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Closeup on… Robert F. Kennedy

The junior Senator from New York is a man who stirs sharp emotions. Opponents call him ‘cold, ruthless, arrogant.’ Friends see ‘gentleness … idealism, compassion.’ Here is a look at a presidential candidate and his record.

John Littlewood / Staff / File
Senator Kennedy, adviser Theodore C. Sorenson (just behind him), and Mrs. Kennedy (seated behind microphones).

Nobody is lukewarm on Bobby Kennedy.

He is an intense man who evokes intense response.

See him riding the surging crowd down Jos Campau Avenue, Hamtramck, Mich., like a man on a surfboard: They break police lines to touch him; they are almost frighteningly hysterical.

On the other hand, hear him discussed by members at a table at the weekly Rotary Club meeting in almost any American city or more emphatically at some convivial gathering of business associates in the Deep South. He elicits indignation that recalls the day when they referred to Franklin D. Roosevelt as “that man.”

Now compare the rival interpretations of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy that find their way into print.

The most common epithet of opponents is “ruthless,” often in a compound as “cold, ruthless, arrogant.”

‘He frightens me’

Prof. Alexander M. Bickel of Yale Law School, writing in the left-of-center New Republic in January, 1961, said: “The sum of it all is that Mr. Kennedy appears to find congenial the role of prosecutor, judge, and jury, all consolidated into his one efficient person.”

Time magazine in a profile, Sept. 16, 1966, quietly slipped in the phrase “the mean streak is still there.”

A columnist in the Copley press recently denounced the Senator’s views on Vietnam and, after recalling his fears in 1964, concluded: “Senator Kennedy frightens me even more today.”

Richard Wilson, columnist-pundit of the Minneapolis Star, wrote April 8: “The alarm over Senator Kennedy is not a minor matter.” His willingness to arouse passions, his toying with the truth, his ruthless attack on Johnson have done nothing to dispel a sense of uneasiness about the Senator from New York.”

For the defense

Let us hear from the defense.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in his book, “A Thousand Days”: “I do not know of any case in contemporary American politics where there has seemed to me a greater discrepancy between the myth and the man…. What seemed most characteristic were his gentleness, consideration, sobriety, idealism and … compassion.”

Theodore C. Sorensen wrote in “Kennedy”: “The Attorney General remained his brother’s closest confidant…. He achieved a remarkable record at the Justice Department.”

Theodore H. White in “The Making of the President-1964”: “Kennedy; a man as straightforward as Johnson is complicated, had not so much offended Johnson as ignored him…. Robert F. Kennedy, who loved his brother more than he loved himself, saw John F. Kennedy, even while alive, as more than a person-- as the flag of a cause.... Impatient, strong­willed, he even more sharply than his brother expressed the single-minded clarity with which young people see things….”

Robert S. McNamara, former Secretary of Defense: “ … a most extraordinary combination of energy and courage, compassion and wisdom.”

College identification

Can these two clashing views of Senator Kennedy be reconciled? Or is it a case, as James Wechsler has said, of mistaken identity? Are there two Robert Kennedys?

Before attacking this problem let us take a look at the man. We watched him from behind, not long ago, as he gave a speech in Indiana.

Six thousand undergraduates faced him, and he looked at 42 as young as many of them or at most a new instructor. He faced directly a “We Want McCarthy” placard. An element in the audience, and it seemed like a big element, greeted him with a rousing McCarthy campaign song. So far as one could see he was unruffled. He stood in a kind of slouch, shoulders stooped forward.

He is the only one of the four Kennedy sons who did not reach 6 feet; he stands 5 feet 10 inches and weighs about 165 pounds. He is slim and muscular. His complexion is ruddy, eyes blue, voice rather flat and reedy. He has the familiar mop of hair which is his stage trademark. He has a platform presence that seems to control any audience. From behind one could see that his left hand trembled with intensity.

Vietnam lesson

He had begun his campaign with a brutal, sledge-hammer attack. Evidently he had decided that President Johnson could be defeated only after a ferocious assault. But Mr. Johnson had withdrawn in a stunning act of self-abnegation. That withdrawal had changed everything.

“I was involved in the Vietnam decisions of 1961, 1962, and 1963,” Mr. Kennedy said with unexpected humility. “I and others must bear our share of the blame.” The nation, he added, could still learn from the experience. Then he switched quickly to the domestic issues of civil rights and poverty, which, perforce, have replaced the expected battle over the war in Asia, at least for the time being.

