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The trip that forged Jack and Bobby Kennedy’s political partnership

Growing up, the brothers were too different to be close. Then on a tour of Asia, they realized they made an unstoppable team.

Hank Walker, The LIFE Picture collection/Getty

OUTSIDERS SAW THE KENNEDYS as a tightknit, like-minded tribe, which is just what Papa Joe had in mind. He taught his children that siblings and parents come first and last, while journalists and other interlopers should be kept beyond arm’s length. That was why he set up worlds-unto-themselves family compounds on Cape Cod and in Palm Beach. A brood of nine children made it even easier, constituting their own social club, baseball team, and campaign clique. Joseph P. Kennedy saw his kids as interchangeable enough that when Joe Jr. died, the family could transfer its political dreams to Jack, and after him to Bobby.

The family dynamics were formed on much beloved vacations in Palm Beach and especially on Cape Cod. With so many children and, later, grandchildren on hand, there had to be rules. Each guidepost offered a lens into the Kennedy way of doing things. It was OK to grab a ride to town with the chauffeur, but only if he was heading there on an errand. It was all right to go sailing, if you let the governess know. The tennis courts were open any time, but siblings had to take turns. As they aged, Joe’s offspring and their guests were welcome to join him for a drink before dinner, but just one, and only until the dinner bell rang. One way to know where you ranked in the Kennedy hierarchy, and where the sibling who invited you did, was whether you got a seat on the family plane for the trip back to Washington (Jack’s and Bobby’s friends generally did, Ted’s and the girls’ rarely). The one topic Joe always banished from the dinner table was money (Bobby’s habitual line was “Send the bill to the Park Agency,” which managed Joe’s millions).

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The Kennedys had a rule book, too, for playing their favorite game (football) in their favorite spot (the great lawn), although it was not one any professional or college team would recognize. Bobby’s personal rules depended on the composition of his team. If it was big and slow, he allowed passing only from behind the line of scrimmage, since scrambling wouldn’t help. If it was light and fast, it was OK to throw the ball anywhere, any time, to anyone in front of you or behind. The rules so confused Dave Hackett, Bobby’s friend since high school, that he drafted a training manual for guests. At the dinner table, Hackett’s guide advised, “prepare yourself by reading The Congressional Record, U.S. News & World Report, Time, Newsweek, Fortune, The Nation, The Democratic Digest, The Ensign, and the manual How to Play Sneaky Tennis. . . . Anticipate that each Kennedy will ask you what you think of another Kennedy’s (a) dress, (b) hairdo, (c) backhand, (d) latest achievement. You will find that ‘Terrific!’ is a satisfactory answer.” As for athletic contests like football, “the only way I know of to get out of playing is not to come at all, or to come with a broken leg . . . if you want to become popular, show raw guts. . . . Oh yes! Don’t be too good. Let Jack run around you every so often.”

Since these were the Kennedys, there were rules for politics as well, although no friend would dare write them down: Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names. Don’t get mad, get even. When you screw up, say so, no excuses. What went on in Hyannis Port must not be divulged to anyone outside the family, and above all not to the press. In all matters, Kennedys by birth came first, with in-laws like Sargent Shriver and Peter Lawford distant seconds. There also was a first among the Kennedy equals: the paterfamilias, Joseph Patrick. The last and unifying edict was that everyone be held to the rule book but the Kennedys themselves.

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INSIDE THE CLAN, the differences in personality were dramatic and defining, most notably Bobby versus Jack. Growing up, the two were separated by a yawning eight and a half years. Bobby wasn’t quite 11 when Jack headed to Harvard; by the time Bobby started there, Jack had been to war and back. Bobby cherished memories of Jack taking him for walks and telling him about faraway and fantastic universes. Jack mainly remembered Bobby squealing when the older siblings and their friends raided Joe’s liquor cabinet. As they grew, more than years came between them. “All this business about Jack and Bobby being blood brothers has been exaggerated,” said their sister Eunice, who was midway between the two agewise. “They had different tastes in men, different tastes in women.” Jack had gotten a small sample of his brother’s capabilities in the 1946 congressional campaign, but Bobby’s work was mainly on the sidelines, and the two seldom socialized in Jack’s early years in Washington.

So when Joe insisted Jack, then in his third term as a congressman from Massachusetts, include his younger brother on his trip to the Middle East and Asia in the fall of 1951, Jack moaned that Bobby would be “a pain in the ass.” Yet traveling in close quarters for 25,000 miles, including to trouble spots like Vietnam, let Jack see Bobby as a grown man with his own opinions. The brothers met Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, just before he was murdered, and they saw India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who Bobby said “didn’t pay the slightest attention to my brother but was just destroyed by my sister Pat.” For Jack, the trip was a quick way to beef up his foreign policy resume; it went deeper for Bobby, who was struck by the human dimension of scenes he witnessed and people he encountered: “These countries were struggling for independence, or had just gained their independence and were trying to right themselves and create a future.” Having Bobby along began as a burden for Jack, but in the end it saved his life. Bobby arranged for his brother to be flown to a US military hospital on Okinawa when an adrenal condition flared up, and he sat at his bedside when Jack’s temperature shot to 107. “They didn’t think he could possibly live,” Bobby remembered. It was the second time priests had given the congressman last rites.

