Robert F. Kennedy was 42 years old when he was assassinated in Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel pantry on June 6, 1968, just minutes after finding out that he had won the highly contested California Democratic presidential primary. We will never know what would have become of him—and of us as a country—if he had not been killed. The only thing we know with certainty is that if he were alive today, he would be 92 years old. It jars the imagination to think of such a vital man, a man whom Chris Matthews calls “a raging spirit,” as ever being “old.” And yet, almost 50 years after his death, his life and his memory still haunt us.
Many people before and since RFK’s time have tried to get a handle on the meaning of the man and why he continues to have such a hold on the American imagination and polity. Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, author of numerous booksand ever-energetic follower of all things political, has come as close as anyone ever will to revealing the essence of the man known simply in popular lore as “Bobby.”
Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit is Matthews’s cri de coeur for a time and a spirit that is hard to imagine now, given the present atmosphere of political toxicity where violent tweeting, screeching vitriol and non-stop invective pass for what used to be thoughtful, informed and civilized discourse on pressing national issues and agendas. While most biographies concerning RFK concentrate on various aspects of his career or policy positions, Chris Matthews seeks to examine him in a novel way: through the lens of personality. Matthews believes that it is only by examining what was the essence of the man can we fully appreciate why he made such an impact in his time and—truth to tell—still does, today.
Robert Kennedy was unique in the Kennedy family because of his standing—or lack of it—in growing up in such a large and rambunctious family. The seventh of nine and the third son, he was the shy one who wanted so much to be accepted within and without the family. He had to overcome his almost crippling shyness and, in time, he surmounted it. That shyness was essential in the formation of his character. It helped him develop those traits he would become famous for: empathy, loyalty and determination. In other words, he utilized his shyness and diffidence to work to his advantage, where in other people they could be drawbacks.
Robert Kennedy's quality of gentleness was always there from the very beginning, even when it was later cloaked by his adult toughness, his famed ruthlessness.
At the beginning of the book, Matthews tells a revealing anecdote about how young Robert was perceived, even by his own father, the domineering Joseph P. Kennedy. He recounts when Lem Billings (family friend and JFK schoolmate) remarked that Bobby was “the most generous little boy,” and that even for a child, he had an extraordinarily kind and generous nature, the patriarch commented: “I don’t know where he got that.” Yet that quality of gentleness was always there from the very beginning, even when it was later cloaked by his adult toughness, his famed ruthlessness.
All the elements and events of Robert Kennedy’s life recalled in this book are well known to anyone who has had familiarity with the Kennedys, individually or as a family. What is new here—as alluded to above—is how Matthews examines it all through the prism of personality to reveal the essence of his character. It is remarkable how this diffident boy grew into the man whom all members of the family depended on and who those in the political sphere counted on as well. Robert Kennedy was not one to be ignored, only remembered. He would do whatever it took to be accepted, whether as a boy jumping into the ocean (when he didn’t even know how to swim) to impress his older brothers or as a man when he assumed command during family tragedies of which there were many. He had to steel himself for it all, no doubt at great emotional and physical cost. Like an emergency responder, he ran toward danger, ready to assist those in need.
While most biographies concerning RFK concentrate on various aspects of his career or policy positions, Chris Matthews seeks to examine him in a novel way: through the lens of personality.
Kennedy was simple yet complicated, shy yet fierce, fearful but determined, athletic, but not a “jock.” He grew to appreciate books, poetry and anything that enlightened his thought. He was fond of saying that one must “hang a lantern” on a problem and somehow find away to a solution. His life was an admixture of the positive and the negative, but by the time he reached Los Angeles, his inner self—his best self—became revealed. Thanks to Chris Matthews, we see how Robert F. Kennedy got to that point and how that journey he led needs to be relearned and reimagined in our own time.