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Robert Kennedy

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Robert Kennedy

"RFK" redirects here. For other uses, see RFK (disambiguation).
For other people named Robert Kennedy, see Robert Kennedy (disambiguation).

Robert Francis Kennedy
Kennedy appearing before the Platform Committee, 1964
United States Senator
from New York
In office
January 3, 1965 – June 6, 1968
Preceded by Kenneth Keating
Succeeded by Charles Goodell
64th United States Attorney General
In office
January 20, 1961 – September 3, 1964
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Lyndon Baines Johnson
Preceded by William P. Rogers
Succeeded by Nicholas Katzenbach
Personal details
Born (1925-11-20)November 20, 1925
Brookline, Massachusetts
Died June 6, 1968(1968-06-06) (aged 42)
Los Angeles, California
Resting place Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, Virginia
38°52′52″N 77°04′17″W / 38.88118°N 77.07150°W / 38.88118; -77.07150

Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Ethel Skakel
(m. 1950–1968; his death)
Relations Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Sr. (father)
Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald (mother)
Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (brother)
John Fitzgerald Kennedy (brother)
Rose Marie Kennedy (sister)
Kathleen Agnes Kennedy (sister)
Eunice Mary Kennedy (sister)
Patricia Helen Kennedy (sister)
Jean Ann Kennedy (sister)
Edward Moore Kennedy (brother)
Children Kathleen Hartington Kennedy
Joseph Patrick Kennedy
Robert Francis Kennedy, Jr.
David Anthony Kennedy
Mary Courtney Kennedy
Michael LeMoyne Kennedy
Mary Kerry Kennedy
Christopher George Kennedy
Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy
Douglas Harriman Kennedy
Rory Elizabeth Katherine Kennedy
Alma mater Harvard College
University of Virginia School of Law
Profession Lawyer
Religion Roman Catholicism
Military service
Service/branch United States Navy Reserve
Years of service 1944–46
Rank Seaman Apprentice
Unit USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.
Battles/wars World War II

Robert Francis Kennedy (November 20, 1925 – June 6, 1968), commonly known as "Bobby" or by his initials RFK, was an American politician, who served as a Senator for New York from 1965 until his assassination in 1968. He was previously the 64th U.S. Attorney General from 1961 to 1964, serving under his older brother, President John F. Kennedy and his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. An icon of modern American liberalism and member of the Democratic Party, Kennedy was a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1968 election.

After service in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a Seaman Apprentice from 1944 to 1946, Kennedy graduated from Harvard College and the University of Virginia School of Law. Prior to entering public office, he worked as a correspondent to the Boston Post and as an attorney in Washington D.C.. He gained national attention as the chief counsel of the Senate Labor Rackets Committee from 1957 to 1959, where he publicly challenged Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa over the corrupt practices of the union, and published The Enemy Within, a book about corruption in organized labor.

A prominent member of the Kennedy family, Bobby was the campaign manager for his brother Jack in the 1960 presidential election and was appointed Attorney General during his presidential administration. He also served as a White House adviser to the president from 1961 to 1963. His tenure is best known for its advocacy for the African-American Civil Rights Movement, crusade against organized crime and the mafia, and diplomacy during the Berlin Crisis of 1961. After his brother's assassination, Kennedy left the Johnson administration to run for the United States Senate in 1964, defeating Republican incumbent Kenneth Keating.

In 1968, Kennedy campaigned for the presidency and was a leading Democratic candidate, appealing particularly to black, Hispanic, and Catholic voters. Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, after Kennedy defeated Senator Eugene McCarthy in the California presidential primary, he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan and died the following day.[1]

Early life

Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the seventh child of the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom Joseph Patrick "Joe" Kennedy, Sr. (1888–1969) and philanthropist Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald (1890–1995).[2] His brothers included longtime Senator Edward Moore "Ted" Kennedy (1932–2009) and President John Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy (1917–1963).

Bobby's father was a wealthy businessman, and a leading Irish Catholic figure in the Democratic Party. After he stepped down as ambassador to England in 1940, Joe Sr. focused his attention on his first born, Joseph Patrick "Joe" Kennedy, Jr. (1915–1944), planning that he would enter politics and be elected president. After Joe Jr. was killed during World War II, those hopes fell on his second eldest son Jack, to become president. The father had the money, connections and the ambitions to play a central role in the family's political ambitions.[3]

In September 1927, the Kennedy family moved to Riverdale, New York, a wealthy neighborhood in the Bronx, then two years later, moved 5 miles (8.0 km) northeast to Bronxville, New York. Bobby spent summers with his family at their compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and Christmas and Easter holidays with his family at their winter home in Palm Beach, Florida, purchased in 1933. He attended public elementary school in Riverdale from kindergarten through second grade; then Bronxville School, the public school in Bronxville, from third through fifth grade, repeating the third grade;[4] then Riverdale Country School, a private school for boys in Riverdale, for sixth grade.

In March 1938, when he was 12, Bobby sailed with his mother and his four youngest siblings to England, where his father had begun serving as ambassador. He attended the private Gibbs School for Boys in London for seventh grade, returning to the U.S. just before the outbreak of war in 1939.

