Review: John Bohrer's "The Revolution of Robert Kennedy"

John Bohrer’s The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protests After JFK offers a refreshing take on the well-covered Bobby Kennedy. While there is much to admire in this story, Bohrer avoids the hagiography and gives us a flawed man, struggling to make sense of his life amidst unimaginable grief. This is not the Bobby whose every step is shadowed by an assassin’s bullet. Instead, it is an examination of the steps he took after his brother’s murder and what they meant for a man trying to become a productive public figure. 

 

Bohrer is particularly effective at showing Bobby the politician. It’s easy to cast him as the distraught brother picking up the reins of a fallen brother; taking his role in the Senate as if it were thrust upon him. In Bohrer’s telling, though, politics is never far from Bobby’s mind. Almost immediately, he began to maneuver for a position as LBJ’s vice president. Bohrer writes, “On the flight back, he asked Arthur Schlesinger whether he should go after the vice presidency. It was December 5, less than two weeks after the assassination.” This is not the behavior of a passive man.

While focusing on Bobby the political operative, Bohrer doesn’t hesitate to lean on the Kennedy mystique. Although he avoids the heavy hand that too many Kennedy idolizers adopt. For examples, he writes of Bobby and Teddy: “They were two developing men, cloaked in the shadow of greatness and yet beaming with promise because of it.” Here we get the memory of Jack without him overwhelming the two surviving brothers.

And when he does talk about the ghost of JFK, he uses it to the best possible effect. As in the run up to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, intended to be LBJ’s coronation, but in danger of being overshadowed by Jack’s absence and Bobby’s potential role as VP. Bohrer shows a tortured LBJ, “There could only be one explanation for why Bobby Kennedy went from political liability….to the person most desired to be a heartbeat away from the presidency: Jack Kennedy’s ghost. And this was the only way Johnson could suffer defeat even with a resounding victory over the flawed Goldwater. To see JFK’s memory carrying Bobby through at the convention, and then to have a Kennedy over his shoulder into the fall and the next four years…the victory would not be his.”

Bohrer is a beautiful writer, but his book suffers from a lack of context. As the title suggests, this is the story of Bobby’s revolution as a political figure. We’re told on a number of occasions that he was known as a ruthless operator, the hatchet man for his brother. Yet we do not see many moments where he displayed such behavior. I believe the profound nature of this revolution would have been far greater if we saw more specific examples of why Bobby had this reputation. In the absence of distinct examples, it is difficult to fully understand that it truly was remarkable for Bobby to change this significantly in such a short period of time.  

I give Bohrer a great deal of credit for criticizing Kennedy when needed. For example, he calls him out for heading to the Yukon to climb a mountain named after his brother during the beginning of the meetings to negotiate a voting rights bill that was supposedly important to both he and Jack. Surprisingly, Bohrer lets other moments pass without the criticism that seems called for. In discussing Bobby’s time in the Senate, he writes, “He had paid his dues that summer, leading former Mississippi governor James P. Coleman along the path to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appointment gave Coleman—whom The New Republic labeled ‘a stout segregationist’—jurisdiction over several Southern states and many civil rights cases.” I was amazed that Bohrer let this slide without going into greater detail, as it appears to be a significantly hypocritical moment. How could a man supposedly devoted to civil rights stand up for a segregationist? It’s impossible to say in this book as Bohrer moves on to other matters.

 

One of Bohrer’s greatest strengths is his willingness to let Bobby speak for himself. Some of the book’s most eloquent passages come directly from Kennedy and are a testament to the author’s research. In depicting Bobby’s criticism of Vietnam, he quotes “We cannot win with mere military force…for guns cannot fill empty stomachs, napalm cannot cure the sick, and bombs cannot teach a child to read.” It’s in these moments where we see how inspirational Kennedy could be when speaking on an issue of great personal importance.

My few critiques aside, this is an exceptional book that reflects a tremendous amount of research on the author’s part. I would strongly recommend this without reservation.

3 ¾ out of 4 stars