On the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, his brother Robert F. Kennedy was enjoying a swim and eating a sandwich at his home in Virginia.
This is how John Bohrer’s “The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protest After JFK” (Bloomsbury Press, $30) opens, bursting into the event that marked the end of a president’s life and the end of an era. For then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, it was the beginning of a transformation that was both personal and political.
With details about tuna sandwiches and dialogue ranging from the conversational to the congressional, Bohrer’s biography spans the three years after JFK’s death and culminates two years to the day from Robert Kennedy’s own untimely passing at the hands of an assassin. It’s logical that the first glimpse readers get of Robert Kennedy is at this particular moment, because to understand his close relationship with his brother is to fully comprehend the enormity of the vacancy JFK’s death left behind. Not only did he lose a sibling, confidante and role model, RFK also lost his president and unparalleled access to the leader of the free world. He also lost his job security.
Bohrer chronicles RFK’s initial weeks, months and years of personal grief over JFK’s death, but the titular “revolution” is more than just one from heartbreak to healing: Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, who was often attacked and discounted as a calculating, ruthless behind-the-scenes force who would risk relationships and respect in order to get his brother what he wanted, had to decide what his next career move would be. Colleagues and constituents alike wondered for months: would he stay in politics, and could others do for him what he had done for John F. Kennedy?
And when Bobby decided to run for office — first seeking the vice presidency under Lyndon Johnson, his brother’s successor and his longtime rival, and then running for a seat in the Senate — the ultimate question was whether the Kennedy name was a qualification or a liability. Because to Bobby Kennedy, his own political career was inseparable from his brother John F. Kennedy’s legacy.
Bohrer proves that the personal is political, showing readers how Bobby Kennedy’s evolution from shadow to savior was, in fact, revolutionary. In the aftermath of personal and national tragedy, his last name was both a comfort and a promise to the American people. It was also a badge of entitlement as far as many were concerned. The cult of personality surrounding the Kennedy family was instrumental to the success of Robert Kennedy’s early political career.
But the senator from New York came into his own, trading monikers like “the President’s brother” for “ruthless” and “mourner” for “mountain climber” and, eventually, Democratic presidential candidate in 1968.
Bohrer balances the concentric circles of Bobby Kennedy’s personal life, his career ambitions and his political friends and foes against the backdrop of national and international conflicts: uprisings in South America, the War on Poverty and the war in Vietnam are just a few.
The book is part political biography, taking readers through an unending series of strategic political decisions and the steps Bobby Kennedy took to make them. It’s also an American history refresher, detailing the tumultuous domestic and foreign challenges of the era and placing Robert Kennedy’s views and motivations in context.
In paying special attention to this brief window of Bobby Kennedy’s life, the book chronicles details that a more action-packed biography might gloss over, making for a slower-paced read that at times can feel daunting. But the constant question of Bobby’s identity is woven throughout, tying these minutiae together and providing an immensely satisfying conclusion at its end that proves the work was well worth the reward.
Between 1963 and 1966, a series of complex social and political events redefined the world. At the same time, Bobby Kennedy was redefining himself and the role he was to play in it. Often described as JFK’s “echo,” he learned that he possessed real power on his own, and increasingly used that power to try and make things right for others — even when the pundits and the polls turned against him in response.
Bobby Kennedy’s revolution was a little quieter, a little more emotional and a lot more gradual than many others. What Bohrer presents is a zoomed-in snapshot of a relatively short period of time in what was the brief life of a man who had a lot more to give to his country, and to his family.
This book is the story of 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.