Robert Kennedy

Robert Francis Kennedy (1925-1968), a U.S. senator and the attorney general in the administration of his brother John F. Kennedy, was assassinated during his 1968 race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Robert Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Mass. He graduated from Milton Academy before entering Harvard. His college career was interrupted during World War II; just after his oldest brother, Joseph, was killed in combat, Robert joined the Navy and was commissioned a lieutenant. In 1946 he returned to Harvard and took his bachelor of arts degree in 1948. He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1951. A year earlier he had married Ethel Shakel, by whom he had 11 children, one born posthumously.

In 1951 Kennedy joined the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He resigned the following year to run John F. Kennedy's successful campaign for U.S. senator. In 1953 Robert was appointed one of 15 assistant counsels to the Senate subcommittee on investigations under Senator Joe McCarthy. But later that year, when Democratic members of this subcommittee walked out in protest against McCarthy's harassing methods of investigation, Kennedy resigned.

Kennedy rejoined the Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations as chief counsel for the Democratic minority in 1954. The following year, when the Democrats reorganized this committee under Senator George McClellan, Kennedy became chief counsel and staff director. That year the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce elected him one of "ten outstanding young men." In 1955, at his own expense, Kennedy joined Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas on a tour of several Soviet republics.

Kennedy became chief counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field organized under McClellan in 1957, and he directed a staff of 65. His major accomplishment was the investigation of corruption in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The hearings became nationally prominent, particularly Kennedy's prosecution of the union's president, James Hoffa, which to some union leaders seemed more like persecution. Kennedy was responsible for several additional investigations of labor and management abuses.

In 1960 Kennedy managed his brother's successful presidential campaign, and when John as incoming president appointed Robert U.S. attorney general, nationwide cries of nepotism arose. Robert's role in his brother's Cabinet was unique. He was virtually the President's other self. Shoulder to shoulder, the brothers stood together—through the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights cases, and the growing war in Vietnam.

Soon after President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Robert resigned from Lyndon Johnson's administration to run successfully for New York State senator in 1964. Naive liberals wondered why he chose to run in New York—thus knocking out a good liberal senator, Kenneth Keating— when he might have opposed Harry Byrd in his resident state of Virginia; but Kennedy was thinking of the presidency by now, and Virginia was no power base. As senator, Kennedy achieved a splendid record.

Kennedy leaped into the presidential sweepstakes in 1968, abruptly following Eugene McCarthy's solitary effort to dramatize the issue of the war in Vietnam. Kennedy's entrance into the Democratic primaries bitterly divided liberal Democrats. By this time Kennedy, who had come to sympathize with the African Americans' drive for "black power," was the joy of radical activists. He could reach and unite young people, revolutionaries, alienated African Americans, and blue-collar Roman Catholics. Meanwhile, the white South hated him; big business distrusted him; and middle-class, reform Democrats were generally suspicious of him.

On the night of June 4, 1968, following a hard-fought, narrow victory in the California primaries, Kennedy was killed by an assassin's bullet. Robert had been no carbon copy of John. In some ways he was more intense, more committed than John had been, yet he shared John's ironic sense of himself and his conviction that one man could make a difference.

Further Reading on Robert Francis Kennedy

There is no definitive study of Kennedy. Good general treatments are William V. Shannon, The Heir Apparent (1967), and Jack Newfield, Robert Kennedy (1969). See also Nick Thimmesch, Robert Kennedy at 40 (1965), and William J. Vanden Heuvel and Milton Gwirtzman, On His Own (1970). Victor Lasky, Robert F. Kennedy: The Myth and the Man (1968), is a hostile account. Valuable insights on him are in books about his brother: Theodore Sorenson's Kennedy (1965) and The Kennedy Legacy (1969); Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (1965); and Donald S. Harrington, As We Remember Him (1965). Dealing with political campaigns are Gerald Gardner, Robert Kennedy in New York (1965); David Halberstam, The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy (1969), an account of his campaign for the presidential nomination; and Jules Witcover, 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy (1969).