In one of the most hotly contested political seasons in American history, a new biography by Larry Tye revisits the life of Robert F. Kennedy, a campaign warrior who helped define national life in the 1960s. It was also a life, as Tye points out, that was deeply shaped by reading.
In “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” Tye chronicles RFK’s intellectual evolution, a change influenced in large part by Kennedy’s deepening dependence on books for inspiration.
After his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Robert increasingly turned to literature to make sense of his grief. At the suggestion of his sister-in-law, widowed First Lady Jackie Kennedy, RFK began reading the ancient Greeks, especially the work of Aeschylus, a playwright who offered special insights on loss. Aeschylus, writes Tye, “seemed to be speaking directly to Bobby when he wrote, ‘Take heart. Suffering, when it climbs highest, lasts but a little time.’”
Kennedy and his late brother “had kept a daybook of quotes that moved them for use in speeches,” Tye notes. “Now Bobby did it on his own from readings that had progressed beyond his old war and adventure tales to biography and history. There was more poetry now and less football. For the rest of his life he would habitually stuff a paperback in his coat pocket or briefcase, some new to him and others that he liked enough to reread repeatedly, his lips moving as he did. Aides thought he was staring into his lap until they looked closer and saw the essays of Emerson and Thoreau, or poetry by Shakespeare or Tennyson.”
Reading wasn’t a retreat from the world for Robert F. Kennedy, Tye suggests, but a way to engage it. A favorite quote from Francis Bacon affirmed life as active rather than passive: “In this theater of man’s life, it is reserved only for God and for angels to be lookers-on.”
Like his brother, RFK also fell victim to an assassin, dying on June 6, 1968. He had been the attorney general of the United States, a US senator, a leading presidential candidate, and an avid reader.
Kennedy, a master politician, looked to books in turbulent times to help clarify how he thought and felt – a lesson worth remembering for readers of all political stripes in this heated campaign year.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate and an essayist for Phi Kapp Phi Forum, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”