Biographies are the stories of career transition. When we make a selection from a bookstore, library or electronic shelf we may not be seeking the secret to success. We may not even be thinking about work and career. A life story well told is one that surprises the reader with the unexpected; previously unknown challenges faced, and career crises resolved.
The ‘holiday read’ recommendation this season is the new biography of Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye. It’s a life story well told, of someone we thought we knew.
If the current political landscape seems bleak, this trip back to 1950’s-1960’s America will frame the present within the historical context of our not too distant past. And perhaps offer a bit of hope.
Bobby Kennedy’s story is a career story that begins, as many do, following the expectations of others. At age 38 the carefully constructed career scaffolding collapsed and he faced a decision, what should I do with my life?
“He had spent the first twenty-five years with the world seeing him as Joe Kennedy’s boy, and the next dozen as John Kennedy’s brother. Now he would be his own man, one who was both more tempered and fiercer.”
The narrative reflects these two career/life phases. The first six chapters explore the less familiar territory of Bobby Kennedy, “…nurtured on the rightist orthodoxies of his dynasty-building father and started his public life as counsel to the left-baiting, table-thumping senator Joseph McCarthy. That younger RFK was a bare-knuckled political operative who masterminded his brother’s whatever-it-takes bids for senator and president.”
The remaining chapters relate the story of a man plotting a career path apart from the influence of his father and older brother.
The trauma of assassination “had loosed Bobby’s moorings, quelled his passions, and made him question even his faith…The values and qualities that would define him were present from the beginning, but they fully bloomed only after his father’s disability and his brother’s death…Now this man so shaped by others was reshaping himself, the way the existentialists said he could. He could finally ask what he wanted and needed. His public persona began to reflect the gentleness that family and friends say they had always known.”
In 1964 Bobby Kennedy was at that point we may recognize from personal experience. “The breadth of the choices he was weighing reflected the reality that for the first time, he didn’t know what he should do…He was also self-aware enough to realize the implausibility of his impasse: “It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it? Thirty-eight years old and no place to go.””
Public service had driven his decisions in the past and on August 25, 1964 he embarked on the next stage of his career, announcing a run for senate from the State of New York.
Trailing in the polls, accused of being a ‘carpetbagger’, on October 5, he addressed “more than two thousand people at Columbia University’s Wollman Auditorium…Standing onstage alone in the glaring TV lights, a microphone in his hand, he looked younger and smaller than the student interrogators who threw him one hardball question after another for eighty-five minutes… His audience was filled with students from the most politically active generation ever in America, who four years later would help ignite the nation in protest over everything from the war in Vietnam to crumbling U.S. ghettos. For now, these fans of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones sensed that Bobby was as authentic as a politician got.”
On November 3, Kennedy won the election, making history. “The Kennedys were the first family ever to send three brothers to the U.S. Senate, and the second to have brothers serving simultaneously…”
His senate career represented a historical catalog of the social issues facing the country: civil rights, anti-poverty programs, and eventual opposition to the Vietnam war.
“The senator from New York’s involvement with the Republic of South Africa was different. Unlike Vietnam, it didn’t matter to the White House or to most Americans. And in South Africa, it wasn’t Bobby but millions of oppressed blacks and thousands of their white allies who were desperate to speak our but had gagged themselves for fear of the consequences. Traveling there in 1966, Bobby gave them a voice in a way that nobody else had. The trip also freed him from the politics that clouded everything he did in America and brought him back to first principles.”
Once again, it was a crowd of university students at the University of Cape Town on June 6, 1966 that provided him a platform to deliver one of his most memorable speeches, ‘The Ripple of Hope’.
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice. He sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.”
Larry Tye’s biography doesn’t dwell on the familiar in Bobby Kennedy’s history. He doesn’t rehash the work of previous biographers. What he delivers to readers is a life story, illuminated by contemporary journalists’ coverage, informed by historical fact, and imbued with Kennedy’s ceaseless career passion as an advocate for those with no representation.
“Bobby was a shaker-upper dedicated to the art of the possible. That he could change so substantially and convincingly over the course of his brief public life helped restore a changing America’s faith in redemption. In the end he could become this nation’s high priest of reconciliation precisely because he had once been the keeper of our darkest seekers.”
Spend your holiday with ‘Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon’ and restore your belief in “the art of the possible”.