin Luther King got out of jail, he made special mention of Jack Kennedy's helping with him. Martin Luther King's father said no matter that he's a Catholic. I'm going to put all my votes in a suitcase, and I'm going to take them down to the polling place and vote for Jack Kennedy.

It was quite extraordinary in terms of that black turnout. And it made a difference in four or five states where the results were incredibly close. So rather than being dead voters in Chicago or people who voted twice, I think it was those two phone calls orchestrated by Bobby Kennedy that helped elect Jack president in 1960.

DAVIES: Yeah, people forget that a lot of African-Americans voted for Republicans back then in the older Republican tradition.

TYE: They did. It was the party of Lincoln. And it became the party of Lincoln in the Lincoln days, and that lasted until 1960. Richard Nixon got a substantially-lower percent of the black vote than Eisenhower had gotten four years before. Had he even come close to equaling Eisenhower's percentage, he would have been in the White House instead of Jack.

DAVIES: Before we leave the 1960 presidential campaign, I want to talk a little bit about Lyndon Baines Johnson. You know, coming into that year, he was the Senate majority leader from Texas, an incredibly powerful figure in Washington with presidential ambitions, which would collide with Jack Kennedy's. And Bobby Kennedy played a role in trying to work that relationship, and the result was pretty toxic. Tell us a little bit about it.

TYE: Sure. So it was a relationship from the first time they ever met, which was in the United States Senate. I think it was in the cafeteria. Bobby Kennedy is sitting there with his boss Joe McCarthy. And Lyndon Johnson comes by, and they shake hands. But there was a sense from that moment from people who were there describing it that these were like two wild dogs who just - who had a feeling, a visceral feeling that they didn't relate.

They were - one was a - Harvard bred, the guy who had grown up with lots of silver spoons, Joe Kennedy's entitled son from Massachusetts, from a Brahmin Catholic family. The other was a guy who grew up poor in Texas, who had a sense that he had had to fight for everything he had and had a sense that Bobby was entitled in a way that he called him a young punk. And they each failed to see in those early days and later on how they both shared values. They both were willing to fight as dirty as it took in the early days. But also, they were fighting for something that they passionately believed in, whether it was civil rights, whether it was poverty. They both came to those issues late.

So had they ever had an alliance, it could have been one of the most effective alliances in American political history. But they hated one another from the start. Bobby didn't want him as Jack's vice president and only reluctantly accepted that politically he had to be on the ticket. But Bobby never liked it and never hid that from Lyndon Johnson.

DAVIES: John Kennedy becomes the president in 1960, and his younger brother Bobby becomes attorney general at what age?

TYE: At the age of 35, the youngest - I think it was the third-youngest in history.

DAVIES: He wasn't just the guy running the Justice Department, of course. He was - had a very close relationship with his brother and advised him on a lot of things. This was a period where, you know, there was this commitment to civil rights by the Kennedys. But it was a time when civil rights leaders - Martin Luther King and others - were more aggressively demanding real change.

The freedom riders were, you know, courageously riding these buses to try and integrate interstate transportation in the South. There were efforts of young black students to attend all-white universities in Mississippi and Alabama, which led to intense and violent confrontations. And so the question was how would the Kennedys, who were concerned about the political support of Southern white Democrats, deal with this issue. And there are, of course, a lot of ways to evaluate this. But in retrospect, probably not a civil rights record that Bobby Kennedy is - would point to with pride, is it?

TYE: Like everything in Bobby Kennedy's life, his civil rights era, even in the Justice Department days, had two phases. The first phase was what I would call the political and the clueless phase. And that was where Bobby looked at everything that was going on like the freedom riders who were trying to integrate the buses, the interstate buses in the Deep South. He looked at them as a distraction from the Kennedy agenda. Jack was going to have a summit with Nikita Khrushchev.

And what Bobby wanted was nothing that would embarrass him in the eyes of the world. So yes, something was going on in Alabama and in Mississippi. He would deal with it, but only when he had to and only in a cautious and sort of last-minute way. And that was in 1961 and '62. By '63, he had had the kind of turnaround that he did on lots of issues, where he began to see that it wasn't just laws in America that had to be changed, but it was something basic to the soul of America in terms of what was going on - that this was an issue of justice, that this was an issue that required him not to do the minimum but to be out in front.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Larry Tye, author of the new book "Bobby Kennedy: The Making Of A Liberal Icon." After a break, they'll talk more about his transformation from anti-communist to liberal icon, and we'll hear an excerpt of the speech he gave after Martin Luther King's assassination. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with journalist Larry Tye, author of the new book "Bobby Kennedy: The Making Of A Liberal Icon." It follows Kennedy's transformation from staunch anti-communist, who worked for red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, to becoming the liberal hopeful in the 1968 presidential primary, a campaign that was ended by his assassination.