In September 1939, for eighth grade, Bobby attended St. Paul's School, an elite private preparatory school for boys in Concord, New Hampshire.[5] However, he transferred after two months at St. Paul's to Portsmouth Priory School, a Benedictine Catholic boarding school for boys in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, for eighth through tenth grades.[6] In September 1942, Kennedy transferred to Milton Academy, a third boarding school in Milton, Massachusetts, for eleventh and twelfth grades.[7]

Navy service (1944-1946)

Six weeks before his eighteenth birthday, Bobby enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve as an apprentice seaman,[8] released from active duty until March 1944 when he left Milton Academy early to report to the V-12 Navy College Training Program at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His V-12 training was at Harvard (March–November 1944); Bates College in Lewiston, Maine (November 1944 – June 1945); and Harvard (June 1945 – January 1946).[9]

On December 15, 1945, the U.S. Navy commissioned the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., and shortly thereafter granted Kennedy's request to be released from naval-officer training to serve on the Kennedy starting on February 1, 1946, as an apprentice seaman on the ship's shakedown cruise in the Caribbean.[10][11] On May 30, 1946, he received his honorable discharge from the Navy.[12] For his service in the Navy, Kennedy was eligible for the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.

Further study and journalism (1946-1951)

In September 1946, Kennedy entered Harvard as a junior, having received credit for his time in the V-12 program.[13] Kennedy worked hard to make the Harvard varsity football team as an end, was a starter and scored a touchdown in the first game of his senior year before breaking his leg in practice,[13] earning his varsity letter when his coach sent him in for the last minutes of a game against Yale, wearing a cast.[14] Kennedy graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in government in March 1948.[15]

After graduating, Kennedy immediately sailed off on the RMS Queen Mary with a college friend for a six-month tour of Europe and the Middle East, accredited as a correspondent of the Boston Post, for which he filed six stories.[16] Four of these stories, filed from Palestine shortly before the end of the British Mandate, provided a first-hand view of the tensions.[16] He was critical of the British policy in Palestine. Further, he praised the Jewish people he met there "as hardy and tough". Kennedy held out some hope after seeing Arabs and Jews working side by side but, in the end felt the "hate" in Palestine was too strong and would lead to a war.[17]

In September 1948, Kennedy enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville.[18] On June 17, 1950, Kennedy married Ethel Skakel at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. Kennedy graduated from law school in June 1951 and flew with Ethel to Greenwich to stay in his father-in-law's guest house. Bobby and Ethel's first child, Kathleen, was born on July 4, 1951,[19] and Kennedy spent the summer studying for the Massachusetts bar exam.[20]

In September 1951, Kennedy went to San Francisco as a correspondent of the Boston Post to cover the convention concluding the Treaty of Peace with Japan.[21] In October 1951, Kennedy embarked on a seven-week Asian trip with his brother John (then Massachusetts 11th district congressman) and his sister Patricia to Israel, India, Vietnam, and Japan.[22] Because of their age gap, the two brothers had previously seen little of each other. This 25,000-mile (40,000 km) trip was the first extended time they had spent together and served to deepen their relationship.

Legal career (1951-1960)

In November 1951, Kennedy moved with his wife and daughter to a townhouse in Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and started work as a lawyer in the Internal Security Section (which investigated suspected Soviet agents) of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.[23] In February 1952, he was transferred to the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn to prosecute fraud cases. On June 6, 1952, Kennedy resigned to manage his brother John's successful 1952 U.S. Senate campaign in Massachusetts.[24]

In December 1952, at the behest of his father, he was appointed by Republican Senator Joe McCarthy as assistant counsel of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.[25] This was a highly visible job for Robert. He resigned in July 1953, but "retained a fondness for McCarthy."[26] After a period as an assistant to his father on the Hoover Commission, Kennedy rejoined the Senate committee staff as chief counsel for the Democratic minority in February 1954.[27] When the Democrats gained the majority in January 1955, he became chief counsel. Kennedy was a background figure in the televised McCarthy Hearings of 1954 into the conduct of McCarthy.[28]

Kennedy worked as an aide to Adlai Stevenson II during the 1956 presidential election to learn for a future national campaign by Jack. The candidate did not impress Kennedy, however, he voted for incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower.[29]:416–417 Kennedy soon made a name for himself as the chief counsel of the 1957–59 Senate Labor Rackets Committee under chairman John L. McClellan. In a dramatic scene, Kennedy squared off with Teamsters union President Jimmy Hoffa during the antagonistic argument that marked Hoffa's testimony.[30] Kennedy left the Rackets Committee in late 1959 in order to run his brother John's successful presidential campaign.

In 1960, he published the book The Enemy Within, describing the corrupt practices within the Teamsters and other unions that he had helped investigate; the book sold very well.

Attorney General of the United States (1961–1964)

Brother Jack's choice of Bobby as Attorney General following his election victory in 1960 was controversial, with The New York Times and The New Republic calling him inexperienced and unqualified.[31] He had no experience in any state or federal court,[31] causing the President to joke, "I can't see that it's wrong to give him a little legal experience before he goes out to practice law."[32] However, Kennedy did have significant experience in studying and fighting organized crime.

According to Bobby Baker, the Senate Majority Secretary and a protégé of Lyndon B. Johnson, President-elect Kennedy did not want to name his brother as Attorney General. However, their father overruled the President-elect. At the behest of Johnson, Baker persuaded the influential Southern Senator Richard Russell to allow a voice vote to confirm the President's brother in January 1961, as Robert F. Kennedy "would have been lucky to get 40 votes" on a roll-call vote.[33] Lincoln wrote of that November 19, 1963, conversation just three days before Kennedy's assassination.[34]

Kennedy performed well in his confirmation hearing and chose what biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. called an "outstanding" group of deputy and assistant attorneys general, including Byron White and Nicholas Katzenbach.[31]

Hilty concludes that Bobby "played an unusual combination of roles—campaign director, attorney general, executive overseer, controller of patronage, chief adviser, and brother protector" and that nobody before him had such power.[35] His tenure as Attorney General was easily the period of greatest power for the office - no previous United States Attorney General had enjoyed such clear influence on all areas of policy during an administration.[36]

