Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector

Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector – Review

James N. Giglio

Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector. By James W. Hilty. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 642. $34.95.)

This study is the first scholarly biography of RFK since Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978). Although well written, sometimes eloquently so, Hilty’s effort lacks the overall stylistic polish of the eminent Schlesinger’s work. It covers only Robert Kennedy’s life through his brother’s assassination, and suffers from the unavailability of RFK’s personal papers, which Kennedy-family friend Schlesinger utilized. Nevertheless, Hilty’s book, the first of two projected volumes, supplants the preceding biography. It is more fair-minded than the defensive predecessor, which bordered on advocacy. It does a better job, too, in focusing on RFK, and, most important, it incorporates the extensive recent scholarship on the Kennedy era. Even though Hilty mined many of the available sources at the Kennedy Library and other repositories and conducted personal interviews, this book is a synthesis based largely on published works. He discusses the differing interpretations of pertinent scholars on most major matters before drawing his own conclusions. Usually his assessments are reasonable, thoughtful, and devoid of axe-grinding.

Like most accounts, Hilty saw Robert Kennedy as a complex, if not contradictory, personality. He could be curt, insensitive, self-righteous, acerbic, even ruthless. He also reflected a caring, warm, self-deprecating side of one who reached out particularly to children, the impoverished, and the underdog. He employed high standards in managing the Department of Justice and worked well with excellent staffers. Following his brother’s assassination, the good side became more prominent. The key to understanding him, Hilty suggests, emanates from a young Robert, the most puny, inarticulate, and shy of the Kennedy sons, one lost among older brothers and faced with high (and often contradictory) expectations. Drawn more to his mother than his older brothers had been, which explains his religiosity, he sought to please his father as an adolescent and struggled to measure up to his older siblings.

In the process, he became an overachiever and a passionate zealot to whatever cause he riveted his considerable energies: the anticommunist crusade of the 1950s, the investigation of labor racketeering, his brother’s presidential campaign, civil rights, and ultimately social justice. Hilty sees both positives and negatives in those efforts. The most damning aspect remains RFK’s insensitivity to civil liberties, including his acceptance of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretapping and bugging activities.

Hilty emphasizes Robert Kennedy’s extraordinary role as his brother Jack’s campaign manager and as the key figure in his presidency, which he served multitudinously–and as “brother protector.” That fraternal relationship–an uneven one that the president sometimes exploited–especially benefited JFK during the civil rights and the Cuban missile crises. Even so, Hilty views the Kennedy presidency in mixed fashion with lost opportunities, misdirected policies, and unsatisfactory Congressional relations balancing the accomplishments. As brother protector Robert also performed damage control regarding the president’s sexual indiscretions. Hilty chooses to believe that Kennedy had no intimate connection with Marilyn Monroe and probably remained faithful to his wife. To do otherwise would have violated his trust as brother protector. Nor does Hilty believe that Mafia money infused the Kennedy presidential campaign of 1960. Such debatable interpretations aside, this is a highly recommended book.

James N. Giglio

Southwest Missouri State University

COPYRIGHT 1999 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

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