By the time the brothers got home, they had forged a bond and discovered how much they shared. Both were weaned on beach and ocean, which would draw them back forever. Each had contemplated a career in journalism or academia that would let them explore the world and share their observations. Neither started out as a good speaker but both made up for it with self-effacing humor and irony. Bobby was as intelligent as Jack, although less of an intellectual; Jack had Bobby’s toughness, although he was better at disguising it. “They were kind of twin spirits,” says Ethel, Bobby’s widow and second self. “One would start a sentence and the other would finish it.” Both were ambitious for their own sake, and their father’s, although Jack had less to prove, and he had Bobby as a buffer.

Associated Press

Bobby Kennedy was a source of support and encouragement for his sister-in-law Jackie. Here, as attorney general, he accompanied Jackie to a display of Jack’s mementos in May 1964.

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BOBBY AND JACK WERE THE FULCRUM of Kennedy dynamics in those years, but other relationships were forming that would fascinate the public as the Kennedys became America’s First Family. None was more beguiling than Jackie’s with Bobby. Jacqueline Lee Bouvier had met John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the spring of 1952, just as Bobby was taking over the Senate campaign. She realized from the first that being involved with Jack meant being entangled with his family, particularly the patriarch, and she reached Joe in a way that none of his other daughters-in-law could. She also instinctively understood the Kennedy mix of mind-boggling narcissism and unmatched altruism.

Jackie saw the tender promise of Bobby that neither the public nor Jack appreciated back then. When her second pregnancy went wrong in 1956 and the daughter she planned to name Arabella was stillborn, Jack was unreachable off the coast of Italy. It was Bobby who rushed to her bedside, consoling her and quietly arranging for the baby’s burial. When Jackie sat dumbfounded by the family’s fascination with sports, Bobby would explain, then let her know it was OK to cheer from the sidelines. “You knew that, if you were in trouble, he’d always be there,” she said of her brother-in-law. He is “the one I would put my hand in the fire for.” Reading press reports of his ruthlessness, Jackie added, “I just thought, ‘If they could have known the compassion of that boy.’ ” And hearing everyone else describe Bobby as the son most like Joe, she insisted he was in fact “least like his father.”

The brothers’ defining distinctions in temperament and outlook crystallized as the two spent more time together as young adults. Jack would always be the handsome older brother whose silky-smooth polish made begrudging Bostonians tag him as a “Fifth Avenue Catholic” and “Harvard Irishman.” Bobby was all Gaelic, bristling with energy and trusting his gut. All the Kennedys called themselves Catholic, but Bobby practiced his religion in ways that endeared him to his mother and distinguished him from Jack. His Catholicism was integral to his politics. It reinforced the sense of public service drilled into the children by Rose and Joe. It was consistent with his commitment to the sanctity of the family — and to big ones like the one he was born into and that he and Ethel would more than replicate. Bobby shared the Church’s conscientious division of the world into good and evil, along with its judgment that communists were godless and the poor blessed. His early adulthood centered on three totems: the Democratic Party, the Kennedy family, and God.

But he distinguished between the faith’s divinity and its hierarchy. While he held the former sacrosanct, he had always challenged Church authorities, from parish priests to the pope. Back in his undergraduate days, he joined other Harvard Catholics at lectures by the Rev. Leonard Feeney, an influential Jesuit priest who warned that the Jews “are trying to take over this city” and preached that only Catholics could be saved. Bobby was embarrassed enough by those diatribes to discuss them with his brother Ted and his father, who arranged for him to meet with Archbishop Richard Cushing to convey his concern. Even a Kennedy found it difficult to confront a prelate in those days, and Bobby’s courage likely played a role in Feeney’s eventual expulsion from his order and excommunication from the Church. In later years, Bobby lobbied the pope to name a liberal replacement for archconservative New York Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman. And when he piled the children into the station wagon for the ride to church — they had to attend starting as toddlers, although they stayed in the back with a nursemaid until they were “church broke” — he “always carried a Bible with him,” recalls Bobby Jr. “When the priest started talking about the right-wing stuff he would pointedly read the Bible or he would read the Catholic newspapers at the back of the church.” He called it “an awful thing” that the Church taught that babies, his or anyone’s, were born in sin. He told his kids that “priests were Republicans and nuns Democrats.” He also told them they needn’t trust clerics to mediate the word of God when they could read it for themselves in the Old Testament and the New.