To a great extent, President Kennedy sought the advice and counsel of his younger brother, resulting in Robert F. Kennedy remaining the President's closest political adviser. Kennedy was relied upon as both the President's primary source of administrative information and as a general counsel with whom trust was implicit, given the familial ties of the two men. He exercised widespread authority over every cabinet department, leading the Associated Press to dub him, "Bobby--Washington's No. 2 man."[37]

The president once remarked about his brother that, "If I want something done and done immediately I rely on the Attorney General. He is very much the doer in this administration, and has an organizational gift I have rarely if ever seen surpassed."[38]


As one of President Kennedy's closest White House advisers, RFK played a crucial role in the events surrounding the Berlin Crisis of 1961.[39] Operating mainly through a private backchannel connection to Soviet spy Georgi Bolshakov, RFK relayed important diplomatic communications between the US and Soviet governments.[40] Most significantly, this connection helped the US set up the Vienna Summit in June 1961 and later defuse the tank standoff with the Soviets at Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie in October.[41]

Organized crime and the Teamsters

As Attorney General, Kennedy pursued a relentless crusade against organized crime and the mafia, sometimes disagreeing on strategy with J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Convictions against organized-crime figures rose by 800 percent during his term.[42]

Kennedy was relentless in his pursuit of Teamsters union President Jimmy Hoffa, resulting from widespread knowledge of Hoffa's corruption in financial and electoral actions, both personally and organizationally.[43] The enmity between the two men was intense, with accusations of a personal vendetta being exchanged between the two; in what Hoffa called a "blood feud" between him and Kennedy.[44] In 1964 Hoffa was imprisoned for jury tampering.[45]

Civil rights

As Attorney General

Kennedy expressed the administration's commitment to civil rights during a 1961 speech at the University of Georgia Law School:
We will not stand by or be aloof—we will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 [Supreme Court school desegregation] decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is now the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law.[46]

In 1963, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who viewed civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. as an upstart troublemaker[47] calling him an "enemy of the state",[48] presented Kennedy with allegations that some of King's close confidants and advisers were communists.[49] Concerned that the allegations, if made public, would derail the Administration's civil rights initiatives, Kennedy warned King to discontinue the suspect associations, and later felt compelled to issue a written directive authorizing the FBI to wiretap King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King's civil rights organization.[50] Although Kennedy only gave written approval for limited wiretapping of King's phones "on a trial basis, for a month or so",[51] Hoover extended the clearance so his men were "unshackled" to look for evidence in any areas of King's life they deemed worthy.[52] The wire tapping continued through June 1966 and was revealed in 1968, days before Kennedy's death.[53]

Kennedy remained committed to civil rights enforcement to such a degree that he commented, in 1962, that it seemed to envelop almost every area of his public and private life—from prosecuting corrupt southern electoral officials to answering late night calls from Coretta Scott King concerning the imprisonment of her husband for demonstrations in Alabama. During his tenure as Attorney General, he undertook the most energetic and persistent desegregation of the administration that Capitol Hill had ever experienced. He demanded that every area of government begin recruiting realistic levels of black and other ethnic workers, going so far as to criticize Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson for his failure to desegregate his own office staff.

Although it has become commonplace to assert the phrase "The Kennedy Administration" or even "President Kennedy" when discussing the legislative and executive support of the civil rights movement, between 1960 and 1963, a great many of the initiatives that occurred during President Kennedy's tenure were as a result of the passion and determination of an emboldened Robert Kennedy, who through his rapid education in the realities of Southern racism, underwent a thorough conversion of purpose as Attorney General. Asked in an interview in May 1962, "What do you see as the big problem ahead for you, is it Crime or Internal Security?" Robert Kennedy replied, "Civil Rights."[54] The President came to share his brother's sense of urgency on the matters at hand to such an extent that it was at the Attorney General's insistence that he made his famous address to the nation.[31]

Bobby played a large role in the Freedom Riders protests. Kennedy acted after the Anniston bus bombings to protect the Riders in continuing their journey. Kennedy sent John Seigenthaler, his administrative assistant, to Alabama to attempt to secure the riders' safety there. Despite a work rule which allowed a driver to decline an assignment which he regarded as a potentially unsafe one, Kennedy also persuaded a manager of The Greyhound Corporation to obtain a coach operator who was willing to drive a special bus for the continuance of the Freedom Ride from Birmingham, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, on the circuitous journey to Jackson, Mississippi.[55]

Later, during the attack and burning by a white mob of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, at which Martin Luther King Jr. and some 1,500 sympathizers were in attendance, the Attorney General telephoned King to ask his assurance that they would not leave the building until the force of U.S. Marshals and National Guard he sent had secured the area. King proceeded to berate Kennedy for "allowing the situation to continue". King later publicly thanked Robert Kennedy for his commanding of the force dispatched to break up an attack that might otherwise have ended King's life.[31][56]

Kennedy then negotiated the safe passage of the Freedom Riders from the First Baptist Church to Jackson Mississippi, where they were arrested.[57] He offered to bail the Freedom Riders out of jail, but they refused. This upset Kennedy, who went so far as to call any bandwagoners of the original freedom rides "honkers".

