The press labeled Robert F. Kennedy as ruthless early in his career, but came to embrace the politician as he emerged as a liberal icon

The press labeled Robert F. Kennedy as ruthless early in his career, but came to embrace the politician as he emerged as a liberal icon

We all know the gladiatorial press-pol narrative of this year’s presidential campaign: Donald Trump bashes journalists, then banishes them, while Hillary Clinton ducks, parries, and emphatically stays on-message. But a look back at a presidential free-for-all half a century ago–and at that race’s most idiosyncratic candidate, Robert F. Kennedy–makes clear that it hasn’t been this way always and doesn’t have to be now. The following excerpts are from Larry Tye’s biography “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” out this month from Random House.

In 1968, America was even more riven than it is today, over race, ethnicity, and a faraway, unwinnable war. And the press was predisposed to distrust Bobby, remembering his bare-knuckled orchestration of his brother John’s presidential campaign in 1960 and his vendettas, as attorney general, against Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. “Ruthless” was the label the press stuck him with early on, for reasons that were understandable if not fair.

For most reporters, only two events mattered as the ’68 race was gearing up: On March 12, Senator Gene McCarthy embarrassed President Lyndon Johnson in conservative New Hampshire by drawing 41.9 percent of the Democratic primary votes and a full half when Republican write-ins were counted. A mere four days later, Bobby Kennedy leaped into the campaign to unseat the suddenly vulnerable president. The case for cause and effect seemed incontrovertible. “Your brother’s announcement makes clear that St. Patrick did not drive out all the snakes from Ireland,” the columnist Murray Kempton said in a telegram to Ted Kennedy. Fellow scribe Mary McGrory took her own swipe: “Kennedy thinks that American youth belongs to him, at the bequest of his brother. Seeing the romance flower between them and McCarthy he moved with the ruthlessness of a Victorian father, whose daughter has fallen in love with a dustman, to break it up.”

In one stroke, Bad-boy Bobby had resurrected every doubt ever voiced about him and transformed Clean Gene into a martyr. He’d also set the contentious terms for his relationship with the press that seemed as set in concrete as this year’s do. But over the months that followed he turned things around, deciding that reporters were worth talking to and listening to in a way that turned them around on him. Are you listening, Hillary and Donald?

“Ruthless” was the label the press stuck him with early on, for reasons that were understandable if not fair

Bobby realized early on in his campaign that he couldn’t charm journalists the way Jack had with his intellect, his wit, or his sleek and sophisticated wife. It wasn’t his style, either, to intimidate reporters or buy their favor the way Papa Joe Kennedy did. Nor did he have little brother Ted’s disarming way of passing on kudos not just for fawning stories but for ones in which he was skewered, then inviting the reporter in for a Chivas and soda. What Bobby proved in that last campaign that he could do, in a manner that surprised him and still amazes those who were there forty-eight years ago, was make rhinoceros-hided scribes fall in love with him to an extent not seen since Franklin Roosevelt or perhaps his distant cousin Teddy.

Helen Dudar, a prolific reporter at the New York Post, was won over when Bobby took time in Nebraska to visit the Beatrice State Home for the mentally defective. “The superintendent twittered: ‘Would you like to see the wards?” Dudar wrote. “Kennedy, in the flat, imperious voice he uses for people who fawn, replied: ‘I would like to see the children.’ We went to the nursery floor. . . . Lying inert in a playpen was a hydrocephalic, a child with a head the size of a basketball. Kennedy leaned in and scratched its stomach for a while. I cannot tell what its response was, because I found I could not look at that child. Then he patted a vacant-eyed little girl who grabbed his hand and began chewing its fingers. He let her gnaw for a while. Finally he picked her up and carried the slobbering child as he walked about touching other children—a vegetabloid creature slumped unseeing in a chair, a baby with a grapefruit-sized lump on its head that made it look two-headed, all those pathetic grotesques hidden away from the world, suddenly and compulsively objects of Kennedy’s charity and compassion.”

“He can be tough, demanding, rude, icy,” added Dudar. “But to see him with children is always to wonder how exactly he came to be known as ruthless.”

Further Reading

To Stay Relevant, Newsrooms Rethink Campaign Coverage by Juliet Eilperin

It was the way he made adults squirm that turned Thomas Congdon, Jr., an editor at The Saturday Evening Post, from cynic to believer. Everywhere he went in 1968, Bobby told college kids that they could change the world, so why the hell weren’t they? He warned eight hundred medical students at Indiana University that they’d have to foot the bill for caring for the poor. As boos rang out, a doctor in training asked whether the senator would end medical students’ cherished draft deferments. “The way things are going here today, probably yes,” he said, smiling but serious. It happened again at a luncheon of Civitans, a men’s service club. As his audience chewed on Salisbury steaks, he took the requisite questions on gun control and daylight saving time. Then he turned to his biggest issue—“American children, starving in America”—and asked, “Do you know, there are more rats than people in New York City?” Hearing guffaws, this senator who was kept up nights by images of the hungry children he’d met in the Mississippi Delta grew grim: Don’t . . . laugh. Congdon, who was at that lunch, was struck by what he heard and saw: “[Bobby] was telling them precisely the opposite of what they wanted to hear.” It was demagoguery in reverse. And it helped him win Indiana and Nebraska convincingly enough that it kicked his campaign into over-drive and convinced many he could take not just the Democratic nomination but the White House.