DAVIES: What was Bobby's relationship with Martin Luther King?

TYE: It was a relationship of two guys who were feeling one another out, I think who had a sense that they ought to like one another but didn't like one another. Bobby Kennedy never quite trusted King. When J. Edgar Hoover was feeding Bobby all kinds of dirt on King having ties to communists, stuff that was patently untrue, Bobby Kennedy believed it enough that he didn't - he was there as the protector of his brother Jack Kennedy. And he wanted to always keep a distance between Jack Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

It wasn't just King's aides that Bobby worried about. It was King himself. And yet, Martin Luther King had a sense that Bobby Kennedy was somebody who could be won over, that given time that Bobby Kennedy would come around. And he proved right, even if he didn't necessarily live to see the dramatic turn around.

DAVIES: Kennedy was attorney general, which means he runs the Justice Department, which includes the FBI, whose director, J. Edgar Hoover, decides he wants to wiretap - you know, run electronic surveillance on Martin Luther King. Did Kennedy know? How did he respond?

TYE: Kennedy initially responded by telling Hoover, no, let's wait. And eventually Hoover was the kind of guy who knew exactly how to play a guy like Bobby Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy was, as the attorney general, the FBI director's boss. But Hoover had been around forever. He had lived through lots of presidents and lots of attorneys general. And he knew that if he kept going back to Bobby with new pieces of dirt, Bobby would eventually say yes, and he did. He said the wiretap was OK.

DAVIES: And there were microphones in hotel rooms and extramarital affairs recorded. How did Bobby feel about all that?

TYE: He was distressed by it. He tried to bring back - save - when he knew that Hoover was leaking some of the tapes about the dirt that they found out on Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy tried to get the reports withdrawn, tried to ensure that the leaks stopped. But he couldn't do it. Hoover was a much better inside player and Bobby Kennedy felt badly for two reasons. One is he realized he had gone too far and that he had sided with the wrong guy when it came to the choice between Hoover and King. And the other reason was, later politically, it was an embarrassment to him that he had had electronic surveillance on the civil rights icon Martin Luther King.

DAVIES: One thing you see when you look at Bobby Kennedy as attorney general is that he was a man of action. He would - he would - he would act decisively. How did he grow and change? What do you think he learned from his experiences at the Justice Department?

TYE: So I think from his experiences at the Justice Department and throughout his life, he paid attention to what went right and wrong. He grew by actually seeing things up close. He took things to heart in a way that few politicians do. The notion of the kind of change that he did, which was a huge transformation from a cold warrior to America's most hot-blooded liberal, today we would dismiss maybe as a flip flop because we're cynical. I think it was a really deep change, a real change.

And as a sign of how dramatically he could change and how he learned, I want to just tell a quick story from when Bobby Kennedy was a senator from New York. He was elected in 1964, and early into his term, he did a trip from Washington with fellow senators to Jackson, Miss., where they were holding a hearing on hunger in America. And at that hearing, he heard testimony from a young civil rights lawyer named Marian Wright about just how horrible things were.

And while the other senators flew back to Washington to - for the weekend, Bobby and one other senator, Joe Clark, the chairman of that subcommittee, insisted that they wanted to see what she had been describing. And they went to an area called the Mississippi Delta, one of the great bread baskets of America. And they were shown around a bunch of poor shacks where people were living 15 to a shack. And Bobby Kennedy in one of these shacks, when he thought nobody else was around and watching, Bobby Kennedy went into the home where an infant was sitting in a bed up on

bricks. This was people living in dire poverty. Bobby Kennedy saw a toddler on the floor who was playing around with his corn meal. And there were flies overhead and it was a really moving scene. And he looked at this young boy. He got down in his dress suit on the floor with this boy, and he spent 10 or 15 minutes trying to make some sort of contact.