Kennedy's attempts to end the Freedom Rides early were in many ways tied to an upcoming summit with Khrushchev and De Gaulle, believing the continued international publicity of race riots would tarnish the President heading into international negotiations.[58] This reluctance to protect and advance the Freedom Rides alienated many of the Civil Rights leaders at the time who perceived him as intolerant and narrow minded.[59]

In September 1962, he sent U.S. Marshals to Oxford, Mississippi, to enforce a federal court order allowing the admittance of the first African American student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi. Kennedy had hoped that legal means, along with the escort of U.S. Marshals, would be enough to force Governor Ross Barnett to allow the school admission. He also was very concerned there might be a "mini-civil war" between the U.S. Army troops and armed protesters.[60] President John F. Kennedy reluctantly sent federal troops after the situation on campus turned violent.[61]

Ensuing riots during the period of Meredith's admittance resulted in hundreds of injuries and two deaths. Yet Kennedy remained adamant concerning the rights of black students to enjoy the benefits of all levels of the educational system. The Office of Civil Rights also hired its first African-American lawyer and began to work cautiously with leaders of the civil rights movement. Robert Kennedy saw voting as the key to racial justice, and collaborated with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to create the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped bring an end to Jim Crow laws.

As U.S. senator and presidential candidate

He was to maintain his commitment to racial equality into his own presidential campaign, extending his firm sense of social justice to all areas of national life and into matters of foreign and economic policy. During a speech at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana on April 4, 1968, Kennedy questioned the student body on what kind of life America wished for herself; whether privileged Americans had earned the great luxury they enjoyed and whether such Americans had an obligation to those, in U.S. society and across the world, who had so little by comparison. It has been argued that although this speech has been largely overlooked and ignored, because of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it was one of most powerful and heartfelt speeches Kennedy delivered.[62]

After the assassination of his brother Jack, Bobby undertook a 1966 tour of South Africa in which he championed the cause of the anti-apartheid movement. The tour was greeted with international praise at a time when few politicians dared to entangle themselves in the politics of South Africa. Kennedy spoke out against the oppression of the native population and was welcomed by the black population as though a visiting head of state. In an interview with Look magazine he had this to say:

At the University of Natal in Durban, I was told the church to which most of the white population belongs teaches apartheid as a moral necessity. A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve. 'But suppose God is black', I replied. 'What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?' There was no answer. Only silence.[63]

In South Africa, a group of foreign press representatives chartered an aircraft, after the National Union of South African Students failed to make sufficient travel arrangements. Kennedy not only accommodated a suspected Special Branch policeman on board, but took with good grace the discovery that the aircraft had once belonged to Fidel Castro.[64]

Civil liberties

Kennedy also used the power of federal agencies to influence U.S. Steel not to institute a price increase.[65] The Wall Street Journal wrote that the administration had set prices of steel "by naked power, by threats, by agents of the state security police."[66] Yale law professor Charles Reich wrote in The New Republic that the Justice Department had violated civil liberties by calling a federal grand jury to indict U.S. Steel so quickly, then disbanding it after the price increase did not occur.[66]

Death penalty issues

During the John F. Kennedy administration, the federal government carried out its last pre-Furman federal execution (Victor Feguer in Iowa, 1963)[67] and Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General, represented the Government in this case.[68]

In 1968, Kennedy expressed his strong willingness to support a bill then under consideration for the abolition of the death penalty.[69]


As his brother's confidant, Kennedy oversaw the CIA's anti-Castro activities after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. He also helped develop the strategy to blockade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis instead of initiating a military strike that might have led to nuclear war. Kennedy had initially been among the more hawkish elements of the administration on matters concerning Cuban insurrectionary aid. His initial strong support for covert actions in Cuba soon changed to a position of removal from further involvement once he became aware of the CIA's tendency to draw out initiatives and provide itself with almost unchecked authority in matters of foreign covert operations.

Allegations that the Kennedys knew of plans by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro, or approved of such plans, have been debated by historians over the years. John F. Kennedy's friend and associate, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., for example, expressed the opinion that operatives linked to the CIA were among the most reckless individuals to have operated during the period—providing themselves with unscrutinized freedoms to threaten the lives of Castro and other members of the Cuban revolutionary government regardless of the legislative apparatus in Washington—freedoms that, unbeknownst to those at the White House attempting to prevent a nuclear war, placed the entire U.S.–Soviet relationship in perilous danger.

The "Family Jewels" documents, declassified by the CIA in 2007, suggest that before the Bay of Pigs invasion Bobby personally authorized one such assassination attempt.[70][71] However, ample evidence exists disputing that fact, specifically that Robert Kennedy was only informed of an earlier plot involving CIA's use of Mafia bosses Santo Trafficante, Jr. and John Roselli during a briefing on May 7, 1962, and in fact directed the CIA to halt any existing efforts directed at Castro's assassination.[72] Concurrently, Kennedy served as his brother's personal representative in Operation Mongoose, the post-Bay of Pigs covert operations program established in November 1961 by President Kennedy. Mongoose was meant to incite a revolution within Cuba that would result in the downfall of Castro, not Castro's assassination.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis Kennedy proved himself to be a gifted politician, with an ability to obtain compromises tempering aggressive positions of key figures in the hawk camp. The trust the President placed in him on matters of negotiation was such that Robert Kennedy's role in the crisis is today seen as having been of vital importance in securing a blockade, which averted a full military engagement between the United States and Soviet Russia. His clandestine meetings with members of the Soviet government continued to provide a key link to Nikita Khrushchev during even the darkest moments of the Crisis, in which the threat of nuclear strikes was considered a very present reality.[73]

On the last night of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy was so grateful for his brother's work in averting nuclear war that he summed it up by saying, "Thank God for Bobby".[74]

Assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy

The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was a brutal shock to the world, the nation and, of course, Robert and the rest of the Kennedy family. Bobby was absolutely devastated, and was described by many as being a completely different man after his brother's death.

