Washington Lawyer - August/September 2018 - 28
There is a library full of books about the family - Joseph, JFK, Jackie, Ted, and
RFK. My book, Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes (published in 1995 by Random
House), told the inside story of RFK's attorney generalship and of some of his
political life after his brother's assassination.
Recent books by John Bohrer, Chris Matthews, and Larry Tye go over
history and selective anecdotes but add little to what has already been
written. They all describe a prototypical Robert Kennedy to a new generation for whom he is only a well-known name. There have been television
remembrances of RFK this year, but they were thin and offered no new
thoughts about their subject.
What should interest us now, because it is especially relevant in the present
dismal political season, is the incorrect view most commentators had and
still have of RFK as a politician who, like Clark Kent, changed character
suddenly, from ruthless son of Joseph to the liberal disciple and political
heir of JFK. (I will use his public initials rather than the familiar "Bobby,"
which his family used, or "Bob," the way his friends and close staff
referred to him).
Dallas had a particularly profound effect on RFK; it did for everyone. But that
black-and-white assessment is too simple. Those of us who worked for and with
him knew he was a more complex man, a work in progress - and there was
much work and much progress.
A WORK IN PROGRESS
I worked four years (1961-1964) for RFK at the U.S. Department of Justice
in the Organized Crime Section, which was his special interest when he
became attorney general. I met with him regularly in his cavernous office,
decorated with his children's drawings, when our group of prosecutors
reported to him about our ongoing cases. Lawyers at Justice also were
aware of his presence when we were not together as his ubiquitous,
growing persona evolved. When one of us came in on a Saturday or Sunday
to catch up on work, the following Monday we might find a personal note
from our boss thanking us for working the weekend. When a lawyer's wife
gave birth, she might receive flowers from our boss. When we won a trial
in a distant city, we would hear from him immediately in a personal call.
I got one such call in a small Kentucky restaurant where my trial team was
having a modest victory lunch after winning a hard-fought verdict. After
we spoke, I passed the phone to Frank Staub, the veteran FBI agent who
worked with me so he could share in my boss's compliment. Years later after
Staub had died, his children came to see me. They said that it was the
highlight of their father's long and successful career to have talked to the
attorney general who thanked him personally for his work.
The point is that RFK didn't change character from tough guy to heartful man
after his brother's assassination. He was evolving during his relatively few years
in government and in his disproportionately powerful political life. Nuance is
missing in most histories, but it is important to understand it now as we
remember the life and contributions of such a major figure in our country's
THE KENNEDY NAME
When RFK was appointed attorney general, the public perception was that this
was a classic example of nepotism. It was. Kennedy was 34, had never practiced
law, and had earned his reputation as JFK's passionate, hard-driving campaign
manager for Congress - House and Senate - and later the presidency. He
seemed to be the ideological chip off the old block as Joseph Kennedy's natural
heir, having worked briefly and quietly for the infamous Joseph McCarthy, and
later as feisty counsel on the congressional investigation of labor corruption
aimed at getting JFK the television coverage he needed to provide national
exposure for his later run for president.
I shared that impression of him when I was recruited to work for RFK by Ed
Silberling, who Kennedy had recruited to run the rackets prosecution group.
Silberling talked me into coming to Justice, if only for one year, promising me
major trial work that would provide a unique experience for my planned
teaching career. My liberal friends questioned how I could work for this illprepared and overreaching man. They did again four years later when I was
a speechwriter for RFK in his New York Senate run, and many New York City
liberals bonded to support his rival Kenneth Keating, the Republican incumbent. RFK won handily, but with about half the plurality that LBJ had garnered
over Barry Goldwater.
Courtesy of Ronald Goldfarb
As I worked with RFK, I saw a different man than his public reputation suggested. Yes, he was tough-minded and dedicated laser-like to making a difference in fighting organized crime and labor racketeering, a subject he had
learned in his work on the McClellan Committee about his "enemies within."1
I came to realize that his goal was a worthwhile one, and that he was a great
boss and an ideal ally. He supported us, was personally involved with our work,
and showed a personal kindness to his staff that touched and motivated us.
Liberal critics discounted that he led a national movement at Justice to reform
the bail system, that he focused on the problems of juvenile delinquency, and
that he moved dramatically - too slowly, some thought - into the civil rights
battles that divided the country.
The author (above) worked for four years under then U.S. Attorney
General Robert F. Kennedy at the Department of Justice, and later as
Kennedy's speechwriter during his run for the U.S. Senate.
28 WASHINGTON LAWYER
One telling example of his character stands out in my memory. In the early days
of the civil rights struggle, much of the action was at the Justice Department.
Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Civil Rights Division leader