The Holiday Read ‘Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon’ by Larry Tye

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”.



The Saturday Read ‘I Was Amelia Earhart’ by Jane Mendelsohn

Sometimes the stories behind what we read are as interesting as the books themselves. We now know that the musical Hamilton had its inception when creator Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up a book in an airport on the way to vacation.

Jane Mendelsohn, the author of this week’s Saturday Read, ‘I Was Amelia Earhart’ found her inspiration reading a newspaper article about the aviator while riding a train into New York .

“I didn’t know much about Amelia Earhart, but the idea of her surviving on a desert island, even if only for a little while, appealed to me, sang to me, waved furiously to me from a great distance. Perhaps this was because I felt at the time as if I were flying hopelessly around the world and searching for land, longing for one of those islands of stability some of us keep looking for in our 20s, a braceleted wrist held up to the face, hand shielding our eyes from the harsh sun of adulthood, not realizing that we will have to build that island for ourselves. Whatever the reason, I was certainly not the first person to be fascinated by Earhart’s disappearance. Nor the last.”

Where will you find inspiration this holiday weekend?

On this 79th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance, go back in time as newspapers around the world reported the news:


“Coast Guard headquarters was advised tonight that Amelia Earhart was believed to have alighted on the Pacific Ocean near Howland Island shortly after 5 P.M. Eastern daylight time today.

A message from the cutter Itasca, stationed in the vicinity of the island in the mid-Pacific, said:

“Earhart unreported at Howland at 7 P.M. [E.D.T.]. Believe down shortly after 5 P.M. Am searching probable area and will continue.”

Author Mendelsohn imagines the other side of story, as Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan transition from pioneers of the sky, to survivors on a tiny Pacific atoll.

“It went very quickly, those first few days. They got out of the plane, and together looked around and tried to make sense of their surroundings. Then all of a sudden, as if part of the choreography of a dream, they set about performing the necessary rituals of survival.

They check the radio, which picks up nothing, and the fuel tank, which is low but not empty, and they confirm their worst suspicions – that they have no idea where they are…They build a fire on the beach to attract attention. They know that a search will have already begun.”

It’s not too long before Earhart spots a plane.

“In the morning I see a speck appear on the horizon, a black spot the size of an insect.

The point of blackness, which at first appears to be nothing more than a gnat, keeps coming closer, heading directly toward the island, and I tell myself that it must be a figment of my imagination. But after two minutes, it assumes the form of a plane to such perfection that I need a moment to recognize what it is…At first I take off my scarf and gesticulate furiously, but as the plane appears to lose altitude, I begin to relax and wave it calmly, welcoming it ashore. Everything about this plane conveys purpose and assurance, as if it had been designed solely to rescue us. I find the promise of its shape more beautiful than anything I have ever seen, but strangely lost to me, although I don’t understand why until it comes closer and I am able to determine that despite my wish it is not coming toward the island at all. It looked as if it were heading directly at me, but as I watch it grow larger I see it pass overhead, high above, too far to see me as I desperately shake my scarf. It circles once – for an instant I image that it is heading toward the water and I think I can make out black pontoons for landing – and then it makes a wide turn, points back to the mysterious place from whence it has come, and flies away. It hasn’t seen me at all.”

The mystery of Earhart’s disappearance continues to arouse interest as researchers continue to search for a remnant of the missing plane. Mendelsohn’s narrative offers the reader an alternative history, employing beautiful prose to recreate a time when “Planes used to be vehicles for dreaming…As soon as you saw a plane, you started dreaming. It was a thrill just to catch a glimpse of one. “

In 2012 Jane Mendelsohn revisited the subject of her 1996 novel in an Op-Ed for The New York Times.

“We still wonder what happened to Amelia Earhart — perhaps soon we may even find out — but do we know what to do with her? Do we know how to make not just her mysterious disappearance but also her miraculous life relevant and inspiring to our global society? And could she matter across the globe, that ball around which she tried to fly that feels so much smaller today but is in fact exactly the same size it was then?

Historically, one thing America has been good at is offering inspiration. We haven’t been doing a brilliant job of it lately, but in Amelia Earhart we have something, someone, to offer the 21st century: a heroine. She was a leader, not a passive bystander. She was strong, not a victim. And she was not born into a rich family, as were many other women pilots of her day, but was lifted up by her own accomplishments. In other words, she gives us good shoes to fill.”

On this weekend, when we celebrate our nation’s independence, read ‘I Was Amelia Earhart’ and discover why her life still inspires.

“Amelia Earhart can be a beacon for our country and for women and men around the globe because everyone, each of us, needs to be “aware of the hazards” and accept “the inevitable risks.”… Earhart’s mystery endures because of who she was as a person, the pilot of her own destiny, mistakes, failures and dreams, reachable and unreachable. She still beckons.”

The Saturday Read ‘LIT UP: One Reporter, Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives.’ by David Denby

If you believe that the humanities are as critical as STEM skills in the 21st century workplace, take a trip back to high school with David Denby and this week’s Saturday Read, ‘LIT UP’: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives.

