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During the 1960s, Robert F. Kennedy distinguished himself as a politician who advocated for good housing for the poor, an end to hunger, for high-quality education, and equal rights for all Americans. However, the dream that Robert F. Kennedy might become the next president of the United States was shattered in 1968 when, like his brother John, Robert was assassinated. Although Bobby Kennedy’s life came to a tragic early end, he left behind an enduring legacy as both a social reformer and a writer. His book, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1969), and the much-anthologized speech he composed in memorial of Martin Luther King, Jr., are classics of their respective forms.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born into an Extraordinary Family
Robert Francis Kennedy was born into the large Kennedy family on November 20, 1925. His parents, Joseph and Rose, already had six children, and after Bobby was born, they would have two more. The Kennedys were a wealthy Irish Catholic family living in Brookline, Massachusetts. Politics surged in the blood of the Kennedy children, perhaps a vestige of Rose’s father, who had been mayor of Boston. At the age of four, the family relocated to New York where Kennedy attended school in Bronxville. He was not an extraordinary student, although he did display the true love of reading that his parents had instilled in him. Joseph and Rose raised their children according to a strict code of values. They emphasized hard work and dedication, and Kennedy absorbed these values eagerly.
The Kennedys relocated to Great Britain in 1936, after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt elected Joseph to be an ambassador in England. The Kennedys were given the royal treatment during their time in England, but returned to the States when World War II broke out in 1939. Back in America, despite mediocre grades, Kennedy managed to gain attendance to Harvard University in 1944, where he made more of a name for himself as a football player than as someone who excelled at academics. Kennedy’s life would continue to be affected by World War II. During the conflict, his brother, Joe, Jr., was killed while serving in the Air Force. Joe’s death kept
Robert from having to enter battle during his own stint in the Navy, but the tragic event set a precedent of early deaths that would haunt the Kennedy family for years to come.
After his time in the military, Kennedy returned to school, first completing his studies at Harvard; then attending the University of Virginia Law School. While there, his sister Jean introduced him to her roommate, a young woman who had quite a lot in common with Kennedy. Both he and Ethel Skakel were from Catholic families, came from great wealth, and had tremendous ability in sports. Kennedy and Ethel fell in love.
Mounting a Career in Politics
In 1946, Robert Kennedy took his first steps into the arena of politics. His older brother, John, was running for congress in Massachusetts, and Robert was enlisted to manage the campaign. Kennedy’s next political move was a controversial one as he worked as a legal assistant to Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was mounting his infamous hunt for communists in the United States. The Kennedy family were all strong McCarthy supporters and anti-communists, despite the fact that McCarthy’s efforts were eventually regarded as little more than a self-serving witch hunt. During that time, Kennedy made a decidedly less controversial move when he wed Ethel in 1950.
In 1952, Kennedy continued helping his brother John’s political career when he worked as campaign manager for the elder Kennedy’s run for the Senate. Eight years later, he managed John’s successful presidential campaign. Once in office, John offered his brother a position in his cabinet as attorney general. Although Kennedy was reluctant to accept the job—fearing that some would regard it as mere nepotism—he eventually took the position.
Throughout John F. Kennedy’s presidency, Robert Kennedy worked as a close advisor to his brother, who had quite a lot to handle during the socially and politically volatile decade that was just beginning. The early 1960s were marked by civil rights demonstrations that often exploded into violence. The Kennedys worked to keep such violence from escalating, and became strong supporters of the civil rights movement, which sought to win equal rights for black Americans. In October of 1962, the Kennedys faced one of the greatest challenges any politician would ever face, when the communist Soviet Union moved nuclear-armed missiles into Cuba, just ninety miles from Florida, and pointed them at the United States. The thirteen-day period, during which the Kennedys raced to defuse this potentially disastrous situation, came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Kennedys hoped to avoid going to war, but refused to accept a missile threat at such proximity. Robert Kennedy suggested a naval quarantine approach, and the Soviets eventually began to retreat.
Kennedy chronicled the terrifying events of the Cuban Missile Crisis in his book, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In his book, Kennedy provides an enthralling account of the face-off between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that could have resulted in nuclear war. His writing is clear and direct as he details the events with an insider’s perspective. Despite the simplicity of his prose, the sheer tension of the situation makes the book a decidedly dramatic read. The book became a bestseller when it was published in 1969.
The Tragic Deaths of Family and Friends
Tragedy may have been averted when Robert Kennedy helped resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it reared its head again on a fateful day in November 1963. During a motorcade trip through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. Whether or not Oswald had accomplices has been a matter of debate ever since that day. Robert Kennedy was stunned by the second untimely death of one of his brothers. Perhaps no one else in the family was as close to John as was Robert.
