The prince who came down from his tower

John Leonard on the life and legacy of Robert F. Kennedy, as depicted in 'The Last Patrician' by Michael Knox Beran, 'Mutual Contempt' by Jeff Shesol, 'Make Gentle the Life of this World: The Vision of Bobby Kennedy' by Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, and 'Robert F. Kennedy: A Memoir' a television special by Jack Newfield, to be aired on the Discovery Channel


John Leonard
May 30, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

In the spring of the revolutionary year of 1968, on the Hudson River side of Manhattan, at a party fizzed and finger-fed by Esquire magazine Whiffenpoofs, in front of one of those high-rise blue aquarium windows looking down on Grant's Tomb, the white liberals were disdaining black folks for liking Bobby Kennedy too much and Eugene McCarthy not at all. It was no more than the usual condescending twitter until suddenly a big cat, an African panther, scattered these pouter pigeons and the room was thick with ruffled feathers. She was our worst fear -- black, beautiful, laughing at us in our very own Shakespeare, but with a lilting lash. She had seen some streets, as well as the library. In fact, before coming to New York to edit textbooks for Random House, she had taught the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Claude Brown in the nation's capital. There, she had seen a car stop on a SW side street, and the attorney general of the United States leave his jacket on the back seat, loosen his tie, roll up his sleeves and shoot some baskets on a cement court with black schoolchildren, who liked him quite a lot. In her own opinion, maybe black folks, having had so much practice on the problem, knew who their friends were better than white liberals full of theory. My, but she could scourge.

This was my first glimpse of Toni Morrison, like your first glimpse of the cloud chamber of a cyclotron. Who knew she'd later write some novels? She gave me permission to be partisan, entirely subjective, perhaps ferocious. Later that same summer, two months after Bobby Kennedy had been shot dead, at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, after the chartered bus behind a squad-car escort, past checkpoints into the barbed-wire ring around the slaughterhouse, wearing an embossed "PRESS" ID tag like a fetish, surrendering my briefcase for inspection against guns and bombs, allowed into a gallery already preempted by municipal serfs from Mayor Daley's Department of Sanitation and Counterterrorism, watching Hubert's whips trash the peace plank, fleeing the scene on foot in the middle of a transportation strike, finding myself safer on the very black South Side than I'd later be in front of the Hilton, where I saw everybody I'd ever known in the antiwar movement -- and many I wish I hadn't -- get the crap kicked out of them, it seemed to me the system and the world were rotten.

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Twenty years later, William Kennedy would write a novel, "Quinn's Book," that imagined a young Irish-American newspaper reporter come back from the Civil War to a class war; to labor riots and the forced relocation of lullaby-singing, poor white Irish from Dutch-Nativist Albany in boxcars, like the Indians before them and the Jews after; to the lynching of an underground railroad conductor; to fire, flood, demented pigs and the fantasy of a revolutionary alliance between the have-not Irish and have-not blacks, an army of "paddyniggers"; and to a treasure buried in the bottom of a bird cage -- an ancient magical Celtic disk, a divine riddle, a bloody coin -- that turned this journalist into warrior, dreaming "a savage dream of a new order: faces as old as the dead Celts, forces in the shape of a severed head and a severed tongue ..." So be warned.

Like El Cid, who's said to have been so indispensable in driving the Moors out of Spain and back to Africa -- for the greater glory of a whiter God in the 11th century -- that his own men propped up his Charlton Heston corpse in a silver saddle on a black horse and sent him holy-warrior trotting off to battle yet again, so the old soldiers, epic poets and court historians of our sorrier century peddle a Robert F. Kennedy who's just as dead. Bobby has been very dead for 30 years this week, and the anniversary of the assassination of the second son of Camelot, the nation's younger brother, is an occasion for body snatching, an abduction by sperm-sucking aliens.

Michael Knox Beran -- who was 2 years old when Sirhan Sirhan killed Bobby in a hotel kitchen moments after he won the California Democratic primary -- tells us in "The Last Patrician" that this "revolutionary priest" was really a closet conservative. That tragedy had taught him to suspect the "foggy platitudes" and "feudal sentimentality" of an "effete" elite and the siren song of the Enlightenment. That he was on his existential way to rejecting not only big government and the paternalism of the old money Ivy League mandarinate that had bossed the rest of us ever since it got a monkey-gland transplant from Teddy Roosevelt, but to rejecting as well the whole idea of the welfare and national security states. That instead of Adlai Stevenson or Henry Stimson he was Ralph Waldo Emerson and Natty Bumppo. Beran writes so gracefully, with apposite citation here of Evelyn Waugh and there of T.S. Eliot, it takes awhile to realize he is making it up as he skinny-dips along, out of muddled vehemence, class animus and maybe even an itchy resentment of some of the aristocratic spas where he himself did time (Gorton, Columbia, Yale).

I'm in favor of class animus. I think the trouble with this country is that the peasants have money. I'd like to see the homeless slash the tires and strangle the chauffeurs of every stretch limo that dares to pause at a traffic light. But it's odd that someone as alert as Beran to striations of status, to the tree rings, ice caps, peat bogs and fossil beds of buried class distinction in the great American massif, should so scant the Irishness and clannishness of the Kennedys, so much that was blood-feud tribal about them, especially when he seems to be trying to Pat Buchananize Bobby.

