Robert Kennedy in His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years confirms the power of oral history to preserve for posterity an era and its manifold voices. In these interviews conducted in the mid-1960’s for the John F. Kennedy Library’s oral history project, Robert Kennedy comes alive through his own words, and he brings with him a substantive, honest, and loving account of his brother, assassinated on November 22, 1963. Less than five years later, on the night that he had won the California primary in the race for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, Robert Kennedy himself was shot and killed.
The book’s design makes it accessible. The foreword by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., puts the interviews in context. Well-written and moving, it recalls the exciting early years of a turbulent decade. Schlesinger characterizes the young Robert Kennedy as he is to be revealed to the reader in the following interviews. Candid, bright, a man of passion, nine years junior to his brother the president, Robert Kennedy played a key role in the brief but intense years of the Kennedy Administration. That the interviews began only three months after the president’s death shows how important it was to Robert Kennedy to set the record straight, to see that his brother received the credit he deserved for all he had achieved in domestic and foreign affairs.
Each of the book’s three parts has a brief introduction, and there are notes at the end of each part. Conveniently placed so as not to interrupt the narrative, the notes complement the text but allow the immediacy of the interview to predominate. Equally helpful is the glossary of names at the end of the book; it is complete and concise, and simply reading it evokes a sense of the time by recalling the players. Finally, to provide a chronological perspective not always preserved in the free flow of interviewing, there is a chronology of the Kennedy presidency.
Part 1, “Staffing the New Frontier,” begins with Schlesinger interviewing Kennedy about choosing the cabinet for the new president. Here the themes are established and the tone set for the remainder of the book. Kennedy discusses problems with the vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson; the change wrought in the president’s administrative style by the early Bay of Pigs crisis; and his own part in the administration’s relationship with the Soviet Union. The second section of part 1 is an interview with John Bartlow Martin about the president and his men.
The most substantial and interesting of the three parts is part 2, “’Whatever is Necessary’: Robert Kennedy and Civil Rights.” Serving as attorney general from January 20, 1961, to September 3, 1964, Robert Kennedy feared from the beginning that he would be an albatross around the president’s neck because of the work that he believed had to be done in the crucial area of civil rights. He staffed the Department of Justice with a group of dedicated young lawyers and set about, in typical Kennedy fashion, to secure the rights of liberty and justice for all citizens. (Also present at the interviews for part 2 was Robert Kennedy’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, Burke Marshall, whose recollections supplement Kennedy’s on matters of detail.) The explosive emotion and political volatility of that time, the Freedom Riders, Bull Connor’s dogs and hoses, George Wallace’s stance in the doorway of the University of Alabama—all this is vividly recalled. Recounting in detail the means taken by the administration to respect states’ rights while protecting the rights of individual citizens, Kennedy states in this section and reiterates in other interviews that the president was not given the credit due him for his timely introduction of civil rights legislation and his efforts to inform and educate key business people in the South so as to avoid physical...
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