Toward the end of his insightful if sometimes too admiring new book, "Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,'' author Larry Tye makes an observation about the most effective way to assess politicians aspiring to be elected president. "The best judges of a candidate's merits or character are not the opposition aides who get paid to find him lacking," he writes. "The best arbiters are the national political reporters who are on hand around the clock, day after day.''
Maybe not in this case. After all, there are few who have been smiled upon more by journalists, both at the time and in retrospect, than Kennedy in regards to his 1968 presidential campaign. "He was a flame the moths couldn't resist," veteran journalist Elizabeth Drew notes.
Much has been written about the appeal of RFK and the tragedy of his assassination during his uphill 1968 presidential run. Tye, a former Globe reporter and author of 2009's award-winning Satchel Paige biography, "Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend,'' sets as his goal not a definitive account but an interpretive one: tracing RFK'S evolution from "cold warrior to hot-blooded liberal."
Along the way Tye considers Kennedy's missteps. There is the vindictiveness that characterized his campaign leadership during his brother John's runs for office and his violent fixation with Cuba and inconsistent focus on guaranteeing equality for African Americans while attorney general. "Bobby Kennedy'' doesn't downplay these episodes or their lasting impact — the book is particularly hard-hitting on RFK'S lifelong affection for, and close relationship with, the demagogic senator, Joe McCarthy.
Tye also catalogs the many triumphs. RFK brought a new robustness to the Justice Department with investigations into the mob and union corruption; he showed an inspiring resilience in the wake of his brother's assassination; and he demonstrated a sincere commitment to alleviating poverty and bigotry as a senator.
At times, though, Tye seems to get swept up in his subject and takes hyperbolic flight. For instance, he credits RFK with being the architect of various aspects of the modern political campaign for the bare-knuckled, pragmatic strategies he developed in delivering his brother's victories in his 1952 Senate bid and the 1960 contest for the oval office. A nd in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Tye argues, RFK "inherited the slain leader's mantles of prophecy and advocacy'' — even though as attorney general he approved FBI wiretaps of the civil rights leader.
Despite some apparent attraction to the flame, however, Tye's biography remains for the most part fair-minded and judicious.
The book concludes with the fateful '68 race. The shocking success of Senator Eugene McCarthy — whom RFK did not like — in New Hampsire's Democratic primary has been thought by many to be the event that pulled Kennedy into the race. Tye posits that RFK's delayed entrance, which all but doomed his campaign, was less a matter of cowardice or calculation than what Tye refers to as his "dueling natures.'' The struggle pitted "Old Bobby versus New,'' the "cautious political pro'' who held back on civil rights and the Vietnam War versus the "hot blooded insurgent'' who emerged after witnessing the "failures of Jim Crow and counterinsurgency.''
His late start meant that "he had missed not only the New Hampshire primary but the deadlines to enter the other critical early primaries, and he had just three months to prepare for the remaining six. He had failed to build the staff, organization, or bankroll" needed. But the decision was also a sign of the emergence of the "New Bobby.''
RFK's candidacy inspired a pandemonium among the public, and Kennedy famously rose to the occasion. He told harsh truths to whites even as he preached self-reliance to blacks, and he managed to retain the affections of both communities.
Though the campaign was cut short, Tye suggests that RFK'S personal transformation had not been. The agonizing deaths of three of his siblings, his father's death, dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis and race riots, and seeing poverty up close — all shaped him. "Most people harden as they add years and accumulate power," Tye notes, "but Bobby's sanctimony and starchiness increasingly yielded to his introspection and idealism." His assassination was a great tragedy not only because it cut down a promising public servant at the height of his popularity, but because it ended the life of a man who was slowly but consistently learning how to be a humane leader.
The Making of a Liberal Icon
By Larry Tye
Random House, 580 pp., illustrated, $32
Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the forthcoming Kindle Single, "Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost an Election and Transformed the Post-Presidency.''