Jeff Shesol -- who wasn't born until two years after the hotel kitchen --
tells us in "Mutual Contempt" that the hatred of Bobby and L.B.J. for each
other shadowed and shaped every aspect of our swamp-fever politics in the
'60s, from Vietnam to civil rights to the Great Society. While the obvious
reasons for their hard feelings are specified at prurient length (with a
slight tilt in Bobby's favor), not quite so obvious, and mostly
unspecified, are the ways in which this personal antipathy did any such
shaping. Had they liked each other, would we have been spared Nixon alone
at night in a darkened wing of the White House, listening to himself on
tape, as if Watergate were a play by Beckett? Would Bobby have stayed in
the Cabinet rather than run for the Senate? Would L.B.J. not have
escalated, nor pushed through the 1964 civil-rights bill, nor dreamed up
and then abandoned his War on Poverty -- which faltered, incidentally, not
because money ran out in the open wound of Southeast Asia but because will
ran out in Congress; not because "maximum feasible participation" by the
poor didn't work but because it might have, and the ripple
effects of Head Start among sharecroppers in Mississippi, Vista among coal
miners in Appalachia, rural legal assistance for California farmworkers
and community corporations in inner-city Newark terrified the local pols.

Neither Shesol, though he has access to oral histories that flesh out what
had before been merely adumbrated, nor Beran, though he bristles with the
internal contradictions of a work in progress that ended at age 42, tells
us much we didn't know from the first generation of Bobby books -- the
valentines by Ed Guthman, David Halberstam, Penn Kimball, Jack Newfield,
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Jules Witcover, or the hatchet jobs by Ralph de
Toledano and Victor Lasky -- and considerably less about Bobby as attorney
general than we learned from Victor Navasky in "Kennedy Justice." Nor does
either of them credit the rest of the republic -- the freedom-riders, the
war-resisters and the flower children; the teachers, clergy and
angel-headed hipsters; the gospel, folk songs, anthems, rock and blues; the
rainbow shape of moral passion made coherent -- for ending the long Ike
snooze, for opening windows as if they were veins. Once more tediously,
history consists of what white men do in the daytime, for which they get
famous.

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Maxwell Taylor Kennedy -- three years old when Bobby died in Los Angeles -- has edited his father's private journal, his day thoughts, night shrieks
and those snippets of Great Writers and tragic poets that he chose to copy
down for meditation, into a handsome little commemorative volume with an
affecting mix of candid snapshots and speech writer aperçus, entitled "Make
Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy." Quoted
most often by far is Albert Camus, 20 times by my count. There's a clear
sense here of Bobby's growth through pain to an appreciation of the reality
of lives less gaudy; of the distance he traveled, against his will, from
Camelot, that swashbuckling James Bond wet dream of witty violence,
insolent cool, dry Martinis, brand-name snobbery, killer gadgets, musical
beds, gang-bang counterinsurgency scenarios, contempt for women and for
other cultures; why he came to be believed in Watts and Johannesburg --
even his startling statement, on emerging from a mine shaft in the ocean
floor off Chile, where the miners had all been Communists: "If I worked in
this mine, I'd be a Communist, too." And a resonant passage from Hemingway,
before Papa ate his gun:

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to
kill them or break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks
everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those
that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle
and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it
will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.

This is the mood of "Robert F. Kennedy: A Memoir," a three-hour wallow in
feeling lousy, on the Discovery cable channel Sunday, June 7, from 8 to 11
pm. The first hour is narrated by Glenn Close, the second by Mario Cuomo,
the third by Ving Rhames -- a not untypical smorgasbord of enthusiasts.
Throughout, Jack Newfield of the New York Daily News interviews the
children, the colleagues, the surprising Shirley MacLaine (a Bobby-pledged
delegate to the 1968 Chicago convention), the inevitable Doris Kearns
Goodwin and those journalists (Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, Peter Maas,
Murray Kempton) who can be counted on to feel that more than a Kennedy died
30 years ago. Maas tells the story of a devastated attorney general showing
up at a Christmas party for orphans, in 1963, just because he'd promised
to; being greeted by a small child who shouted, "They killed your brother!
They killed your brother!" and then burst into tears; picking her up,
stroking her head and assuring her, "That's all right -- I've got
another."

So I'm feeling lousy right along with them. He was the last American
politician I cared about or cried for, the only one since Lincoln as
novelistically interesting as, say, a Havel or Mandela. Clinton tells us
that he feels our pain. Bobby embodied it. "Unacceptable" was his mantra,
as "intolerable" was Wittgenstein's. Then he'd do something radical to fix
it, which never seemed to him enough. Has there ever been a sadder pair of
eyes, so much brokenness that mended badly, such a sense of swimming up
from bends of despair toward an empathic grasp of all who are dispossessed,
all that's bereft? "Sirhan Sirhan is a Yippie!" said Jerry Rubin, that
poisoned Twinkie. But Robert Lowell wrote another epitaph, full of
loneliness like "a thin smoke thread of vital air":

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For them, like a
prince, you daily left your tower

to walk through dirt in your best cloth.
Here now,

alone, in my Plutarchan bubble, I miss

you, you out of
Plutarch, made by hand --

Forever approaching our maturity."

Actually,
Bobby said his favorite poet was Aeschylus, for the tragedy. And, from
Aeschylus, his favorite lines: "In our sleep, pain which we cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our
will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

Forget El Cid. Like the Camus he quoted so often, or the Orwell who shows
only on a rare occasion, we invoke Bobby to look better to ourselves. We
wear his skin, as if from a wolf or bear we've slain. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut
once recommended that we read great books -- "the way a young cannibal
might eat the hearts of brave old enemies." Or as Denver warned her ghostly
sister about their difficult mother in Toni Morrion's "Beloved": "Watch out
for her; she can give you dreams."


John Leonard

John Leonard is the Culture Watch columnist for the Nation, media critic for "CBS Sunday Morning" and television critic for New York magazine.

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