Steel's dark view of Robert Kennedy

January 16, 2000|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,Special to the Sun

"In Love With Night: The American Romance With Robert Kennedy," by Ronald Steel. Simon & Schuster. 224 pages. $23.

The Eternal Flame on John Kennedy's grave was not even lit before the myth was born. In his eulogy to his slain brother, a grieving Robert Kennedy invoked some of the most poignant lines from Shakespeare -- Juliet's tender prayer that her doomed Romeo be cut out in little stars to "make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night." So began Camelot, a mythic place where happiness is decreed by sheer optimism of the will.

Thus one might assume from the title that this "meditation," as the respected historian Ronald Steel calls his work, would be yet another celebration of the "brief shining moment" of the Kennedy years. But we quickly detect a potent double-entendre in the title.

Bluntly put, Steel posits that America's "romance" with Robert Kennedy bespeaks a sentimental nation's choice to remain in the dark rather than to face the reality that neither John nor Robert Kennedy accomplished very much in their brief lives. Moreover, Steel goes on, there's no reason to believe that, had they lived, they ever could have matched the historic accomplishments of Lyndon Johnson, whom Bobby loathed as a crude "usurper" upon the throne of Camelot.

Nor does Steel find many redeeming personal traits in Bobby, who is portrayed as an obsessed man, the timid third son in line of succession to power sought as a matter of right, hopelessly conflicted as he struggled to please a rigidly pious mother and a relentlessly rapacious father.

Bobby's dominant characteristic, Steel believes, was intense emotional commitment coupled with a willingness to use ruthless means to achieve often dubious goals. It is generally forgotten, for example, that in the Fifties he worked for Sen. Joe McCarthy, the apotheosis of evil to liberals, and when this discomfiting fact comes up, Kennedy loyalists dismiss it as a youthful indiscretion.

But Steel tells us that Bobby was so enthralled by McCarthy's cause that he asked the red-baiting senator to be the godfather to his first-born child. Thus did Maryland's current lieutenant governor -- intrepid bearer of Kennedy ideals in our time -- come to be burdened with a secret ignominy.

Conventional wisdom holds that John Kennedy's tragic death brought about a life-changing epiphany that made Bobby a better man, one who could empathize with all who had suffered cruel blows at the hand of random fate. But even this transformation is drawn into question when Steel shows that at the very end Bobby verged on outright demagoguery in his determination to cobble together the polar opposites of his core coalition, blacks and working-class ethnic Catholics, in order to reclaim the presidency.

So harsh is the judgment that the reader begins to yearn for something to redeem the Kennedy legend. Steel, too, may have felt this yearning, because in the closing pages he provides a crumb of historical absolution by proclaiming the Kennedy brothers to be "an inspiration" to generations to come to enter public service.

True, no doubt. But it still remains pretty thin gruel to sustain so enduring a legend into perpetuity.

Ray Jenkins has been a reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger. In 1954 he was one of two reporters who covered the Phenix City, Ala., upheaval, coverage that won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. He has worked for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser-Journal, the New York Times in Alabama, the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun, and The Evening Sun, for which he was editorial page editor. His book "Blind Vengeance" was published in 1997 by the University of Georgia Press.

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