In His Own Right

In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy

Joseph A. Palermo
Series: Columbia Studies in Contemporary American History
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    In His Own Right
    Book Description:

    Robert Kennedy's role in American politics during the 1960s was pivotal yet has defied attempts to define it. He was a junior senator from New York, but he was also much more. The public perceived him as possessing the intangible qualities of his brother, the slain president. From 1965 to 1968 Kennedy struggled to find his own voice in national affairs.

    In His Own Right examines this crucial period of Robert Kennedy's political career, combining the best of political biography with a gripping social history of the social movements of the 1960s. How did Kennedy make the transformation from cold warrior to grassroots activist, from being a political operator known for ruthlessness toward his opponents to becoming, by 1968, a "tribune of the underclass"? Based on never before seen documents, this intimate portrait of one of the most respected politicians never elected president describes Robert Kennedy's relationship with such well-known activists and political players as Benjamin Spock, Eugene McCarthy, Allard Lowenstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez, as well as the ordinary men and women who influenced Kennedy's views as he came to stand in the public arena and in the national consciousness as a man and a leader in his own right.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50265-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. Prologue: The Odyssey Begins (pp. 1-7)

    On November 22, 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy enjoyed a pleasant lunch with some aides from the Justice Department at his home, Hickory Hill, in McLean, Virginia. At about 1:45 P.M. he received a phone call from J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, no friend of the attorney general’s, who informed him that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. While Robert Kennedy dashed around Hickory Hill changing clothes and trying to contact officials more knowledgeable about events in Texas, a second call came in from Captain Tazewell Shepard, President Kennedy’s naval aide....

  6. 1 On His Own: Kennedy’s Evolving Critique of the War, May 1965–February 1966 (pp. 8-31)

    On January 5, 1965, Kennedy began his term as the junior senator from New York, joining the ranks of Senate Democrats who commanded a 36-seat majority at the start of the 89th Congress. The adjustment to being one voice in a hundred frustrated Kennedy. His earlier posts had not prepared him for the club-like atmosphere and cloakroom dealings of the Senate. Back in 1957, as the chief counsel of the Senate Rackets Investigating Committee, Kennedy, at the age of 31, had directed a staff of seventy, and guided an elaborate investigation through months of highly publicized hearings. In 1960, he...

  7. 2 A Slow Path to Peace: Kennedy Calls for a Negotiated Settlement, March 1966–March 1967 (pp. 32-56)

    Throughout 1966, Kennedy remained cautious in voicing his criticisms of President Johnson’s Vietnam policies. He shifted his focus from foreign policy to domestic projects, such as the public-private partnership in developing a poverty zone in Brooklyn, his work with the subcommittee on migrant labor, and his highly publicized trip to South Africa that June. As the 1966 midterm elections approached, Kennedy campaigned for Democratic candidates all over the country, and strengthened his ties to some of the party’s regional power brokers. He consciously toned down his criticisms of the war and Johnson’s foreign policy to avoid damaging the Democrats’ chances...

  8. 3 At the Center of the Storm: Kennedy and the Shifting Political Winds of 1967 (pp. 57-76)

    Throughout 1967, Kennedy followed the advice of his more pragmatic counselors and refrained from leading into battle the antiwar forces of the Democratic Party. Despite his ongoing criticisms of the war, he remained cautious (some would say overly cautious) in acting on his convictions. In the name of party unity, and his own long-term political survival, he disavowed citizens’ groups which called upon him to run for president in 1968, and he repeatedly said he supported President Johnson’s reelection.

    However, Kennedy’s tactical retreat did not stop him from critically evaluating the United States’ course in Southeast Asia. In August 1967,...

  9. 4 “The Hottest Place in Hell”: Kennedy, the Democrats, and the McCarthy Candidacy (pp. 77-99)

    The polarizing effects of the Vietnam War eventually thrust Kennedy into the center of a bitterly divided Democratic Party. When the pragmatic political managers around him, such as Frederick Dutton and Theodore Sorensen, urged him to publicly clarify his support for Johnson’s reelection, Kennedy had acted on this advice, and alienated a sizable number of his antiwar supporters. In November 1967, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy heeded Allard Lowenstein’s call and entered the Democratic primaries as a peace candidate alternative to Johnson. By tapping the energy of college students and antiwar activists, McCarthy’s candidacy demonstrated the potential power of youth activism...