The boy was clearly - he had a bloated stomach from the poverty and from the malnutrition. He was not focusing on Bobby, and he went home after that hearing and did two things that I think very few senators would have done. One is he met with the secretary of agriculture and he insisted that this guy Orville Freeman check out what was going on with his food programs that you had to have in those days a certain amount of money to be able to buy food stamps. And Bobby said that what he had seen in the Delta convinced him that they were Americans who had absolutely no income and were starving. Freeman agreed to send his aide and Bobby's aide back to Mississippi and that if they found that what Bobby said was true they would change the rules of the anti-poverty program. They found that it was true, and they changed the rules. So one thing is he went back and he got a very concrete effect from what he had seen.

The other was he went home to Hickory Hill and to his family's estate in McLean, Va. And he sat down at the Sunday dinner table with his kids and he said, I have just seen something so horrific that I want you to understand that we have all that we need to eat. We live an extraordinarily privileged life. But not only are people starving in places like Mississippi, but you've got a responsibility in your life to do something about it the same way I do. And his kids say if there's nothing else they ever remembered about his lecturing them it was the impassioned way he came back and made them understand that they had to see what he had seen in Mississippi and understand it.

DAVIES: Larry Tye's book is "Bobby Kennedy: The Making Of A Liberal Icon." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Larry Tye. He has a new book about Bobby Kennedy. It's called "The Making Of A Liberal Icon." When Bobby Kennedy was in the Justice Department serving his brother John F. Kennedy, he wasn't just the attorney general.

He was a close advisor in every way. And one thing that is remembered about that administration is Jack Kennedy's well-known extramarital affairs. You write that they took quite a toll on Bobby Kennedy himself. How?

TYE: So I think he understood just what Jack was doing. And he understood how important it was that the public didn't understand just what Jack was doing. And so as he did in every aspect of Jack Kennedy's life and career, he came in and tried to take a certain amount of control to save his brother.

And I think that a lot of the what in those days was the press being willing to go along with that kind of thing and not to write about it - a lot of that was encouraged by Bobby, who just tried to ensure that as few people would know about it as possible and that those people wouldn't breathe a word.

DAVIES: There was one case where there was a woman - I believe a German woman - that Jack Kennedy was involved with, who security officials believed might have been a communist spy, right?

TYE: Yes. And Bob Kennedy helped ensure that that woman didn't stay around in Washington very long. Bob Kennedy's critics said that he actually kidnapped her or that his people did and flew her out of the country. I think it was a bit less dramatic than that. But it was classic Bobby Kennedy ensuring that Jack's excesses were something the public wouldn't find out about until a generation later.

DAVIES: We should note that Joe Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy family, was himself a famous philanderer - a long-term relationship with actress Gloria Swanson. And he didn't discourage this among his boys, did he?

TYE: He set a model for his boys that was a difficult one, in terms of them knowing, I think, quite openly how he had had extramarital affairs. And I think he never did anything to discourage it and may have actively encouraged it in some ways. And I think it was very difficult.

And it was especially difficult for somebody who was as legitimately puritanical and was as much a man of his Catholic faith as Bobby Kennedy was. All of that created a strain, I think, for him.

DAVIES: Do we know if Bobby Kennedy was himself completely faithful to his wife Ethel?

TYE: We have people who say that he might not have been. I can't say definitively. I think that what we can say is - he was certainly a whole lot more faithful than his father or his brothers.

DAVIES: Larry Tye's book is "Bobby Kennedy: The Making Of A Liberal Icon." Well, as we all know, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November of 1963. What was the effect of this on Bobby?

TYE: In a word, it was cataclysmic. Bobby initially rallied in a way that very few people could ever have done. It was classic Bobby Kennedy. He knew that the family had to be held together. He knew that the transition to LBJ had to happen as smoothly as possible. And he knew the country needed a mourner like him who had more credibility than anybody, with the possible exception of Jackie.

So in the early days, he held it together in a way that was extraordinary. He got everybody in the family doing one job or another. It was Bobby who did everything from - set up the funeral to view the open casket and decide whether the casket should be open or closed. He was the nation's No. 1 mourner-in-chief in those early days.

And just at a moment - about a month out, when the rest of the country finally was sort of getting beyond this horrific assassination of the president and even the rest of the family were going back to things that were their normal lives - that was a moment that Bobby lost it. He had what I think we would today call a clinical depression - an understandable depression.

