In Love with Night: The American Romance with Robert Kennedy. – Review – book review
In Love with Night: The American Romance with Robert Kennedy. By Ronald Steel. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Pp. 244. $23.00.)
Robert Kennedy had a remarkable ability to enrage people. During the 1960 presidential campaign, one of the doyens of the Democratic Party called him “a crude Irish mick.” Lyndon Johnson considered him “a little fart.” Even his friends could find him exasperating. “He is … by nature a rather dour character,” the British diplomat David Ormsby-Gore wrote his superiors in 1964, trying to explain why RFK had insulted the prime minister during a London stopover.
In this slim volume, Ronald Steel revives the tradition of attacking RFK. He takes as his target the “Bobby Myth,” the widespread belief that Kennedy represented the last, best hope of American liberalism. The legend rests on a portrait of RFK first drawn in his last years and completed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in his magisterial 1978 biography. The portrait shows a man who, under the pain of death, remade himself. By nature shy and gentle, young Robert Kennedy hid behind a mask of toughness: he was dogmatic in his beliefs and ruthless in pursuit of his goals. He softened somewhat during his brother’s presidency, as he confronted the injustices of racism and poverty. Not until John Kennedy’s murder, however, did RFK fully come to understand the complexity and tragedy of life. He then became an “existential hero,” the solitary, lonely man struggling to do good in an unjust world, reaching out to the dispossessed, pleading for peace and reconciliation. Only he, according to the myth, had the ability to place those noble goals at the center of government. When he died, those goals died with him.
In Love with Night is an extended attack on that myth. To be sure, young Bobby was every bit the brutal operator–a bully, really–that his advocates say he was. But, Steel insists, he never experienced a great transformation. As attorney general he became his brother’s “troubleshooter,” pursuing mobsters, political foes, and international enemies such as Fidel Castro with a dangerous intensity. His zeal may have helped cause John Kennedy’s murder, Steel speculates. Overwhelmed by guilt, RFK sought redemption by trying to realize the great promise of his brother’s presidency, itself a mythical formulation, given the mediocre record JFK had built during his three years in office.
Bobby’s commitment to his brother’s memory inevitably pitted him against Lyndon Johnson, whom Kennedy saw as a usurper. By 1964, however, Johnson had seized control of the political center. So, RFK tried to outmaneuver him. This “harshly realistic politician” used soaring rhetoric to assemble “a motley collection of disparate and ill-matched” supporters: “young people, blacks, and Hispanics, Vietnam War opponents, nonunion workers, [and] the poor” (122, 120). Meanwhile, he maintained his ties to the political middle by proposing policies on race relations, ghetto rehabilitation, and Vietnam that were moderate at best. By so doing, Kennedy sought to position himself as the one politician who could bridge the gap between the dispossessed–“his” people–and the mainstream of society.
RFK had planned to make his move for the White House in 1972, Steel says. But, the crisis of 1968 forced his hand. Kennedy tried to put his strategy into play during his tumultuous campaign in that year’s primaries, bringing massive, adoring crowds of poor, black, and Hispanic Americans into the streets on his behalf while assuring middle and working-class whites that he was the candidate of both compassion and “law and order.” It did not work. RFK could not draw white support to any significant degree; he was not the unifier that he and his campaign aides claimed him to be. After his tragic death, the image that he sought to create hardened into fact, becoming the bedrock upon which the “Bobby Myth” was built.
Steel thus engages in the most simple-minded form of revisionism, taking the common story and insisting that it is not true. But, he never offers the reader a genuinely new way of understanding RFK. Perhaps he cannot. Steel, after all, did no original research, instead relying on the secondary sources that he intends to discredit. The result is a disappointing book, in the end resting not on new insights but on the sort of anger that RFK could always summon.
Kevin Boyle University of Massachusetts
COPYRIGHT 2001 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group