That popular biographer Larry Tye strives for balance in his new book, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, is a thing that almost ought to go without saying; after all, don't biographers always strive for balance? And yet, with this particular subject, Caesar's wife must be particularly above suspicion.
The hugely energetic partisan fervor that still surrounds any biography of the Kennedy family is a phenomenon unique to that sprawling Irish-American clan. Neither the dynastic nepotisms of the Adams nor the Bush families has ever inspired anything like it in depth or mania. Even now, half a century after the presidency of John F. Kennedy, onlookers – very much including historians – can't seem to examine the facts without also picking sides.
As a result, a great many Kennedy biographers face accusations that simple aren't hurled at chroniclers of Tycho Brahe or Florence Nightingale. The foremost of these accusations, the one that's suspect specifically because of the ease with which it's slung around, is that of being a court historian, a faithful family retainer rather than an impartial historical judge. Very smart and capable men like Arthur Schlesinger, Pierre Salinger, and Ted Sorensen faced such accusations when they wrote books about President Kennedy, and Schlesinger faced them again when he wrote his monumental 1978 book "Robert Kennedy and His Times."
Since the suspicion of hagiography is thus built into the reception of any new Kennedy life, biographers must work extra hard to avoid seeming like they're merely padding out a comfortable legend. Author Evan Thomas didn't work quite hard enough to avoid the whiff of yarn-spinning in his 2000 life of Bobby Kennedy, and although Schlesinger's book is actually much more skeptical and level-headed than its critics think, its author was a friend of its subject. Tye's book, more than its major predecessors, has the field to itself in the quest to be the definitive life of the man who was Ambassador Joseph Kennedy's third son, President Kennedy's Attorney General, and 1968's most evocative candidate for president.
The book is often very, very good, and if it falls short of definitive, it at least can't blame unrealistic expectations: Tye walks into the flaws in his biography with his eyes wide open. It captures RFK's cold, ruthless side with appropriate relish (“Gentleman,” Bobby harangues backers while running his brother's 1960 presidential campaign, “I don't give a damn if the state and county organizations survive after November, and I don't give a damn if you survive. I want to elect John F. Kennedy”), and it provides fast-paced and very detailed accounts of RFK's early working relationship with soon-to-be-disgraced Wisconsin politician Joe McCarthy.
It very effectively describes the younger brother's sometimes eerily symbiotic relationship with JFK, and although it does a less confidently panoramic job of giving readers the social background of the Kennedy era, it has frequent flashes of nifty prose. “America was on the cusp,” Tye writes of that campaign season, “not quite ready to say goodbye to the reassuring do-nothingness of the Eisenhower boom nor to welcome the sexual, cultural, and political revolutions that would become the hallmarks of the 1960s.”
But the book's flaws steadily accumulate as the pages turn. Tye's research is extensive, but he frequently indulges in dramatic elaborations that research can't support, as when he tells us that JFK “confided to Jackie late one evening his worry” about naming Bobby as his Attorney General; no source is given for novelistically intimate details like that, which crop up throughout the book.
Likewise our author has a lazy penchant for cliches that might have been corrected in one last stern read-through of the text. About RFK's crusade against Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, we're told that he pursued it “like a man possessed” and wanted proof that the CIA's anti-Castro operations were “more than just smoke and mirrors.”
And about JFK's assassination we get full-on Danielle Steel lines like “The sniper's bullet that had penetrated Jack's skull shattered Bobby's own vision even as it broke his heart.” (Talk about a magic bullet.) Tye can often be refreshingly discerning about the mercurial nature of RFK's growth as a person and a candidate, but he's neither a curious nor a rigorous assessor of the facts. Even at the end of his story, Bobby's assassination in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Tye complacently writes, “Just how many shots were fired, at what range and angle, would become grist for another assassination conspiracy mill” – even though the ballistic and acoustic records of the event cast grave doubt on the simple guilt of the man arrested for the crime.
"Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon" is an engaging and mostly comprehensive life of the most enigmatic Kennedy, and it makes effective use of the resources the family opened to its author. And if it lacks a certain element of narrative grandeur, well, readers will always have the court histories for that.