He had lost not just his boss. He had lost his best friend. He had lost the brother, who - in those days, the classic expression was the Kennedy brothers because they were as close to a co-presidency as we would ever see in this country. And suddenly, this guy was ripped out of his world in a horrific way.

And he had also - in addition to all the normal reasons he had to mourn, he had one other reason, which was, I think, something that gnawed on him until the end - was never knowing whether any of the things that he had done, whether it was going after Fidel Castro or going after organized crime figures or going after Jimmy Hoffa - whether any of that had been behind his brother's assassination.

He had no reason to know for sure whether it was, which made him, I think, really feel this guilt that he could never express that he might have been a part of that.

DAVIES: Bobby Kennedy stayed in Lyndon Johnson's administration for about a year and then left and was elected senator from New York. And from 1964 to '68, he was - well, he was a junior senator, not somebody with a lot of power in the Senate, which is very tradition-bound. But he wielded enormous influence, didn't he?

TYE: He did. He was something that the Constitution may not recognize. But as a reality, he was one of the few people who was a national senator. He may have been representing the state of New York. But if you judge by his mail, if you judge by his clout, if you judge by the way his fellow senators treated him, he was somebody who had extraordinary power.

And even people who didn't like him in the U.S. Senate understood that this guy might someday be president and that he came partly with a mantle that he was Jack Kennedy's surviving brother and partly with a sense that on his own, he was an extraordinarily powerful and effective political figure.

So he had influence on issues ranging from fighting poverty to eventually fighting the war against Vietnam that no other senator had in those days.

DAVIES: You know, Jack Kennedy was a natural speaker. And he was a very charming guy. Bobby Kennedy wasn't, particularly. How did he find a political voice?

TYE: So you said that Jack Kennedy was a natural speaker. I would say that Jack Kennedy was a natural politician. He spoke eloquently. He had a sense of just what to say and what not to say to make people smile. He just - there was something about him, an entire aura that we would today sort of call, in a way that I think has become a cliche, charisma.

But Jack Kennedy had it. And Bobby didn't. And yet, Bobby made people believe, the same way he had as a child when he was trying to get his dad's attention - he made people believe that he had something to say. It was a halting style if you listened to his speeches.

But it was clear that he believed in this, that he was passionate about it, that he was more willing to be provocative than his brother had been. And people related to that. They had a sense that this guy was somebody that believes strongly enough that they could believe in him without getting burned or feeling he let them down.

TYE: He was more willing to be provocative than his brother had been. And people related to that. They had a sense that this guy was somebody that believes strongly enough that they could believe in him without getting burned or feeling he let them down.

DAVIES: When 1968 approached, Kennedy was a senator. President Lyndon Johnson was - was to be running for re-election and the Vietnam War was increasingly unpopular. How did Bobby Kennedy see the prospect of becoming a presidential candidate? So many people wanted him to.

TYE: Initially he resisted. All the anti-Vietnam people, all the powerful liberals had come to him and said you've got to be the one to challenge Lyndon Johnson. You're the one person who could take him on, who could make the war the issue that it deserves to be, and you've got to be our standard-bearer.

And Bobby Kennedy was hesitant. He was hesitant partly because he thought if he did it in 1968, it would keep him from being a credible candidate in later years when he would have a better chance. He didn't do it because he thought it was anathema to the whole Kennedy doctrine of being a loyal Democrat, to take on your own party's sitting president. And he didn't do it because something in him - he had two things tearing at him - the feeling that he owed it to the issues to do it and the feeling that he owed it to the party and to his family not to do it.

And so what he ended up doing was devastating. He ended up getting into it exactly four days after McCarthy had shown just how vulnerable LBJ was by beating him. When you added in the Republican write-in votes, McCarthy beat Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire. And four days later, when Bobby Kennedy jumped in, he looked like he was not just an opportunist but like he was justifying that old tag of being ruthless, when in fact he had made the decision to jump in eight days before New Hampshire.

He didn't do it for a number of reasons, including that McCarthy had had - had had all this work put in in New Hampshire, and he didn't want to upstage him in New Hampshire. And the probably - the postscript on that whole thing that more people remember than anything else was when LBJ's press secretary had this biting quip about Bobby Kennedy. She said it took Bobby Kennedy 17 years to come out against McCarthy, and then it was the wrong McCarthy.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Right. And to clarify for folks who don't know this history - this was Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war senator from Wisconsin, not Joe McCarthy, the red-baiting senator from the '50s.