In the days following the assassination, Kennedy wrote letters to his two eldest children, Kathleen and Joe, saying that as the oldest Kennedy family members of their generation, they had a special responsibility to remember what their uncle had started and to love and serve their country.[75][76]

Kennedy was asked by Democratic Party leaders to introduce a film about his late brother Jack at the 1964 party convention. When he was introduced, the crowd—including party bosses, elected officials and delegates—applauded thunderously and tearfully for a full 22 minutes before they would let him speak.[77] He was close to breaking down before he spoke about his brother's vision for both the party and the nation, and recited a quote from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (3.2) that John's wife Jackie had given him:

When [he] shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Senator from New York

Nine months after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Robert Kennedy left the Cabinet to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate, representing New York.

President Johnson and Bobby were often at severe odds with each other, both politically and personally, yet Johnson gave considerable support to Bobby's campaign, as he was later to recall in his memoir of the White House years.

His opponent in the 1964 race was Republican incumbent Kenneth Keating, who attempted to portray Kennedy as an arrogant carpetbagger. Kennedy emerged victorious in the November election, helped in part by Johnson's huge victory margin in New York. During the campaign he visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, seeking his blessing and endorsement.[78]

In 1965, Bobby became the first person to summit Mount Kennedy.[42] At the time it was the highest mountain in Canada that had not yet been climbed. It was named in honor of his brother Jack after his assassination.

In June 1966, Kennedy visited apartheid-era South Africa accompanied by his wife, Ethel Kennedy, and a small number of aides. At the University of Cape Town he delivered the Annual Day of Affirmation speech. A quote from this address appears on his memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. ("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 ...")[79]

During his years as a senator, Kennedy also helped to start a successful redevelopment project in poverty-stricken Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in New York City, visited the Mississippi Delta as a member of the Senate committee reviewing the effectiveness of 'War on Poverty' programs and, reversing his prior stance, called for a halt in further escalation of the Vietnam War.

As Senator, Kennedy endeared himself to African Americans, and other minorities such as Native Americans and immigrant groups. He spoke forcefully in favor of what he called the "disaffected", the impoverished, and "the excluded", thereby aligning himself with leaders of the civil rights struggle and social justice campaigners, leading the Democratic party in a pursuit of a more aggressive agenda to eliminate perceived discrimination on all levels. Kennedy supported desegregation busing, integration of all public facilities, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and anti-poverty social programs to increase education, offer opportunities for employment, and provide health care for African Americans.

The administration of President Kennedy had backed U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world in the frame of the Cold War. While Robert Kennedy vigorously supported President Kennedy's earlier efforts, like his brother he never publicly advocated commitment of ground troops. Senator Kennedy had cautioned President Johnson against commitment of U.S. ground troops as early as 1965, but Lyndon Johnson chose to commit ground troops on recommendation of the rest of President Kennedy's still intact staff of advisers. Robert Kennedy did not strongly advocate withdrawal from Vietnam until 1967, within a week of Martin Luther King taking the same public stand. Consistent with President Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, Robert Kennedy placed increasing emphasis on human rights as a central focus of U.S. foreign policy.

Presidential candidate

In 1968, President Johnson began to run for reelection. In January 1968, faced with what was widely considered an unrealistic race against an incumbent President, Senator Kennedy stated he would not seek the presidency.[80] After the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, in early February 1968, Kennedy received a letter from writer Pete Hamill, that said that poor people kept pictures of President Kennedy on their walls and that Robert Kennedy had an "obligation of staying true to whatever it was that put those pictures on those walls".[81]

Kennedy traveled to Delano, California, to meet with civil rights activist César Chávez who was on a twenty-five day hunger strike showing his commitment to nonviolence.[82] It was at his visit in California where Kennedy decided he would challenge Johnson for the presidency, telling his former DOJ press secretary Edwin Guthman, that his first step was to get little-known Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to withdraw from the presidential race.[83]

The weekend before the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy announced to several aides that he would attempt to persuade McCarthy to concede from the race to avoid splitting the antiwar vote, but with the advice from South Dakota Senator George McGovern, he urged Kennedy to wait until after the primary to announce his candidacy.[80] Johnson won a narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968, against McCarthy, which boosted McCarthy's standing in the race.[84]

After much speculation and reports leaking out about his plans,[85] and seeing in McCarthy's success that Johnson's hold on the job was not as strong as originally thought, Kennedy declared his candidacy on March 16, 1968, in the Caucus Room of the old Senate office building—the same room where his brother declared his own candidacy eight years earlier.[86] He stated, "I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I'm obliged to do all I can."[87]

McCarthy supporters angrily denounced Kennedy as an opportunist, and thus the anti-war movement was split between McCarthy and Kennedy.[88] On March 31, 1968, Johnson stunned the nation by dropping out of the race. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, long a champion of labor unions and civil rights, entered the race with the support of the party "establishment", including most members of Congress, mayors, governors and labor unions.[89] He entered the race too late to enter any primaries, but had the support of the president and many Democratic insiders.[90] Robert Kennedy, like his brother before him, planned to win the nomination through popular support in the primaries.

