RFK, as JFK's guardian angel

November 02, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN STAFF

"Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector," by James Hilty.Temple University Press. 576 pages. $34.95

Before there was Janet Reno, before Richard Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre and before the special prosecutor law itself, there was Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who saw not just his job but his mission in life as protecting his brother, who happened to be president of the United States.

A thousand and one Kennedy books are out there, one for every day of John F. Kennedy's mythical reign. But this one, written by a historian, actually provides a useful service. One of its main themes - am I truly my brother's keeper? - is timeless. And the other `- exploring the obligations of the U.S. attorney general - is current.

In this highly readable, book, James Hilty does a deft job, without ever becoming heavy-handed, of pointing out that Bobby Kennedy would no sooner have facilitated the prosecution of his brother than he would have become a communist double agent. Is Janet Reno's relationship with President Clinton remotely related?

It was former House speaker - and fellow Massachusetts Democrat - Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. who pointed out that "being a Kennedy was more than family affiliation. It developed into an entire political party."

Hilty turns this point around: "At the core of the Kennedy party lay the Kennedy family. To Robert, it was his raison d'etre."

Robert Kennedy knew, against his better judgment, that he was destined to be attorney general from no less than his father, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan. Joseph P. Kennedy first raised this possibility in a 1956 interview with the Saturday Evening Post, and it became something of an inside joke among the Kennedy kids. Eunice joked that her father's rationale was that Robert Kennedy could imprison everyone her dad didn't like, adding: "We'll have to build more jails."

Indeed, Joseph Kennedy's motives were not conventionally patriotic. "He is your blood brother," the old man told JFK. "Only he can protect you."

In Robert Kennedy's world, there was a lot to protect the $H president from: military commanders who planned the Bay of Pigs (this attorney general also doubled as a foreign policy adviser); CIA operatives who enlisted mobsters to kill Fidel Castro; gangsters who inflitrated unions and who hated the Kennedys; racist governors who pushed them (reluctantly) into using federal troops to combat segregation; an unscrupulous FBI director who was always hinting at blackmail; and, finally, the source of that threat - Jack Kennedy's appetite for women.

Gen. Maxwell Taylor observed: "He seemed to look at every aspect of a given situation, asking himself, 'Now, how can this affect Jack? How can this hurt Jack?' "

By any conventional standard, RFK was unqualified to be attorney general. He was just 35 and had never tried a case in a courtroom.

"Everybody here knows more law about this than I do, but I'm the attorney general and it's my responsibility, so you've got to make it clear to me so that I can make a decision," he told his staff.

The key, however, was loyalty. With Robert Kennedy, this was not just a word, and it wasn't a value that worked in one direction. Though he was a demanding boss, his loyalty - not just to his father and his brother, but to those below him - was absolute.

Robert Kennedy "doesn't just stand up for you," James McShane, head of the U.S. Marshal's Service, once said. "He goes to the wall for you."

Carl Cannon is The Sun's Washinton Bureau Chief and has covered the last four presidential elections.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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