The election of Barack Obama to the office of President of the United States marked a turning point in American history. His successful campaign and subsequent eight years in office vindicated the late Robert F. Kennedy who in 1961 said he believed that in forty years a negro could be president. At the time the thought seemed absurd as American struggle with social division fueled by ethnic discrimination. But if we look back on his words, we can see that his foresight was not only accurate but uncanny. From time to time I think back on the many quotes from him regarding his views on society. His assassination during the 1968 presidential race left a void in the United States that has never been filled. He remains one of the most popular, unpopular and tragic figures in the history of this nation.
Following the death of John F. Kennedy, life took on a different meaning for the former Attorney General. He became the patriarch of the Kennedy family and struggled with his own future and emotions resulting from the untimely death of his older brother. As a member of the president’s cabinet and younger sibling, he was present during ever major crisis faced by the new administration. The wisdom and insight that he gained from his time in service of the country makes him one of history’s wisest witnesses. The Kennedys have always been controversial. Most people either love them or hate them. No matter which side of the fence you find yourself on, one thing that is true is that the election of John F. Kennedy was one of the brightest moments in world history. From 1964-1967, Kennedy gave closed-door interviews to Anthony Lewis (1927-2013)who worked as a columnist for the New York Times, John Bartlow Martin (1915-1987) who served as an Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) who served as JFK’s special assistant and John Francis Stewart who was chief of the Oral History Project at the John F. Kennedy Library from 1966-1969. The interviews sat dormant for over 20 years before this book was published in 1988. They were then edited and composed into this insightful account of the workings behind the scene in the Kennedy administration.
Kennedy was always very frank in his statements and never one to sugar coat anything. This book is no different. In fact, he is even more frank and I believe part of the reason is because not much time had passed between the assassination in Dallas and when he began to sit down for these interviews. The wounds were still open and many raw emotions were in play. However to his credit, he answers each question directly and quite extensive. Only on a handful of times does he express disinterest in speaking about a certain topic. Considering what had just happened to his brother, it was remarkable that he was able to sit down and open up about a lot of topics. But the one topic he does not discuss at all is the assassination itself. He does talk about a few events following the murder and in particular his encounters with the new president Lyndon Johnson. It is no secret that the two did not get along and Kennedy does not hide his contempt for Johnson. He gives clear reasons for his dislike for Johnson and leaves it up to the reader to decide whether they’re justified or not.
In addition to Johnson, Kennedy is asked his opinion about many other political figures at the time and he gives his honest opinion on all of them. What I came to find in Kennedy was a man rigidly principled in a world where things were either right or wrong but not so much in between. In his eyes either you were effective at your job or you were of no use. As cold as it sounds to the reader, for a new administration that survived one of the closest elections in history, a senate filled with rabid Democratic southerners opposed to the “Catholics”and civil rights, a tight ship was needed in order for the new president to enact domestic legislation and compose effective foreign policy. When his brother appointed him as Attorney General, even he thought it was a mistake. But as we can see in hindsight, it was one of the best decisions made by John F. Kennedy. The level of trust and dedication exemplified by Robert Kennedy to his brother, the administration and the country are inspiring. Of course, we could point out many errors made along the way. The same could be done with every administration. However, their vision to steer America on a new path was bold and unprecedented a time when America was still struggling with a dark and violent past. The challenges they faced through opposition and inefficiency are cleared explained by Kennedy giving us a sense of the staggering amount of difficulty JFK faced in dealing with the Senate and House of Representatives. Incredibly, in spite of the opposition, they succeeded on many fronts and would have continued on the same path.
President Kennedy served in office less than three years. But in those three years, he faced some of the biggest threats to the safety of the United States. Berlin, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam put the world on edge as democracy in the west came face to face with communism in the east, backed by the ideology of the Soviet Union, the nation’s fiercest opponent. As they weathered each storm, they stood side to side making critical decisions to carefully avoid the outbreak of a nuclear confrontation. And it may scare some readers to learn just how close we came to war with the Soviet Union. The place where it would have happened might surprise you as well. There are other small tidbits of information revealed by Kennedy that cast light of the severity of maintaining world peace.
The questions he was asked were strictly about the administration. There are nearly no discussions about the personal lives of anyone except for a question regarding the rumor that JFK had been married prior to meeting Jackie. The reason is that the interviews were done for the JFK Library and needed to be as exact as possible. Furthermore, there are plenty of books that tackle the personal lives of the Kennedys. The most popular being Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot. This book is Kennedy’s show and he shines in his assessment of what it was like helping his brother run the country and the many challenges and successes they had.