Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit
By Chris Matthews (Swaziland 1968-70)
Simon & Schuster October 2017
Hardback $16.41, paperback $14.54, Kindle $14.99
Reviewed by David Arnold (Ethiopia 1964-66)
Chris Matthews (Swaziland 1968-70) was in Canada when he heard the news of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 assassination at a Los Angeles hotel just hours after the 42-year-old candidate won California’s Democratic primary. Matthews had gone to Canada for a few days with a graduate school friend who was looking for a job and a way to avoid the draft. Matthews’ own options weren’t looking so good, either. His graduate school deferment to study economics at North Carolina University in Chapel Hill was running out.
In his recently published Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, Matthews says the breaking news on the radio that Wednesday sounded like a reprise of Dallas and the day Bobby’s brother Jack, the President of the United States, was shot and killed five years before.
“It took a couple of minutes for me to realize a new horror had come to pass,” Matthews writes. “I’d prayed for his victory in the California primary. For me, he seemed to offer the only real hope of stopping the war… Now my prayers were simply for Bobby.”
Sitting down on a park bench on Saint Catherine Street, he made a list of his own options and Peace Corps in Africa was looking pretty good. He ended up volunteering to advise on trade development in the Kingdom of Swaziland, a tiny, newly independent African nation.
Fifty years after Bobby Kennedy’s death, the blond but graying host of the nightly “Hardball with Chris Matthews” on MSNBC television has written his seventh book. Most of them are about U.S. politics and three of them are about Kennedys.
As a biographer, Matthews pays proper respect to two previous Bobby Kennedy biographies, the first by political historian Arthur Schlesinger. Jr., and the second by Evan Thomas, published 18 years ago. Matthews says his narrative follows the skeleton of the Thomas book, fleshed out with more recent narratives by dozens more including those of the late Ted Kennedy, LBJ biographer Robert Caro, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, and Ken O’Donnell, the friend and confident of both Jack and Bobby.
Matthews personalized the biography with short and frequent references to their shared experiences of Irish ancestry, the Roman Catholic Church, and a devotion to the progressive 1960s promises of our nation’s Democratic party. Kennedy began as a devout church acolyte, rose to become a tough political disciplinarian, U.S. attorney general and a senator from New York who championed civil rights, opposed the war, and campaigned to end rural and urban poverty. Following his close of service in Swaziland, Matthews worked on the staffs of senators Frank Moss and Ed Muskie, became chief of staff to Congressman Tip O’Neill, bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, and finally—in the midst of occasional rumors of his own ambition to win a seat in the U.S. Senate—began the first of 21 years of his popular evening cable news hour.
Here are a couple of examples of how Matthews gives personal perspective to Kennedy’s life story. When brother Jack won a ground-breaking 1960 Wisconsin primary in the midst of a backlash to fears of a Catholic living in the White House, Walter Cronkite asked Jack during a live interview about the role the Catholic vote played in his victory. Later, Bobby stormed into Cronkite’s studio, according to the CBS journalist, and boldly told the respected television news anchor, “We had an agreement that no question be asked about Catholicism and the Catholic vote. I’m going to see you never get another interview.”
Matthews says casting that victory in religious terms “had the effect of tainting his success. “I know first-hand how it would have worked, remembering my mom’s anger when a group of zealous canvassers knocked at our door to warn us of the imminent danger of a Catholic in the White House.”
Another is this: During the surprisingly popular appeal of Minnesota’s Senator Eugene McCarthy as a 1968 challenger to President Lyndon Johnson’s re-election and an unwinnable war in Vietnam, Matthews remembers the frustration of those who wanted to defeat the President’s re-election bid. “Why, we wanted to know, was Bobby Kennedy, having hesitated to strike at Johnson, now jumping in?” Three hundred pages later, Matthews take us deftly through Kennedy’s tortured indecision and almost-too-late entry in the primaries. Among Kennedy’s dilemmas was his fear that should he run in the primaries, a vindictive Johnson might decide to announce military withdrawal from Vietnam in order to neutralize Kennedy’s own 1968 campaign and make a Bobby Kennedy for President campaign in 1972 campaign. Even when CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite returned from the war front and urged Kennedy to run, Bobby hesitated.
The people and events of Kennedy’s life are all here: the mother who favored him, the father whose failed diplomatic career plagued the political careers of all three of his sons, Bobby’s rise as bad cop in “sunny” Jack’s U.S. Senate election victory, Bobby’s troubled loyalties to Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy while “Tail Gunner Joe” searched for communists in the U.S. bureaucracy, and his own tenacious but unsuccessful efforts to prosecute Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. At a campaign rally in an African-American neighborhood in Indianapolis, Kennedy realized he had to announce that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed hours earlier in Memphis. To a stunned audience he offered the wisdom of Aeschylus and his own experience. “I would say that I can feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed…” Nothing, however, was to prevent the urban riots that spread across the nation.
Chris Matthews’ writing style is as personable and politically nuanced as his nightly show of editorials and panels of experts. The inflection, the quickened pace, the tone and the charming grin that goes it with have never changed, according to a friend who served in Swaziland with him and remains in close touch. On “Hardball” Matthews is a combative host whose lengthy leading questions are likely to leave little time or space for response by even the most agreeable guests. But in this book he has the pages all to himself to give a careful and reasoned accounting of one of his political heroes.
For a life story already twice told, he brings Bobby Kennedy to new generations who can only witness the daily Tweets and mounting travails of our democracies sitting President. On that television show, Matthews frequently promotes his book about the political coming of age of Bobby Kennedy, “because it needs to be told now more than ever.”
Reviewer David Arnold served in Ethiopia (1964-66) and is the editor of the National Peace Corps Association’s WorldView magazine.