Following John F. Kennedy’s death, Robert Kennedy continued to serve as attorney general under Lyndon B. Johnson until 1964, when he decided to run for the Senate in New York. Upon winning the race, Robert was not the only senator in the Kennedy family; his brother, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, was a senator in Massachusetts, continuing the family’s role in politics. His commitment to civil rights and to fighting poverty endeared him to many Americans. In spite of his wealthy background, Kennedy was empathetic to the trials of America’s poor. His tours through impoverished communities throughout the nation made him aware that many others were not as lucky as he.
Robert Kennedy, and the nation as a whole, suffered a horrible blow on April 4, 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. The death of the man who had done so much to forward the civil rights movement inspired Kennedy to compose another significant piece of literary significance. Like Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the speech Kennedy delivered on the day of King’s death is a direct, clearly phrased meditation on a moment that would live in infamy. He began simply, speaking to the American people with the intimacy of a friend: ”I have bad news for you, 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 killed tonight.” Kennedy goes on to praise a man who ”dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and died for that effort.” Kennedy also conjures an image of racial unity when he says, ”But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land” and ends with the eloquent plea to ”tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” The speech would be regarded as a classic of oration and appear in numerous anthologies over the years.
A Tragic End to a Promising Career
Kennedy boldly chose not to support President Johnson’s increasing military campaign in communist Vietnam. Kennedy called for an end to the Vietnam War through peaceful negotiations. Johnson, however, called on his military to mount bombing campaigns in the Asian country, formerly colonized by the French. Many politicians and Americans denounced Kennedy for his anti-war sentiments, but many—particularly the increasingly politically-aware younger generation—supported him as a new brand of politician. On March 31, 1968, Kennedy announced that he intended to run for president.
Kennedy’s campaign was an impressive one. In the California primaries, he defeated Senator Eugene McCarthy, who had been shaping up as the only other viable candidate for the party’s nomination. On June 4, 1968, Kennedy gave an address to his supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. While the candidate was passing through the hotel’s kitchen, a young Palestinian man named Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert Kennedy.
Works in Literary Context
In the second half of the twentieth century, politicians often composed their memoirs as a means to preserve their political legacy in their own words, apologize for some wrongdoing, or ”set the record straight” on some controversial issue. One of the first examples of the political memoir arrived in 1947 when former Secretary of State James F. Byrnes published Speaking Frankly, an account of his time in office. The political memoir would not become a prominent genre until the 1960s, when CIA director Allen W. Dulles, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy published their memoirs. Today, the political memoir is a major genre, responsible for bestselling books by former president Bill Clinton, his wife Senator Hillary Clinton, and President Barack Obama.
A eulogy is a speech written in praise of a person, often composed after that person has died. The word is a derivation of the Greek words for ”you” and ”word.” Although eulogies are often given during funeral services, certain religions—such as Catholicism—generally do not include them. Eulogies in praise of public figures have occasionally achieved a degree of literary fame outside their original contexts. The eulogy that Robert F. Kennedy gave in honor of slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of the most famous eulogies and has often been anthologized in literary collections. Other famous eulogies include actor Ossie Davis’s eulogy of human rights activist Malcolm X and comedian John Cle-ese’s eulogy for friend and partner in comedy Graham Chapman.
Works in Critical Context
Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis
Robert F. Kennedy’s posthumously published memoir has received its share of praise. A review in The New York Times Book Review by David Schoenbrun declared, ”As a principal figure in resolving the crisis Robert Kennedy brings to it extraordinary authority, with his own insights, perspectives and very important revelations of the decision-making process at the highest level, on the brink of nuclear holocaust. . . . Above all, perhaps his most valuable contribution is the way he recounts the events of what, superficially, seems to have been exclusively a military crisis, while constantly posing moral and philosophical problems.” However, the book has also been called into question by critics who debate its accuracy regarding the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 2008, diplomat Richard Holbrooke wrote in The New York Times: ”In ‘Thirteen Days’… Bobby Kennedy carefully edited his account of [the negotiations] to remove any hint of a deal on Turkey. But almost from the beginning, many people suspected the truth, and looking back on it today, it may seem surprising to see how hard the Kennedys sought to conceal it.”
- Clarke, Thurston. The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2008.
- Eppridge, Bill. A Time it Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties. New York: Abrams, 2008.
- Halberstam, David. The Unfinished Odysey of Robert Kennedy. New York: Random House, 1969.
- Newfield, Jack. Robert Kennedy: A Memoir. New York: Dutton, 1969.
- Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. Robert Kennedy and His Times. New York: Mariner Books, 2002.
- Thomas, Evan. Robert Kennedy: His Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
- Holbrooke, Richard. ”Real W.M.D.’s.” The New York Times (June 22, 2008).
- Death of Martin Luther King Speech by Robert F. Kennedy: April 4th 1968. Accessed December 9, 2008, from http://www.famousquotes.me.uk/ speeches/John_F_Kennedy/8.htm.
- Robert F. Kennedy Memorial.com. Robert F. Kennedy Memorial. Accessed December 9, 2008, from http://www.rfkmemorial.org.
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