If the Church had been their calling, Jack would have been pope, Bobby a parish priest. Jack looked past women he met unless they were young and gorgeous. Bobby was interested in nearly everybody, grasping a hand and peering into a face in ways that made a person feel a genuine connection. Each stood as the other’s best man when they married, but when Jack wanted to relax, he turned to his even younger brother Ted, not the more prudish Bobby. When Joe offered all his children one thousand dollars for not drinking until age 21 and another thousand for not smoking, Bobby collected, Jack indulged. “Jack has always been one to persuade people to do things,” his father said. “Bobby tends to tell people what to do.”

Their singularities were easy to spot on the football field. Jack hung back, protecting his wounded back and aristocratic bearing, while Bobby charged into anyone, kids included, who was foolish enough to stand between him and the end zone. It was apparent, too, in the swimming pool. Both made the Harvard team, where their acclaimed coach Harold Ulen remembered Bobby as “very heavy in the water” while Jack “could float very well.” That, family biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote, was a metaphor for what separated the two: “Jack’s sensibility was buoyantly literary; Bobby’s was heavily moral, however inchoate. Bobby sought responsibility as compulsively as Jack tried to evade it.”

Those very divergences let them construct a brotherly alliance that would become as celebrated in the political sphere as the one between Wilbur and Orville Wright in aviation. Each brother had trained for his role in their campaigns, Bobby by molding himself into a relentless prosecutor, Jack by reading, traveling, and perfecting his smile. The division of labor was perfect — Jack as statesman, Bobby as hatchet man — and perfectly suited to the Kennedy family business. “It was politics that brought them together,” Eunice said. “That’s a business full of knives. Jack needed someone he could trust, someone who had loyalty to him. Jack knew he had a person like that with Bobby around.” The newspaper columnist Stewart Alsop called it a “sweet-and-sour brother act” in which “Jack uses his charm and waves the carrot, and then Bobby wades in with the stick.” With the younger doing extraordinary things for the elder, theirs was a reversal of normal sibling roles. Bobby was his brother’s keeper. Sometimes that role brought out his warmheartedness, but it could also make Bobby defensive and vindictive. When Bobby told someone “No,” Jack added “I’m sorry.” Jack made friends, Bobby enemies — the appropriate outcomes for a politician and his sideman.

Associated Press

When Joe offered all his children one thousand dollars for not drinking until age 21 and another thousand for not smoking, Bobby collected, Jack indulged.

Yet those roles belied their characters in ways that elevated Jack and diminished Bobby. “John Kennedy was a realist brilliantly disguised as a romantic, Robert a romantic stubbornly disguised as a realist,” observed Arthur Schlesinger Jr., biographer to both. Joe realized from the start that the yin-and-yang tandem could be unstoppable, and Jack came to see that over time. The press said Bobby was as steely as Joe and Jack as tender as Rose, but they had it exactly backward. “Jack would cut you off at the knees,” said Kenny O’Donnell. “Bobby would say, ‘Why are we doing that to this guy?’ ”

Distinctions like those were apparent to O’Donnell and other close aides who watched the siblings as RFK stage-managed JFK’s 1960 drive for the White House. The big brother took the credit while the younger and smaller one worried more and worked harder. Early on, when they passed each other at an airport in West Virginia, Bobby yelled, “Hi, Johnny, how are you?” Jack: “Man, I’m tired.” Bobby: “What the hell are you tired for? I’m doing all the work.” So it was that on election night — after Jack, the 16 telephone operators, the pollster Louis Harris, and everyone else had headed to bed — shock-headed Bobby remained at the makeshift command post in his cottage at Hyannis Port. His long-distance phone bill for the night reached $10,000 as he checked and rechecked results from Texas, California, and Illinois. There were no French-Irish jigs to mark the moment the way Bobby had four months earlier when he secured for his brother the Democratic nomination. Jack was sound asleep that November night when he locked down the ultimate prize in politics, and Bobby was too bone-tired to dance even if he’d had a partner. The only victory lap he allowed himself was a toll call to Liz Moynihan, a campaign volunteer in upstate New York. The two had agreed early in the campaign that if Jack won Republican Onondaga County, home to Syracuse, he would win the nation. On the longest and tensest night of his life, Bobby checked in with Liz. “It was nine o’clock on the dot,” she remembers. “I say, ‘Hello.’ He says, ‘Didn’t we?’ I say, ‘Yes!’ Then he hung up.”

The Kennedy brothers seldom said thank you, even for efforts as masterful as Bobby’s in 1960 — and they never said it to each other. It was understood. Voicing it would sound syrupy, and they made so many decisions jointly that it would be unclear who should thank whom. But throughout that year Bobby had gone so far beyond any call of duty that over Christmas, Jack wrote out what he couldn’t say face to face, in the teasing meter that the brothers often used. “For Bobby — The Brother Within — who made the easy difficult,” the president-elect inscribed in a richly bound red leather copy of Bobby’s book The Enemy Within. Jackie added, just above, “To Bobby — who made the impossible possible and changed all our lives.”

Larry Tye, a former Boston Globe reporter, runs a Boston-based training program for health journalists. This story is excerpted from Tye’s new book, “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” copyright (c) 2016 by Larry Tye. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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