Bobby the Lion, Bobby the Lamb: What Tragedy Taught Robert Kennedy
“Bobby is a vicious little monster,” the Teamster lawyer snarled about the withering prosecution waged by the Bobby Kennedy, the Chief Counsel of the Senate Rackets Committee (the 1957-60 select committee investigating union corruption focusing on Teamsters' leader Jimmy Hoffa).
Bobby Kennedy, in response, muttered, “I'm not so little.”
Robert Francis Kennedy has always been an enigma. But to me, he has been an entrancing one.
The younger (but not youngest) brother in the Kennedy clan, Bobby was the fixer, the bulldog, the brothers’ keeper. His older brothers, Joe, Jr. (killed in World War II) and, as the torch would subsequently pass, John, were tapped as the princes of the family. Destined for political greatness, these men were meticulously cultivated. Handsome, dapper, and “finished,” they embodied heroic narratives using smooth elocution. Bobby, on the other hand, was the kid brother—the awkward, gangly one. Imagine John’s tanned (or rather Addisonian) skin and square jaw juxtaposed against Bobby’s prominent Adam’s apple and unruly shock of hair. While his brothers would bask in the limelight, Bobby would be working the controls behind the curtains: planning, calculating, trouble-shooting. Whereas his brothers dutifully maintained an even composure of statuary, Bobby freely vented the passions of a zealot. He hated enemies more and wanted victories more. But he also endured the sting of loss more and craved the delivery of justice more. Bobby had something of the Old Testament about him.
The tales of Bobby Kennedy are legion. In some anecdotes, you encounter Bobby the rager in his relentless blood feud with Lyndon Johnson (especially in the wake of his brother’s assassination) or his rabid prosecution of powerful and dangerous union leaders and Mafiosos. But in others, you find Bobby the gentle, traveling through the night to console Jackie Kennedy when, alone, her pregnancy tragically ended in stillbirth, or stepping in to serve as an altar server at a short-handed daily Mass. In spite of his capacity for temper, the priests consistently recognized a delicate touch during Mass “only seen in seminarians.” Bobby the enigma. How he hated; how he loved. Bobby the lion; Bobby the lamb.
But then, his brother was killed. And everything changed.
And, in my eyes, there was one scene that stands out among so many —one moment that epitomized the groaning despair that can consume a life crushed by tragedy. It began months after his brother’s assassination with a bent-up copy of Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way. As friend and advisor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote:
In these dark weeks and months, on solitary walks across wintry fields, in long reverie at his desk in the Department of Justice, in the late afternoon before the fire in Jacqueline Kennedy’s Georgetown drawing room , in his reading—now more intense than ever before, as if each next page might contain the essential clue—[Bobby] was struggling with that fundamental perplexity: whether there was, after all, any sense to the universe. His faith had taught him there was. His experience now raised the searching and terrible doubt.
And so over Easter 1964, Bobby Kennedy found himself holed up, implacable, in a friend’s vacation home in Antigua. Jackie had handed him her much-read copy of Hamilton’s 1930 exploration of the Greek Fathers of Tragedy: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. “I’d read it quite a lot before,” Jackie said, “and I brought it with me. So I gave it to him and I remember he’d disappear.”Alone in his room pouring over Hamilton's words, reading and re-reading, painfully considering, underlining, and marking, Bobby found brothers in these ancients—brothers in pain. What these men spoke to, in their aged (yet ever-new) dramas, was the black mystery of suffering. The Job-like apprehension of Aeschylus’ “antagonism at the heart of the world,” Euripides’ “giant agony of the world,” and Thucydides’ sense that men “suffered what men must” dispensed with the trite explanations about why bad things happen to good people. Instead, the Greeks dressed in sackcloth, covered themselves in ash, and embraced the blackness headlong if only, after acknowledging it, to ultimately arrive at the other side of it. The tragedies, for Bobby, were the anguished cry of David’s Psalms, the heart-wrenching wail of the grieving Mother, the dark despair of the Upper Room on Good Friday. Tragedy is real. It levels and can leave you bereft of hope. But facing tragedy at its hellish worst, Bobby would learn, was the first step in transcending it. Hamilton would write:
Peril, terror and anguish had sharpened men’s spirits and deepened their insight. A victory achieved past all hope at the very moment when utter defeat and the loss of all things seemed certain had lifted them to an exultant courage. Men knew that they could do heroic deeds, for they had seen heroic deeds done by men. This was the moment for the birth of tragedy, that mysterious combination of pain and exaltation, which discloses an invincible spirit precisely when disaster is irreparable...[Aeschylus] knew life as only the greatest of poets can know it; he perceived the mystery of suffering. Mankind he saw fast bound to calamity by the working of unknown powers, committed to a strange venture, companioned by disaster. But to the heroic, desperate odds fling a challenge. The high spirit of his time was strong in Aeschylus. He was, first and last, the born fighter, to whom the consciousness of being matched against a great adversary suffices and who can dispense with success. Life for him was an adventure, perilous indeed, but men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life. And, at the worst, there is that in us which can turn defeat into victory.
Bobby would emerge from that dark place changed. Without question, he remained broken. But he found a resilience even in his brokenness. He went on to read all of Hamilton’s works. He studied the wrenching tragedies of the Greeks so that, committing large excerpts to memory, they accompanied him wherever he went. To be sure, Bobby still fumed, still railed, still found moments of immature petulance and outright fallibility. But he also found a place to rest his anguished soul: his Catholic faith and the Greek tragedians.
Rita Dallas, the nurse for Bobby’s stricken father, Joseph, recalled:
For the next two and a half years, Robert Kennedy became the central focus of strength and hope for the family...Despite his own grief and loneliness, he radiated an inner strength that I have never seen before in any other man...Bobby was the one who welded the pieces back together.
Perhaps Bobby’s finest moment came the night of April 4, 1968. En route to give a presidential campaign speech in the heart of urban Indianapolis, Bobby learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed. Fearful of rioting that was already consuming many other cities across the nation, his advisors implored him to cancel his speech. “I’m going to go there and that’s it,” Bobby insisted. And upon arrival, dispensing with his planned words, Bobby scrambled atop the back of a flatbed truck and frankly spoke of the civil rights leader’s death:
I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.
In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black—considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization—black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.
Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States; we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
In five minutes it was over. But the inconceivable pain and the blind rage that could emerge from King’s death was subdued, at least in Indianapolis, that night. The pain that fell drop by drop upon the heart of Bobby Kennedy had inexplicably, gracefully instilled in him a certain wisdom. That pain from Bobby Kennedy, that wisdom from Aeschylus, still speaks to us today. By many, this was considered Bobby Kennedy’s finest moment. Perhaps that is because, even for a moment, he had arrived at himself.
Bobby Kennedy was a complicated man, an enigma. But an entrancing one. One doesn’t have to agree with his every decision or subscribe to his politics to appreciate the deeply human struggle in which he found himself. Because in one form or another, one way or another, we too are struggling against “the antagonism at the heart of the world.”
Bobby emerged from the blackness of tragedy by embracing tragedy. In this, the Greek tragedians and his Catholic faith were indispensable. While he could never be rid of tragedy, he discovered that he could grapple and walk with it. And perhaps that pain could bring him and each of us, albeit imperfectly, closer to humility, closer to our true humanity.
In his biography, Robert Kennedy and His Times, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. would observe:
[Bobby] was now the head of the family. With his father stricken, his older brothers dead, he was accountable to himself. The qualities he had so long subordinated to the interest of others—the concern under the combativeness, the gentleness under the carapace, the idealism, at once wistful and passionate, under the toughness—could rise freely to the surface. He could be himself at last.