'Mysterious' Bob Kennedy is not a mystery at all

The Argument

A skeptical reporter discovered his character, and relates that it was very clear.

Books

September 17, 2000|By Edwin O. Guthman | By Edwin O. Guthman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Almost a third of a century has passed since Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, yet he remains a compelling, controversial public figure -- strangely a mysterious one to some people. And that's after he has been the subject of 21 or more books and figured prominently in at least 82 more.

For many of us who knew him well, the mystery is that there's a mystery. The record is clear. Look long and hard at what he did. Read or listen to what he said. No need to psychoanalyze him. The real Bob Kennedy is right there. He was a loving father and husband. He was committed to a career of public service and grew with each exposure to a new problem or situation. He was an efficient executive and a natural leader. Followers and foes sensed that he meant what he said, but he was not satisfied to just talk about a problem. He had to act to right a wrong or help people who needed it.

Personal relationships were central to everything he did. Once a bond of friendship was formed -- usually after going through some difficult experience -- it was unbreakable. It is no overstatement to say there were many men who would have taken the assassin's bullet, if they could have shielded their friend.

The newest RFK book, "Robert Kennedy: His Life" by Evan Thomas (Simon & Schuster, 509 pages, $28), which has a publication date of Sept. 13, comes close. It is the most thoroughly researched since "Robert Kennedy and His Times" by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (Houghton Mifflin, 916 pages, $19.95), which was published in 1978. Thomas, assistant managing editor of Newsweek's Washington bureau, is a perceptive, careful, honest writer, but it's one thing to research what Kennedy did and another to have worked for him and been his friend. I did both.

I met Kennedy in November 1956 and I spoke with him in his room in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles only a few minutes before he left to claim victory in the California presidential primary June 5, 1968.

But, our first meeting was tentative and at arm's length. I was a reporter for the Seattle Times and with Paul Staples, the paper's veteran labor reporter, had been investigating Dave Beck, a Seattle man who had risen to be international president of the Teamsters' Union, since 1948. That year I had interviewed Beck while helping Staples cover a strike of machinists at the Boeing Airplane Co. Beck, probably with the encouragement of Seattle business leaders who worried that Boeing might move to Wichita, Kan., was trying to break the strike and organize the strikers into the Teamsters.

Beck lied during the press conference. When I told Staples, I asked why a man with Beck's power would lie. Staples frowned and said, "Didn't you know? Beck lies all the time."

"But why?" I asked naively.

"I'm pretty sure he's stealing money from the union," said Staples. We talked about that and decided to see if we could get proof. It was not easy. We couldn't get a look at the union's financial records, but by the fall of 1956 the Seattle Times had published some of our articles that raised questions about Beck's real estate ventures. However, in 1954, I had met Clark Mollenhoff, a reporter for the Des Moines, Iowa, Register-Tribune and upon learning we had a mutual interest -- he was investigating Beck's counterpart in Detroit, James R. Hoffa -- we began exchanging information.

It was Mollenhoff who called to arrange my meeting Kennedy.

"The Senate investigations subcommittee is going to investigate union corruption and I've suggested they start with Beck and the Teamsters in the Pacific Northwest," he said. "A young lawyer from the committee would like to come and see you and Staples and I hope you'll help him." "Who is he?" I asked.

"Bob Kennedy," said Mollenhoff and when I didn't respond he continued, "You know, he's Senator Kennedy's brother."

I thought for a moment and then said: "That's fine, Clark, but can you trust him?" In 1956, the name Kennedy didn't mean much in the far northwest corner of the country and that was the first I was aware John Kennedy had a brother named Bob. So, I was wary, but not only because I had never heard of Bob Kennedy. Beck was at the peak of his power and our experience with investigating committees of the Congress and the Washington legislature had not been very reassuring. The last thing we wanted was for a committee to hold some hearings, make a few headlines and leave us with Beck still in power.

However, Mollenhoff vouched for Kennedy and pointed out that the committee with its subpoena power could get to the union's financial records and that was the clinching argument. Shortly after that I received a phone call from Bob and we met when he came to Seattle two weeks later. We talked for several hours -- somewhat stand-offishly. I wanted assurances that our informants would be protected and that the investigation would be thorough.

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