Kennedy stood on a platform of racial and economic justice, non-aggression in foreign policy, decentralization of power and social improvement. A crucial element to his campaign was an engagement with the young, whom he identified as being the future of a reinvigorated American society based on partnership and equality. Kennedy's policy objectives did not sit well with the business world, in which he was viewed as something of a fiscal liability, opposed as they were to the tax increases necessary to fund such programs of social improvement. At one of his university speeches (Indiana University Medical School) he was asked, "Where are we going to get the money to pay for all these new programs you're proposing?" Kennedy replied to the medical students, about to enter lucrative careers, "From you."[31][91]

It was this intense and frank mode of dialogue with which Kennedy was to continue to engage those whom he viewed as not being traditional allies of Democratic ideals or initiatives. In a speech at the University of Alabama, he argued, "I believe that any who seek high office this year must go before all Americans: not just those who agree with them, but also those who disagree; recognizing that it is not just our supporters, not just those who vote for us, but all Americans, who we must lead in the difficult years ahead."[92] He aroused rabid animosity in some quarters, with J. Edgar Hoover's Deputy Clyde Tolson reported as saying, "I hope that someone shoots and kills the son of a bitch."[93]

It has been widely commented that Robert Kennedy's campaign for the American presidency outstripped, in its vision of social improvement, that of President Kennedy; Robert Kennedy's bid for the presidency saw not only a continuation of the programs he and his brother had undertaken during the President's term in office, but also an extension of these programs through what Robert Kennedy viewed as an honest questioning of the historic progress that had been made by President Johnson.

Kennedy openly challenged young people who supported the war while benefiting from draft deferments, visited numerous small towns, and made himself available to the masses by participating in long motorcades and street-corner stump speeches (often in troubled inner-cities). Kennedy made urban poverty a chief concern of his campaign, which in part led to enormous crowds that would attend his events in poor urban areas or rural parts of Appalachia.

On April 4, 1968, Kennedy learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and gave a heartfelt impromptu speech in Indianapolis's inner city, in which Kennedy called for a reconciliation between the races. Riots broke out in 60 cities in the wake of King's death, but not in Indianapolis, a fact many attribute to the effect of this speech.[94]

Kennedy finally won the Indiana Democratic primary on May 7 and the Nebraska primary on May 14, but lost the Oregon primary on May 28.[95] If he could defeat McCarthy in the California primary, the leadership of the campaign thought, he would knock McCarthy out of the race and set up a one-on-one against Hubert Humphrey (whom he bested in the primary held on the same day as the California primary in Humphrey's birth state, South Dakota) at the Chicago national convention in August.


Kennedy scored a major victory in winning the California primary. He addressed his supporters shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, in a ballroom at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Leaving the ballroom, he went through the hotel kitchen after being told it was a shortcut,[96] despite being advised to avoid the kitchen by his bodyguard, FBI agent Bill Barry. In a crowded kitchen passageway, Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian, opened fire with a .22-caliber revolver. Kennedy was hit three times and five other people also were wounded.[97]

George Plimpton, former decathlete Rafer Johnson, and former professional football player Rosey Grier are credited with wrestling Sirhan Sirhan to the ground after Sirhan shot the Senator.[98] Following the shooting, Kennedy was first rushed to Los Angeles's Central Receiving Hospital and then to the city's Good Samaritan Hospital where he died early the next morning.[99] Sirhan said that he felt betrayed by Kennedy's support for Israel in the June 1967 Six-Day War, which had begun exactly one year before the assassination.[100]

His body was returned to New York City, where it lay in repose at Saint Patrick's Cathedral from approximately 10:00 p.m. until 10:00 a.m. on June 8.[101] A high requiem mass attended by members of the extended Kennedy family, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson, and members of the Johnson Cabinet was held at St. Patrick's Cathedral at 10:00 a.m. on June 8.[102] Bobby's brother Ted said the following:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: 'Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.'[103]

The requiem mass concluded with the hymn "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", sung by Andy Williams.[104] Immediately following the mass, Kennedy's body was transported by a special private train to Washington, D.C. Thousands of mourners lined the tracks and stations along the route, paying their respects as the train passed. The train departed New York at 12:30 p.m.[105] The four-hour trip took more than eight hours because of the thick crowds lining the tracks on the 225 miles (362 km) journey.[106]

When the train arrived at Elizabeth, New Jersey, an eastbound train on a parallel track to the funeral train hit and killed two spectators after they were unable to get off the track in time even though the eastbound train's engineer had slowed to 30 mph for the normally 55 mph curve and had blown his horn continuously and rang his bell through the curve.[107][108][109] Scheduled to arrive at about 4:30 PM,[110][111] sticking brakes on the casket-bearing car also contributed to delays,[107] and the train arrived at 9:10 p.m. on June 8.[106]

Bobby was buried near his brother, Jack, in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia (just outside Washington, D.C.).[104] Bobby had always maintained that he wished to be buried in Massachusetts, but his family believed he should be interred in Arlington next to his brother.[112] The Navy Band played The Navy Hymn.[108] The procession passed the New Senate Office Building (where Kennedy had his offices), and then proceeded to the Lincoln Memorial where it paused. The Marine Corps Band played The Battle Hymn of the Republic.[108] The funeral motorcade arrived at the cemetery at 10:24 p.m. As it entered the cemetery, people lining the roadway spontaneously lit candles to guide the motorcade to the burial site.[108]

The 15-minute ceremony began at 10:30 p.m. Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, officiated at the graveside service in lieu of Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, who fell ill during the trip.[106] Also officiating was Archbishop of New York Terence Cooke.[108] John Glenn presented the folded flag on behalf of the United States to Senator Ted Kennedy, who passed it to Bobby's eldest son Joe, who passed it to Ethel.[108]

Arlington National Cemetery officials say that Bobby's burial was the only night burial to have taken place at the cemetery.[113] However, the burial of Patrick Bouvier Kennedy (the infant son of Jack, who died two days after birth in August 1963) and Jack's stillborn daughter Arabella also occurred at night. The two children were buried next to their father on December 5, 1963.[108]

On June 9, President Lyndon B. Johnson assigned security staff to all U.S. presidential candidates and declared an official national day of mourning. After the assassination, the mandate of the U.S. Secret Service was altered by Congress to include Secret Service protection of U.S. presidential candidates.