  10. 5 The Collapse of the Myths: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Tet Offensive, January–February 1968 (pp. 100-116)

    In January and February 1968, a series of attacks in South Vietnam during the Tet lunar new year celebration showed that America’s enemy could strike deep into the country’s urban centers. The Tet Offensive belied the Johnson Administration’s predictions that victory was at hand. It seriously undermined the arguments for continuing the war, and strengthened the resolve of the opposition. It also proved to be a crucial turning point, not only in the war but in President Johnson’s political relations to his critics, both inside and outside the Democratic Party, and especially to Robert Kennedy. The offensive in Vietnam thrust...

  11. 6 The Breaking Point: Kennedy Responds to Tet, February 8, 1968 (pp. 117-129)

    Eight days after the Tet Offensive began, Kennedy spelled out its significance in a speech that stands out as one of the most eloquent indictments of the Vietnam War given by any public figure of the 1960s.¹ It was Kennedy’s first major Vietnam address since March 2, 1967 and his words reached a wide audience. The speech marked Kennedy’s final break with Johnson, and freed him from the obligations of party loyalty which shackled him to the prowar Democratic leadership. All of Kennedy’s subsequent speeches on Vietnam, with varying nuance and emphasis, restated the major conclusions of his post-Tet analysis....

  12. 7 Fifteen Days in March: Kennedy Challenges Johnson, March 1968 (pp. 130-160)

    The weeks following Kennedy’s February 8 speech witnessed a marked unraveling of the Democratic Party. The Johnson Administration’s claim that the Tet Offensive was an American military victory worsened the President’s credibility gap and galvanized opposition in dozens of Congressional districts. Kennedy no longer supported Johnson’s reelection, but he hesitated to enter the presidential race himself. He reassessed his political strength as Eugene McCarthy’s New Hampshire primary campaign gathered momentum, assisted by the skilled management of Richard Goodwin, who, disgusted at Johnson’s Vietnam policy and fed up with Kennedy’s indecisiveness, concluded he could do more to stop the war by...

  13. A photographic (pp. None)
  14. 8 Civil Rights and the Urban Rebellions: Kennedy, King, and the Politics of Race, 1965–1968 (pp. 161-187)

    On February 29, 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders presented its report to President Johnson. Johnson had appointed the commission, headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, to analyze the causes of the riots of 1967 in African-American urban centers. The report described twenty-four violent outbursts in twenty-three cities, provided profiles of eight, and identified the underlying social conditions that produced the massive uprisings in Detroit and Newark the previous summer. In an often-quoted statement, the Kerner Commission said that America was becoming “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The body also concluded that reversing these...

  15. 9 Building a Coalition: Kennedy and the Primaries, March 16–May 28, 1968 (pp. 188-219)

    During the first two weeks of his campaign, Kennedy traversed the nation, visiting sixteen states that held nearly 800 of the 1,300 delegate votes needed to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. On March 16, 1968, the day he entered the race, a Gallup poll among rank-and-file Democrats showed his standing to be as strong as that of the incumbent president.¹ Still, Kennedy received warnings from friends in the party that Johnson might hold a “control bloc” of votes at the Democratic National Convention scheduled to begin on August 26 in Chicago. The campaign feared the Johnson/Humphrey forces might be able...

  16. 10 California: Kennedy’s Last Campaign, May 1–June 6, 1968 (pp. 220-249)

    Shortly after Kennedy’s failure in Oregon, Janet Lee Auchincloss, the mother of Jacqueline Kennedy, wrote a comforting letter: “This defeat might be a help to your campaign, instead of a bitter blow. Somehow the first defeat or setback makes you a more sympathetic figure—and people will admire the courageous and graceful way you acknowledge it.”¹ It was far from certain whether her upbeat assessment would prove accurate. Prior to his Oregon shipwreck, Kennedy had told reporters that if he lost any of the primaries, he no longer would be a “viable” candidate. On June 4, 1968, California’s Democratic voters...

  17. Conclusion: A Potential Unrealized (pp. 250-258)

    Throughout Robert Kennedy’s Senate years, an increasingly mobilized citizenry prodded him to take ever bolder stands against the Vietnam War, racism, and social injustice. His dialogue with citizens active in the peace, civil rights, farm worker, and antipoverty movements ultimately came to define his politics. He moved with the times, and also shaped them; he gave legitimacy and strength to the progressive social movements of the period. Kennedy faced some tough political choices along the way, but after some hesitation, he stepped forward to lead the disaffected peace wing of the Democratic Party. He rejected the party leadership which equated...

  18. Notes (pp. 259-322)
  19. Bibliography (pp. 323-336)
  20. Index (pp. 337-350)

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