How changed it was from a fortnight ago! At Los Angeles, March 24, Mr. Kennedy had charged that America is making “a fundamental departure from the principles of the country itself”! He added, “The national leadership is calling upon the darker impulses of the American spirit….”

Candidacy opens up

It is hard for the candidates, let alone the public, to keep up with the fast-shifting moods of this extraordinary election. For example, there was that breakfast meeting in January where Mr. Kennedy, slumped in a chair like a bashful boy, seemed to shrug his shoulders helplessly over the whole campaign.

This was the appearance that sympathetic observers call disarmingly boyish and frank. His brown hair just covered the tips of his ears. No, he said, he did not expect to be a presidential candidate. Not under any foreseeable circumstances. And so the story went out to the world.

Came Feb. 28, and the public-opinion polls knocked Michigan Gov. George Romney out of the race. Came March 12, and Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota won an extraordinary number of votes in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. The Kennedy camp put these interpretations on it:

The nation was ready to vote against Mr. Johnson and the war. No longer could it be said that Mr. Kennedy would split the party. It was already split. Nor could he be charged with a personal vendetta. This was an all-absorbing issue.

Changes take place

And so, on the day after the primary, Mr. Kennedy said that he was “actively reconsidering all the possibilities open to me.” And on March 16 he announced.

On March 31, Mr. Johnson withdrew ­- and saw his popularity rating jump from 36 percent to 57 percent.

One reason for the conflict of testimony on Mr. Kennedy may be that he is a moving target. He has changed since coming to Washington at 26. There was “an honest but naive moralism,” writes William V. Shannon in Harper’s, October, 1966, “a rather two-dimensional, self-righteous young man.” Has he really outgrown this?

Witnesses differ. Not long ago a magazine, noted for its seductive photographs, asked him for an article similar to one which another prominent congressman had vouchsafed. “I will not write for a magazine that I would not allow in my home,” he responded stiffly.

Hoover and MacArthur

He compiled a list of 10 men he admired most and near the top placed Herbert Hoover and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He still admires them. He is equally unapologetic for working for the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R) of Wisconsin, joining a stable of lawyers because he thought the committee was going to do a serious job of investigating graft and corruption. When he found he was wrong, he quit.

“I hope I’ve learned something in the last 10 years and understand some things better,” he comments about the episode.

Writing in 1961, Theodore White tried to catch this “singular personality, one that has baffled all political analysts who .seck hidden sinuosities of theory or belief.

“For Robert F. Kennedy was, and is, above all, a moralist, whose deepest-held beliefs might find expression in either party -- or in the YMCA. For him all the vulgarities and weaknesses of the American manner … are personally offensive. It is as a Boston Puritan, albeit of the Catholic faith, that Robert Kennedy should be seen.”

Maturing process continues

That was 1961, and the maturing process is still going on.

England is used to political leaders in the intellectual tradition, who can shift, as John F. Kennedy could, from books to legislation, and who had a sense of personal style. This Camelot quality, however, is rare in American politics.

Robert Kennedy is far more of a loner than was his brother. But political charisma, magnetism, style -- whatever it is called­ still makes the teen-agers jump and mothers coo.

Partly it’s the name: There seems to be a penitential, expiational feeling in America because of his martyred brother.

But it seems to be something besides this: He can quote highbrow poetry to a lowbrow crowd and hold them apparently enthralled. He evoked his brother’s memory at the 1964 Democratic convention with a poignant passage from Romeo and Juliet.

He wound up a political tour in 1966 on a frosty night at an upstairs balcony in Waterbury, Conn., and astonished and flattered a crowd below him by quoting Dante, Pericles, and Robert Frost (“And I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.”)

Recently this reporter on a swing through Indiana, heard allusions by Mr. Kennedy to Theocritus, Sophocles, Camus, Dante, and Aeschylus. True, they were all college crowds except the last.

The last was an outdoor street rally, three-quarters Negro, to whom he quietly quoted a moving line from Aeschylus on grief, in connection with the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. which had just been announced.

Politicians who quote Aeschylus are rare. This abrasive young activist who stirs people violently one way or another may not be what the country wants at this moment of confusion and disunity. But that he is a man of passion and power few who hear him will deny.

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