Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit book review by Chris Matthews
Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit – For a good part of his 42 years, Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy was seen as a hard-working, highly organized individual with a relentless pit bull sensibility about him. When he managed his older brother Jack’s senatorial campaigns of 1952 and 1958, and his historic presidential election campaign in 1960, it was Bobby’s job to make sure Jack looked really good when he met with and spoke to potential voters, as he did all the dirty work behind the scenes. It was basically the classic “good cop, bad cop” scenario when it came to Jack and Bobby Kennedy.
That all changed when he was appointed Attorney General in his brother’s cabinet, and started to become more sensitive to issues that were affecting the U.S., especially the Civil Rights movement. After JFK’s assassination, and when Bobby was elected as a U.S. Senator in 1964 and became a presidential candidate in 1968, he realized what was severely dividing the nation, and vowed to solve these problems in a more unified manner. On June 4, 1968, in the wake of his victory in the California Primary, and the Democratic nomination in sight, Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin after his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles; he was only 42 years old.
Chris Matthews, host of “Hardball” on MSNBC, practically grew up during Bobby Kennedy’s rise in politics and as a virtual “man of the people”. With this year marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s tragic death, Matthews gives a new generation of readers a new appreciation of Robert Francis Kennedy, the man and the public figure who wanted to do good for his country and his people in Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit.
Although Arthur Schelsinger’s massive 1978 biography Robert Kennedy and His Times is more thorough, Matthews’ book practically gives this generation of readers a more compact, yet no less informative, look at the life and political legacy of Bobby Kennedy.
Basically, Bobby, the third son, built his career ambitions to get the much sought-after approval from his father Joseph P. Kennedy, although his attentions were lavished upon his two elder sons, Joe, Jr. and Jack (and was sometimes regarded by Jack as a bit of a nuisance). This meant Bobby fought harder, worked harder and put himself through his paces much harder to get that approval, whether he was a student at Harvard, worked as counsel for Senator Joe McCarthy’s controversial anti-Communist committee, or as chief counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee that investigated organized crime in America, in which his blood feud-type grilling of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa in 1957 is the stuff of legend.
As well, Matthews traces the personal and political transformation of Bobby Kennedy, which took a 360-degree turn immediately after JFK’s assassination. The reader gets a clear picture of the complexities and the issues that played a major part in that transformation, and the matters that he took to his heart as the next phase of his career happened with his election to the U.S. Senate in 1964, and what guided him to seek the Democratic nomination for president four years later, which was not only a quest to unseat incumbent Lyndon Johnson (whom he had a long-running, vitriolic feud with since his Senate counsel days), but also try to heal a nation that was horribly divided by poverty, race riots, and the Vietnam War.
And Matthews sprinkles the text with some personal examples of how his own life and ambitions paralleled that of Bobby Kennedy’s during his lifetime, which doesn’t dominate the book, but gives it a rather interesting personal perspective. For example, Matthews was in Montreal at the time of Bobby’s death (he was travelling there with a college friend of his, who was looking for a job in order to avoid the draft), and as a result of it, what he believes was the loss of America’s last best hope to get the country together again, decided to serve his country by joining the Peace Corps and spending a year in southern Africa (Swaziland, in particular).
Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit is a concise, well-written appreciation of a much beloved public figure who enjoyed working within the shadow of his famous older brother, and became a political crusader who wanted to make a real difference for the people he was sworn to serve. And in today’s rather unpredictable, volatile political climate in the U.S. today, we can take away from reading Chris Matthews’ book about Bobby Kennedy and wonder how different the country would have been had Bobby was not struck down by an assassin’s bullet on that fateful June night 50 years ago in L.A.
As Kennedy told the overflowing crowd of supporters that night as he won the important California Primary (which somehow still resonates today): “I think we can end the divisions within the United States, whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam. We can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country. I intend to make that my basis for running.”