Personal life


In 1950, he married Ethel Skakel, daughter of George Skakel and Ann Brannack. Bobby and Ethel had eleven children:

  1. Kathleen Hartington Kennedy (born 1951), has four daughters and one grandson
  2. Joseph Patrick "Joe" Kennedy (born 1952), has twin sons from his first marriage
  3. Robert Francis Kennedy, Jr. (born 1954), has two children from his first marriage, four children from his second marriage
  4. David Anthony Kennedy (1955–1984), died unmarried without children
  5. Mary Courtney Kennedy (born 1956), has one daughter from her second marriage
  6. Michael LeMoyne Kennedy (1958–1997), had three children before his death
  7. Mary Kerry Kennedy (born 1959), has three daughters
  8. Christopher George Kennedy (born 1963), has four children
  9. Matthew Maxwell Taylor "Max" Kennedy (born 1965), has three children
  10. Douglas Harriman Kennedy (born 1967), has four children
  11. Rory Elizabeth Katherine Kennedy (born 1968), has three children

Rory was born the December after her father's assassination.

Kennedy owned a home at the well-known Kennedy Compound on Cape Cod in Hyannis Port, but spent most of his time at his estate in McLean, Virginia, known as Hickory Hill, located west of Washington, D.C. His widow Ethel and their children continued to live at Hickory Hill after his death. She now lives full-time at the Hyannis Port home.

Attitudes and approach

Despite the fact that his father's most ambitious dreams centered around his older brothers Joe Jr and Jack,[31] Bobby maintained the code of personal loyalty that seemed to infuse the life of the Kennedy family as a whole. His competitiveness was admired by his father and elder brothers, while his loyalty bound them more affectionately close. A rather timid child, Bobby was often the target of his father's dominating temperament.[31]

Working on the campaigns of Jack, Bobby was more involved, passionate and tenacious than the candidate himself, obsessed with every detail, fighting out every battle and taking workers to task. Bobby had, all his life, been closer to Jack than the other members of the Kennedy family.[31]

RFK's opponents on Capitol Hill maintained that his collegiate magnanimity was sometimes hindered by a tenacious and somewhat impatient manner. His professional life was dominated by the selfsame attitudes that governed his family life—a certainty that good humor and leisure must be balanced by service and accomplishment. Schlesinger comments that Kennedy could be both the most ruthlessly diligent and yet generously adaptable of politicians—at once both temperamental and yet forgiving. In this, Kennedy was very much his father's son; lacking truly lasting emotional independence and yet possessing a great desire to contribute. He lacked the innate self-confidence of his contemporaries and yet found a greater self-assurance in the experience of married life, an experience that he stated had given him a base of self-belief from which to continue his efforts in the public arena.[31]

Upon hearing yet again the assertion that he was "ruthless", Kennedy once joked to a reporter, "If I find out who has called me ruthless I will destroy him." And yet he also openly confessed to possessing a bad temper that required self-control: "My biggest problem as counsel, is to keep my temper. I think we all feel that when a witness comes before the United States Senate he has an obligation to speak frankly and tell the truth. To see people sit in front of us and lie and evade makes me boil inside. But you can't lose your temper—if you do, the witness has gotten the best of you."[114]

Religious faith and Greek philosophy

Central to Kennedy's politics and personal attitude to life and its purpose was his Catholicism, which he inherited from his family. Bobby was easily the most religious of his brothers.[31] Whereas Jack maintained an aloof sense of his faith, Bobby approached his duties with a Catholic worldview. Throughout his life, Kennedy made reference to his faith, how it informed every area of his life, and how it gave him the strength to re-enter politics following the assassination of his elder brother. His was not an unresponsive and staid faith, but the faith of a Catholic Radical—perhaps the first successful Catholic Radical in American political history.[115]

In the last years of his life, he also found great solace in the metaphysical poets of ancient Greece, especially the writings of Aeschylus.[31] In his Indianapolis speech on April 4, 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby misquoted[116] these lines from Aeschylus:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.[117]

Electoral history

1964 New York United States Senatorial Election

Robert F. Kennedy (D) 53.5%
Kenneth Keating (R) (inc.) 45.4%


D.C. Stadium in Washington, D.C. was renamed Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in 1969. In 1978, the United States Congress posthumously awarded Kennedy its Gold Medal of Honor. In 1998, the United States Mint released a special dollar coin that featured Kennedy on the obverse and the emblems of the United States Department of Justice and the United States Senate on the reverse.

In Washington, D.C. on November 20, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft dedicated the Department of Justice headquarters building as the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, honoring Robert F. Kennedy on what would have been his 76th birthday. They both spoke during the ceremony, as did Kennedy's eldest son, Joseph II.

Numerous roads, public schools and other facilities across the United States were named in memory of Robert F. Kennedy in the months and years after his death. The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial organization[118] was founded in 1968, with an international award program to recognize human rights activists. It is now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

In a further effort to not just remember the late Senator, but continue his work helping disadvantaged, a small group of private citizens launched the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps in 1969, which today helps more than 800 abused and neglected children each year. A bust of Kennedy resides in the library of the University of Virginia School of Law, from where he obtained his law degree.

On June 4, 2008, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Kennedy, the New York State Assembly voted to rename the Triborough Bridge in New York City the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge in honor of the former New York Senator. New York State Governor David Paterson signed the legislation into law on Friday, August 8, 2008.[119]

Items that belonged to Robert Kennedy are displayed in a permanent exhibit dedicated to him in the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. The handcuffs used to arrest Kennedy's assassin Sirhan Sirhan are now among the collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum.

