Q&A: John Bohrer on His Biography of the 'Revolutionary' Robert F. Kennedy

Credit: Miller Hawkins

Credit: Miller Hawkins

In The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protest After JFK historian and MSNBC news producer John Bohrer focuses on Robert Kennedy’s life and career after the assassination of his older brother, President John F. Kennedy. Bohrer chronicles how RFK transformed himself from his brother’s campaign manager and Attorney General into a national leader in his own right, and the voice of a new generation. The National’s Jim Swearingen posed some questions to Bohrer about his compelling new book.

Q: John Bohrer, thank you for taking the time to talk with The National. Aside from your numerous pieces for a variety of public affairs publications, this is your first book. Why did you pick Robert Kennedy as your subject?

A: I was drawn into the story by the story of RFK’s two young, brilliant but undistinguished legislative aides, Adam Walinsky and Peter Edelman. I was asking, “Why did one of the most powerful people select these young men to be the intellectual engine of his political revival?” But it didn’t take long to see there was a story beneath this: of how a politician reinvented himself and became an icon. Bobby Kennedy continues to be a hero to such a broad swath of people -- from Democratic Congressman John Lewis to Republican Congressman Dan Donovan, perhaps best known as the prosecutor in the Eric Garner case. And I wanted to know how does a politician gets to reach that stature.  And whether anyone might again. So I re-reported the events of his life in this book.

Q: There is an accidental quality to RFK’s career– we got him, at least at first, as a package deal because he was JFK’s brother.  Of course, they both came from a powerful family and had a famously hard-driving father.  How far do you think RFK would have gotten without JFK?

A: It is difficult to say how quickly it would have happened, but I think it is fair to say that Bobby would have been a figure of national prominence without JFK. The Kennedy family has a special ability to carry on. Joseph Kennedy Sr. never believed JFK could have stepped into Joe Jr.’s shoes before the eldest son was killed in World War II. And yet, there Jack was, to Joe Kennedy’s surprise and delight, standing in the streets of Boston shaking hands to win a seat in Congress. My book recalls JFK’s comment to a sympathetic reporter in a 1960 campaign biography: “Just as I went into politics because Joe died, if anything happened to me tomorrow, my brother Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, Teddy would take over for him.” JFK turned out to be absolutely right. So that makes me believe that Bobby Kennedy would have lived a memorable life, regardless of JFK.

Q: RFK was of course assassinated in the midst of a promising presidential campaign.  The Presidency is surely a position that finds a person’s shortcomings quickly. How good a President do you think Bobby would have been?

A: Bobby Kennedy understood power at the highest levels -- what it was capable of, who it left behind, and the spots it was blind to. Bobby became even more keenly aware of that after he was ripped from power so swiftly. In The Revolution of Robert Kennedy, I write about how this made him more sensitive to the downtrodden, the overlooked, and the rebels. These were people with a deep desire for change, and Bobby understood change better than anyone in the 1960s because he had dealt with it personally, professionally and on such a public stage. The book also shows Bobby making trade-offs the way all politicians do, and we have to remember he would have made a lot of compromises in the presidency. But judging by what the country got instead – Richard Nixon -- I think he would have done more to calm the country, heal divisions, and be wiser about the ideals he and his brother began the decade with.

Q: Throughout the book it is difficult to discern where the ideological statesman ends and the calculating political tactician begins in Robert Kennedy. Was he driven more by one than the other, in your view?

A: Bobby Kennedy did not see a lot of nobility in losing. He knew the point of governing was not to take a stand but to actually achieve something. But there is a clear evolution in what RFK did to advance his chief political goal. At first, he decided to do whatever it takes to keep JFK’s legacy at the heart of government, seeking power through the conventional route of becoming Lyndon Johnson’s vice president. When that didn’t work out, he slowly finds another, outside path of protest. They were actions he wrestled with -- either out of loyalty or political calculation-- but his timidity toward embracing out-of-the-mainstream causes subsided over the years. As William F. Buckley Jr. wrote when RFK stuck his neck out on Vietnam, it meant something about the mood of the public, given Bobby’s cautious record.

Q: You recount how Bobby was the unimpeachable loyalist in JFK’s administration, and therefore the one person who could tell the President what he didn’t want to hear. Did LBJ’s administration suffer from a lack of such a person and are we witnessing a similar vacuum in the Trump administration?

A: Many of the President’s defenders have invoked Bobby Kennedy since President Trump brought his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner into the West Wing as high-level advisers. And while the selection of RFK was also fiercely criticized in 1960, other similarities are thin, especially given that Kushner reportedly supported needlessly damaging actions like firing FBI director James Comey. (For more on the contrast, I recommend Matt Bai’s column from April.)

While John F. Kennedy had Bobby as a sounding board, he also possessed enough self confidence to temper his worst political impulses, which is something President Johnson lacked. LBJ’s decision-making was shored up by his experience in government, and while he had many loyal and seasoned aides, he tended to dominate them with derision, and discard their opinions when they clashed with his desires. With President Trump, the similarities are striking, except the depth of his problems in these areas seem to be much worse.

Q: An elaborate mythology has emerged about RFK since his death. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about him?

A: People tend to forget that Bobby Kennedy was a politician who cut deals and wanted to win. He came to understand the power of inspiring people to a higher cause -- appreciating the gesture in a way he had once derided -- though he also knew that achieving things often involved taking some low roads. That meant unsavory allies, backroom deals, and painful compromises. So while the public is quick to remember how he fought passionately in the public square, it tends to ignore what he was doing behind closed doors -- which he was often harshly criticized for in real time.

Q: Bobby—and Jack, as well—had a respect, even reverence for the possibilities of politics and governing, for the possibilities they opened up to improve the country. Will we see that sort of respect for the possibilities of politics again?

A: Bobby Kennedy showed people respect by communicating directly with them, and by being honest about where they would be uncomfortable. He liked to engage in question-and-answer sessions so they could experience democracy, face-to-face. Just by that example, he made America a stronger place during a difficult time. Many qualities that make a politician a great one are admirable in hindsight, but not treated that way in the moment. What I hope The Revolution of Robert Kennedy does is open up the milestones and difficult decisions, show the reader how they were treated in real time, and serve as a reminder of how politicians are judged. Hopefully, it inspires them to appreciate what they might overlook in some of the people serving today.