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Robert Kennedy: The 'younger brother full of pain'

Biographer Evan Thomas tackles 'His Life'

Robert F. Kennedy. Author Evan Thomas delves into the contradictions and promise of his life in
Robert F. Kennedy. Author Evan Thomas delves into the contradictions and promise of his life in "Robert Kennedy: His Life"  

In this story:

At the table

Insights on a younger brother

Overcoming myths

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(CNN) -- For anyone who lived through the tumultuous 1960s, Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign -- indeed, his life -- remains the great "what if."

In "Robert Kennedy: His Life," Evan Thomas uses the Kennedy era's prodigious documentation and talks with the people who were there to deliver an account that both dismantles the Kennedy mystique and polishes it. His masterful biography charts the life of the third son of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy with an almost breathless excitement, starting from the very first line:

"Robert Kennedy liked to plunge into cold water."

From the beginning, Thomas plunges in as well, navigating the political and emotional depths of the Kennedy family with insightful explanations and illuminating anecdotes.

"To me, the most interesting decade is the '60s," Thomas, an assistant managing editor at Newsweek magazine, said of his reasons for examining RFK. "And he is pretty much in the middle of everything that was going on."

Indeed, if it happened in the '60s, it seemed that RFK was somehow involved: Civil rights. The Cold War. Striking farm laborers. Combating organized crime. Vietnam. And, of course, as a central figure in the assassinations that bloodied the decade: standing in grief as his brother was laid to rest, calming a crowd after Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder, and finally himself a victim on June 6, 1968.

At the table

RFK (left) served as John F. Kennedy's attorney general. The two brothers had a strong bond, with RFK often serving as JFK's
RFK (right) served as John F. Kennedy's attorney general. The two brothers had a strong bond, with RFK often serving as JFK's "enforcer"  

Thomas' gift for storytelling puts the reader at the table during meetings of the ExCom, the committee of cabinet officers and statesmen whose deliberations shaped the American response to the 13-day Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. RFK was in the thick of it.

"He sometimes wouldn't even sit at the cabinet table," the president's patrician national security adviser McGeorge Bundy recalls of Kennedy. "But it didn't make much difference, because ... wherever he sat was one of the most important places in the room."

RFK played a vital role on the ExCom, beginning as an impassioned hawk whose evolution toward controlled compromise helped to defuse the crisis.

He was also "dead center" for the equally impassioned battle for civil rights, beginning with attempts to integrate the Universities of Mississippi and Alabama. Initially a skeptic (whose authorization of wiretaps on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King would later cause him political grief), Kennedy became a fierce believer in economic opportunity and equal rights for minorities.

Among the illuminating personal glimpses Thomas uncovers is a Kennedy penchant for grim humor in extremis. As members of ExCom learned that armed Cuban missiles were poised to strike the U.S., RFK dryly asked: "Can they hit Oxford, Mississippi?"

RFK (far left) was a key adviser during the Cuban Missile Crisis
RFK (far left) was a key adviser during the Cuban Missile Crisis  

"Half the missile crisis is on tape. You can listen to them," Thomas said with evident relish. "Listening to the last day of the missile crisis is really quite powerful."

Thomas' book also features other, less wholesome discoveries, such as:

  • Patriarch Joseph Kennedy pre-empting concerns about developmentally disabled daughter Rosemary becoming too involved with the opposite sex by sending her to a hospital for a then-experimental frontal lobotomy. He informed his wife only after the procedure, telling her that it was best she not think of Rosemary for awhile. The children were told nothing. Their sister simply disappeared.

  • Bobby -- who accepted the diminutive form of the name only from family members and close friends -- suggested staging a "sink the Maine or something" approach to provoking an invasion of Cuba.

  • The still-murky connection between Bobby, Jack and the CIA's efforts to get Fidel Castro assassinated. While definitive evidence is scarce, indications are that Bobby knew something, but didn't want to know details.

    Insights on a younger brother

    As in any Kennedy story, the expected characters are here: Joe, the patriarch; Rose, the long-suffering wife and mother; the doomed "golden trio" of older siblings Joe, Jack and Kathleen; Jackie, the tragic widow; adoring wife Ethel; shattered star Marilyn Monroe and shadowy gangster Sam Giancana.

    Evan Thomas
    Evan Thomas  

    But other, peripheral figures also make intriguing appearances -- an unscrupulous political operative named Paul Corbin, whose dirty tricks Kennedy sometimes ignored; football friend David Hackett, who became a valued member of the attorney general's staff; and a Washington hostess on whom it was rumored Kennedy had a crush.

    But Kennedy himself, a beguiling mix of underdog and overachiever, Machiavellian protector and pensive questioner, remains the most intriguing. As he was described by a civil rights activist, "He was this younger brother full of pain."

    What surprised Thomas about his subject?

    "How scared he was, which is another way of saying how brave he was," he said. "He was a pitiful little boy -- by his own description -- who fell down a lot, a poor student and a mediocre athlete."

    Kennedy "always had to overcome something," continued Thomas. "But he faced it, sometimes in rash ways -- plunging into rivers -- but he stepped up to it, morally, spiritually and intellectually."

    Overcoming myths

    Robert Kennedy: The 'younger brother full of pain'

    There is no question that the assassination of JFK changed life for all of the Kennedys. But perhaps it changed the most for RFK, who blamed himself for his brother's death. Robert Kennedy had spent much of his time in the late '50s and early '60s prosecuting organized crime. Now he thought the Mob had gotten to his brother.

    But Thomas doesn't buy it.

    "A lot of what I do in the book is debunk these conspiracy theories," he said, professing -- though it's hard to tell how seriously -- "to be the last person who believes the Warren Commission" report's finding that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

    He was also determined to defog the rose-colored glasses with which many look at RFK.

    Through exhaustive research in written and oral histories, as well as interviews with survivors of the Camelot years, Thomas sheds new and compelling light on Kennedy and his times.

    "The Kennedys have been written about a lot," said the author. "Many of the people who worked for Bobby Kennedy are still alive, and most of them have their marbles."

    Thomas has seen the Roger Donaldson film "Thirteen Days," which he called "for Hollywood, astonishingly accurate." New Line, the same film company that made the Kevin Costner movie, has picked up an option on Thomas' book as well.

    Thomas' narrative in "Robert Kennedy: His Life" remains clear-eyed to the end. Still, it's hard not to get misty as the book descends on its steady trajectory to tragedy.

    "Each time a man stands up for an ideal ... he sends a tiny ripple of hope," reads the words on Kennedy's simple tombstone, near the grave of his brother the president. And we are left to wonder, yet again, "What if?"

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    4:30pm ET, 4/16

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