We have this basic disconnect in our workplace today that is pitting generalists against specialists. The consequences are trickling down into our public education system.

If you’re a parent considering where to invest in your child’s college education, you’re probably looking at ‘vocational’ programs that ‘guarantee’ a job at graduation. If you’re that same parent, but now in the role of organization executive, you realize your recruiting efforts must consider ‘cultural contribution’; potential in addition to skill set. If you’re a student, you hear ‘STEM good, humanities bad; or worse, a waste of time’.

Writing in The New Yorker in February, Mr. Denby addressed the challenge in advocating for the humanities in today’s skill driven education/employer complex. He cited recent state government efforts to offer ‘bonus premiums’ in financial aid to students enrolled in STEM degree programs by cutting funding to students in the humanities.

“Lifetime readers know that reading literature can be transformative, but they can’t prove it. If they tried, they would have to buck the metric prejudice, the American notion that assertions unsupported with statistics are virtually meaningless. What they know about literature and its effects is literally and spiritually immeasurable. They would have to buck common marketplace wisdom, too: in an economy demanding “skill sets”—defined narrowly as technical and business skills—that deep-reading stuff won’t get you anywhere.” 

In ‘LIT UP’ David Denby is searching for the magic that transforms a young reader into a lifetime reader. “How do you establish reading pleasure in busy screen-loving teenagers – and in particular, pleasure in reading serious work? Is it still possible to raise teenagers who can’t live without reading something good? Or is that idea absurd? And could the struggle to create such hunger have any effect on the character of boys and girls?”

He chooses to go back to school for the 2011-12 academic year at Beacon, a New York City magnet high school, at the time located on West 61st St, observing teacher Sean Leon‘s tenth grade English class.

“School was the place to find out. And students in the tenth grade, I thought, were the right kids to look at. Recent work by neuroscientists has established that adolescence, as well as early childhood, is a period of tremendous “neuroplasticity”. At that age, the brain still has a genuine capacity to change.”

The book is structured by months, and reading selections. Mr. Leon introduces each book with inventive assignments, questions and at one point, a ‘digital fast’. Mr. Denby provides thumbnail plot sketches to shake the cobwebs from our ‘required reading’ memories. And we meet the students, by pseudonym, in their reactions to the literature.

At one point, the author gives the students a questionnaire to find out what books they read on their own, and their favorite authors. He finds three ‘real readers’ in a class of 32. “…unfairly or not, I was sorry that among Mr. Leon’s students there were no mad enthusiasms, no crazy loves, no compulsive reading of every book by a single author…”

In writing the book, he was encouraged by colleagues to create a scalable review, contrary to his initial approach, resisting quantification, and observing “a single place where literary education seemed to be working.” 

He realized that you can’t clone Beacon’s Sean Leon. He wanted other teachers to learn from Leon’s methods, but realized additional perspectives would add to his narrative.

“Typicality and comprehensiveness remained impossible to achieve, but variety was not. I delayed finishing the book, and, in the academic year 2013-14, I visited tenth-grade English classes in two other public schools – shuttling up many times during the year to James Hillhouse High School, an inner-city school in New Haven with a largely poor African American population; and five times in the spring to a school in a wealthy New York suburb, Mamaroneck, a “bedroom town” in the language of the fifties, where people sent their kids to good schools.”

Mr. Denby’s appendix includes the reading lists for each of the schools he visited and a ‘where are they now?’ college destination roster of the Beacon English Class of 2014. “There is, of course, no ideal reading list, no perfect syllabus, no perfect classroom manner, but only strategies that work or don’t work. In a reading crisis, we are pragmatists as well as idealists.”

“Teenagers, distracted, busy, self-obsessed, are not easy to engage – not by their teachers or by their parents. To keep them in the game, the teachers I watched experimented, altered the routine, changing the physical dimensions of the class. They kept the kids off balance in order to put them back in balance. They demanded more of students than the students expected to give.”

This is a book for parents, parents who are business leaders; teachers and the politicians who minimize their value; and students. We’re in a reading crisis and we need folks who have emotional intelligence, who can think, judge, make decisions and create a vision for an enterprise within a global world view.

“Teachers are the most maligned and ignored professionals in American life. In the humanities, the good ones are as central to our emotional and moral life as priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams. The good ones are not sheepish or silent in defense of literature and history and the rest. They can’t be; the children’s lives are right before them. In high-school English, if the teachers are shrewd and willing to take a few risks, they will try to reach the students where they live emotionally. They will engage, for instance, with “naïve” existential questions (what do I live for?) and also adolescent fascination with “dark” moods and the fear of being engulfed by adult society. Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Stevenson, Orwell, Vonnegut, and many others wrote about such things. And if teachers can make books important to kids—and forge the necessary link to pleasure and need—those kids may turn off the screens. At least for a few vital hours.”