Kennedy and King

Several public institutions jointly honor Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • In 1994, the City of Indianapolis erected the Landmark for Peace Memorial in Kennedy's honor near the space made famous by his oration from the back of a pickup truck the night King died. The monument in Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park depicts a sculpture of Kennedy reaching out from a large metal slab to a sculpture of King, who is part of a similar slab.[120] This is meant to symbolize their attempts in life to bridge the gaps between the races—an attempt that united them even in death. A state historical marker has also been placed at the site.[121] A nephew of King and Indiana U.S. Congresswoman Julia Carson presided over the event; both made speeches from the back of a pickup truck in similar fashion to Kennedy's speech.[122]


Considered an eloquent speaker, Kennedy also wrote extensively on politics and current events:

  • The Enemy Within: The McClellan Committee's Crusade Against Jimmy Hoffa and Corrupt Labor Unions, (1960)
  • Just Friends and Brave Enemies, (1962)
  • The Pursuit Of Justice, (1964)
  • To Seek a Newer World, essays, (1967)
  • Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, published posthumously, (1969)


The 2012 documentary film Ethel about the life of Ethel Kennedy recounts many of the major personal and political events of Bobby's life, through interviews with family members including Ethel herself, and news footage.

Barry Pepper won an Emmy for his portrayal of Bobby in The Kennedys, an 8-part 2011 miniseries.

In the biographical movie J. Edgar, Kennedy is played by Jeffrey Donovan.[123]

The 2010 film RFK in the Land of Apartheid: A Ripple of Hope is a documentary that follows Kennedy's five-day visit to South Africa in June 1966, during which he made his famous Ripple of Hope speech at the University of Cape Town.[124]

The 2008 film A Ripple of Hope is a documentary that retells Kennedy's call for peace during a campaign stop in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.[125]

The 2006 film Bobby is the story of multiple peoples' lives leading up to Kennedy's assassination. The film employs stock footage from Kennedy's presidential campaign, and he is briefly portrayed by Dave Fraunces.

The 2002 made-for-TV movie RFK portrays Kennedy's life from the time of his brother's assassination to his own death. He is played by Linus Roache.

Željko Ivanek portrayed Kennedy in the 1998 HBO film The Rat Pack.

The 1985 three part TV mini-series Robert Kennedy & His Times stars Brad Davis and is based on the book of the same title by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr..

Kennedy's role in the Cuban Missile Crisis has been portrayed by Martin Sheen in The Missiles of October and by Steven Culp in Thirteen Days.

Kennedy is portrayed by John Shea in the 1983 TV miniseries Kennedy.

Kennedy is portrayed in Hoffa by Kevin Anderson.

In 1967, Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko met with Bobby and in 1968 wrote a poem about him, "Я пристрелен эпохой" ("I was shot by an epoch").

Robert Lowell wrote several poems about Bobby, his elegy for him included the line 'doom was woven in your nerves'.[31]

Documentary filmmaker DA Pennebaker made a number of films featuring Bobby and his family. His short film Jingle Bells (1964) follows Bobby and his children as they celebrate Christmas in New York City with local school children and Sammy Davis, Jr. His later film Hickory Hill documents the 1968 Annual Spring Pet Show at Kennedy's Virginia estate, Hickory Hill (McLean, Virginia).

See also



  • Barnes, John A. Irish-American Landmarks. Canton, Mich.: Visible Ink, 1995.
  • Grubin, David, director and producer, RFK. Video. (DVD, VHS). 2hr. WGBH Educ. Found. and David Grubin Productions, 2004. Distrib. by PBS Video
  • Hilty, James M. Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector (1997), vol. 1 to 1963. Temple U. Press., 1997.
  • Martin, Zachary J. The Mindless Menace of Violence: Robert F. Kennedy's Vision and the Fierce Urgency of Now. Lanham, Md.: Hamilton Books, 2009.
  • RFK's speech after the death of Martin Luther King in 1968.
  • Navasky, Victor S. Kennedy Justice (1972). Argues the policies of RFK's Justice Department show the conservatism of justice, the limits of charisma, the inherent tendency in a legal system to support the status quo, and the counterproductive results of many of Kennedy's endeavors in the field of civil rights and crime control.
  • National Book Award.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur, M. Jr. (2002 re-print), Robert Kennedy And His Times, Mariner Books-Houghton Mifflin Co., ISBN 0-618-21928-5
  • ISBN 1-55849-730-7
  • Schmitt, Edward R. President of the Other America: Robert Kennedy and the Politics of Poverty (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) 324 pp. ISBN 978-1-55849-730-6

External links

  • Annotated Bibliography for Robert F. Kennedy from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues
  • Text, Audio, and Video of Robert Kennedy's Address at Ball State University
  • : RFK, PBS
  • Text, Audio, and Video of Robert Kennedy's Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr
  • Text, Audio, and Video excerpt of Robert Kennedy's Address at Cape Town University
  • Edward Kennedy eulogy to Robert Kennedy (text and audio)
  • Internet Movie Database
  • My Father's Stand on Cuba Travel by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, The Washington Post, April 23, 2009
  • Rare photos, videos, audio-clips and other RFK source materials from the U.S. National Archives.
  • Radio airchecks/recordings of the shooting and death of Senator Kennedy including Mutual Radio's Andrew West's shooting coverage, continued live coverage from CBS Radio, announcements of RFK's death, CBS Radio's complete coverage of funeral mass St. Patrick's Cathedral, and CBS Radio coverage of the train arrival of RFK's body in Washington DC.
  • KTTV assassination coverage at The Museum of Classic Chicago Television

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