This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Larry Tye. He has a new book about Bobby Kennedy. It's called The Making of a liberal icon. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with writer Larry Tye. His new book about Bobby Kennedy is called "The Making Of A Liberal Icon." 1968 was a year unlike any other. I mean, President Lyndon Johnson announced on television he would not be running for re-election. He dropped out of the race. Four days later, Martin Luther King is assassinated in Memphis, and Bobby Kennedy was campaigning in Indiana at the time. And we have a little bit of the speech that he made that night. You want to just set this up for us? Tell us what the circumstance was.

TYE: Sure. So Bobby gets off the plane in Indianapolis and is told that Martin Luther King has been shot. The mayor of Indianapolis, a guy who went on to become a U.S. senator named Richard Lugar says to Bobby, you will not go into the inner city to the rally. You will not go there because your safety will be jeopardized and the safety of the city will be jeopardized.

Bobby Kennedy says, you're not going to tell me where to go or not to go. He goes into the inner city. He tells people who are at this rally, for the first time many of them, that Martin Luther King has been shot, and by then he had been killed. And Bobby Kennedy - that was the first time, since Jack had been assassinated, that he talked about the pain of having somebody that you loved die.

He had a credibility that no white politician would have had. And in just about every big city in America, the night that Martin Luther King was killed there were race riots. There was no race riot in Indianapolis, and I think that was because of Bobby Kennedy.

DAVIES: All right. Let's listen to a bit of this. This is an edited version - I will tell you because the speech is too long - but this is Bobby Kennedy speaking to a crowd in Indianapolis on the night that Martin Luther King was assassinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOBBY KENNEDY: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening because I have some very sad news for all of you. Could you lower those signs please? I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tenn.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness. But is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King. Yeah, it's true. But, more importantly, to say a prayer for our own country which all of us love, a prayer for understanding and that compassion that which I spoke.

DAVIES: And that was Robert Kennedy speaking in 1968 to a crowd in Indianapolis right after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Bobby Kennedy is assassinated after winning the California primary at the Ambassador Hotel. There was no Secret Service protection then. It's a horrific tragedy. Are there any lingering questions about whether his assassin Sirhan Sirhan acted alone?

TYE: There are almost as many questions about what happened with Bobby Kennedy's assassination as there are about Jack's, and I don't pretend to be able to clear those up. All I can say is that I found nothing that convinced me that there was a conspiracy that had been laid out in convincing enough terms that I could believe it.

DAVIES: You - in researching the book, you were given access to 58 boxes of Kennedy's papers which 'til then were kept secret by the family. You spoke to Ethel Kennedy, his widow, at great length and many others. I wonder if you could share with us a moment from some of - either the interviews or looking through those materials when you just said, wow.

TYE: So I want to say two things about having some access that might not have been available to others beforehand. Part of it was I was chasing two really difficult demons. One is the demon of age in that the people I was trying to interview were contemporaries of Bobby Kennedy, and he would have turned 90 this year. So part of it was getting to them at a moment when they were still around, and the other demon was the demon of senility. I was trying to get to them when they were around and when they could remember what had actually happened.

And it was a magical moment. I interviewed 400 people - a third of whom are gone now in just the two and a half, three years that I was working on the book - but the - my biggest wow moment was sitting with Ethel Kennedy. And it wasn't so much what she said. It was my testing out on her every theory - good and bad - that I had about Bobby, and she was extraordinarily honest in telling me things about him that the Kennedy mythmakers might not wanted to have admitted.

They were things like the fact that he had a very sincere and real friendship with Joe McCarthy. There were things like the fact that McCarthy may be a nightmare to most of liberal America, but as a person he was actually a very charming guy. There were things about Bobby and Jack's relationship - the way that they related so much that they didn't need verbal communication. They just instinctively got what one another was saying. And she let me test in a way that nobody else who was alive or who wasn't alive understood Bobby the way that Ethel did. And she opened up and I think she opened up not because of me, she opened up because she was aging - Ethel has just turned 88 - and she saw that it was me or nobody. And she wanted to tell some of these stories.

DAVIES: Larry Tye, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TYE: Thanks for having me on.

GROSS: Larry Tye is the author of the new book "Bobby Kennedy: The Making Of A Liberal Icon." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies who is also WHYY's senior reporter.

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