Few of his journalist fans came from or could relate to an arena of privilege like Bobby’s. But they were show-me types, and they could see that this son of Florida’s Gold Coast and Massachusetts’s Cape Cod was genuinely devoted to an underclass few politicians noticed. Most political reporters had despaired of finding a liberal with backbone or a conservative who cared. Bobby was that tough liberal—or humane conservative. “There was something in him that reminded me of something that I had in myself, maybe long ago,” says James Stevenson of The New Yorker. Norman Mailer was likewise “excited by precisely [Kennedy’s] admixture of idealism plus willingness to traffic with demons, ogres, and overlords of corruption.” Bobby had seen as much of America’s dark side as any hard-bitten hack, yet he remained a patriot and an optimist. He started out thinking he could censor the press and ended up learning from its practitioners. He still reamed out reporters for stories he felt were overly critical, but now he apologized afterward. He made journalists identify with this man who had everything, made them believe, as the columnist Jules Witcover wrote, “that to deny him, at forty-two, the leadership of the most powerful nation in the world would be unjust.” The longtime CBS newsman Dan Rather was mistrustful at first but became a believer. Bobby, he says, seemed “tough enough to get elected, and smart and sensible enough to implement what he’d promised to do.”

The Nashville Tennessean’s John Seigenthaler and Bill Kovach were disciples. Both considered journalism their religion and spent their careers putting politicians in the spotlight, and often in the slammer—but for Bobby, they took a rare hiatus to work on his campaign. “It was the soul of this man,” says Kovach. “I have never before, nor since, seen a politician with that core of feeling for other people, especially people who needed his help.” Robert Scheer of Ramparts helped with speechwriting. Jack Mallon of The New York Daily News acted as informal liaison with the labor movement. Roger Mudd became a regular guest at Hickory Hill. All sacrificed their journalistic chastity, but Bobby was worth it. Harrison Salisbury had had few good words for this third Kennedy son when he was reporting for The New York Times, but by 1968, when he was an editor overseeing the paper’s political coverage, he had become a convert. “The new Bobby was a proud man but a humble one. He was no longer a capo. He was a member of the human race, a man of doubts and uncertainties. This was not the Bobby Old Joe had created in his image,” said Salisbury. “Gone was the smart aleck. Gone was the political trickster. Gone was the shallow sureness. Robert F. Kennedy had come of age. . . . I could hardly wait until November. I had not the slightest doubt that Robert F. Kennedy would win.”

Bobby proved in that last campaign that he could make rhinoceros-hided scribes fall in love with him to an extent not seen since Franklin Roosevelt

The journalist whose U-turn resonated most with fellow writers, and could be most instructive for today’s candidates, was Richard Harwood of The Washington Post. Harwood had enlisted in the Marines at seventeen and had scars on his back attesting to his role in the bloody World War II battle to capture Iwo Jima. He brought the same icy resolve to his political coverage, with politicians dubbing him “Black Death Harwood” for fear of what he’d do to them if he smelled malfeasance. With Bobby, he smelled a demagogue on the campaign stump and a bully on the football field, and he shared his doubts with Post readers. “I had known Bobby Kennedy slightly prior to the 1968 campaign and found him not to my liking,” Harwood said. “That is one of the reasons Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor, assigned me to cover his campaign. He thought I would not be seduced, so to speak.” Looking back, Harwood acknowledged that Bradlee “was wrong. By the end of Bobby’s campaign, I was so fond of him that I asked to be relieved of the assignment.”

What turned Harwood around? “We were seduced,” he explained, “because [Bobby’s] circle was so big that it took us in. It was impossible to draw lines and stay outside. . . . By the time of the Indiana primary—very early in the game—we talked about the Kennedy airplane as ‘The Mother Ship.’ The airport motel at Indianapolis became ‘The Mother Inn.’ Those are family concepts which get back to the concept of the Circle. He brought us in by the qualities of his life. . . . A couple of lines from the Tales of Canterbury [sic] [come] to mind. They were about the poor Parson who had a great gift: ‘To drawen folk to hevene by fairnessse, By good ensample; this was his bisynesse.’ That was Bob Kennedy. He did not draw us all to heaven because a lot of us were not capable of that. But he left the good example and made all of us want to try. He drew the circle to take us in and that is why, prodigal or no, we always ached to go home to The Mother Ship.”

Further Reading

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