Robert F. Kennedy

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Robert F. Kennedy
Robert F Kennedy crop.jpg
Kennedy appearing before the Platform Committee, 1964
United States Senator
from New York
In office
January 3, 1965 – June 6, 1968
Preceded by Kenneth Keating
Succeeded by Charles Goodell
64th United States Attorney General
In office
January 20, 1961 – September 3, 1964
President John F. Kennedy (1961–63)
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–64)
Preceded by William P. Rogers
Succeeded by Nicholas Katzenbach
Personal details
Born Robert Francis Kennedy
(1925-11-20)November 20, 1925
Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Resting place Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington County, Virginia, U.S.
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Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Ethel Skakel (m. 1950–68)
(his death)
Relations See: Kennedy family
Children Kathleen, Joseph, Robert Jr., David, Courtney, Michael, Kerry, Christopher, Max, Douglas, Rory
Alma mater Harvard University (A.B.)
University of Virginia (LL.B.)
Profession Lawyer
Religion Roman Catholic
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch U.S. Naval Reserve
Years of service 1944–46
Rank E2 SM USN.png Seaman Apprentice
Unit USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.
Battles/wars World War II

Robert Francis "Bobby" Kennedy (November 20, 1925 – June 6, 1968), commonly known by his initials RFK, was an American politician from Massachusetts. He served as a Senator for New York from 1965 until his assassination in 1968. He was previously the 64th U.S. Attorney General from 1961 to 1964, serving under his older brother, President John F. Kennedy and his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. An icon of modern American liberalism and member of the Democratic Party, Kennedy ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1968 election.

After serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a Seaman Apprentice from 1944 to 1946, Robert Kennedy graduated from Harvard College and the University of Virginia School of Law. Prior to entering public office, he worked as a correspondent to the Boston Post and as an attorney in Washington D.C. He gained national attention as the chief counsel of the Senate Labor Rackets Committee from 1957 to 1959, where he publicly challenged Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa over the corrupt practices of the union, and published The Enemy Within, a book about corruption in organized labor.

A loyal member of the Kennedy family, Robert was the campaign manager for his brother John in the 1960 presidential election. He was appointed Attorney General after the successful election and served as the closest adviser to the president from 1961 to 1963. His tenure is best known for its advocacy for the Civil Rights Movement, crusade against organized crime and the Mafia, and involvement in U.S. foreign policy related to Cuba and Indonesia. After his brother's assassination, he remained in office in the Johnson administration for a few months until leaving to run for the United States Senate in 1964 where he defeated Republican incumbent Kenneth Keating.

In 1968, Robert Kennedy was a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, appealing especially to African-American, Hispanic, and Catholic voters. Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, after defeating Senator Eugene McCarthy in the California presidential primary, he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian, and died the following day.

Early life

Robert F. Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the seventh child of businessman/politician Joseph P. "Joe" Kennedy, Sr. (1888–1969) and philanthropist Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (1890–1995).[1] His older brothers were Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (1915–1944) and John F. "Jack" Kennedy (1917–1963), who was elected the 35th President of the United States in 1960. His younger brother was longtime United States Senator Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy (1932–2009).

Robert's father was a wealthy businessman, and a leading Irish Catholic figure in the Democratic Party. After he stepped down as ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1940, Joe, Sr. focused his attention on his first born, Joseph, Jr., planning that he would enter politics and be elected president. He also urged the younger children to examine and discuss current events in order to propel them to public service.[2] After Joseph, Jr. was killed during World War II, the senior Kennedy's hopes fell on his second son, John, to become president. Joseph, Sr. had the money and connections to play a central role in the family's political ambitions.[3]

The Kennedy family at Hyannisport, Massachusetts in 1931 with Robert on bottom left in jacket. Ted was born the following year.

Robert's older brother John was often bedridden by illness and as a result became a voracious reader. Although he made little effort to get to know his younger brother during his childhood, John would take Robert for walks[4] and regale him with the stories of heroes and adventures he had read during his illnesses.[5] One of their favorite authors was John Buchan, who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps' both Robert and John were influenced by the book.[4] John sometimes referred to Robert as "Black Robert" due to his prudishness and disposition.[6]

Unlike his older brothers, Robert took to heart their mother Rose's agenda for everything to have "a purpose" which included visiting historic sites during family outings, visits to the church during morning walks, and games used to expand vocabulary and math skills.[7] Robert described his position in the family hierarchy by saying, "When you come from that far down, you have to struggle to survive."[8] He frequently tried to get the attention of his older brothers as they were growing up, but wasn't often successful.[4][5]

In September 1927, the Kennedy family moved to Riverdale, New York, a wealthy neighborhood in the Bronx, then two years later, moved 5 miles (8.0 km) northeast to Bronxville, New York. Robert spent summers with his family at their compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and Christmas and Easter holidays at their winter home in Palm Beach, Florida, purchased in 1933. He attended public elementary school in Riverdale from kindergarten through second grade; then Bronxville School, the public school in Bronxville, from third through fifth grade. He repeated the third grade.[9] A teacher at Bronxville reflected that Robert was "a regular boy". She added, "It seemed hard for him to finish his work sometimes. But he was only ten after all."[8][10] He then attended Riverdale Country School, a private school for boys in Riverdale, for sixth grade. Robert would later recall of his childhood "going to different schools, always having to make new friends, and that I was very awkward...[a]nd I was pretty quiet most of the time. And I didn't mind being alone."[11] He developed an interest in American history, decorating his bedroom with pictures of U.S. Presidents and filling his bookshelves with volumes on the American Civil War. He also became an avid stamp collector, once receiving a handwritten letter from Franklin Roosevelt, who was also a philatelist.[8]

In March 1938, when he was 12, Robert sailed with his mother and his four youngest siblings to England to join his father who had begun serving as ambassador to the U.K. He attended the private Gibbs School for Boys in London for seventh grade, returning to the U.S. just before the outbreak of World War II in Europe. In April 1939, Robert gave his first public speech at the laying of a cornerstone for a youth club in England. According to embassy and newspaper reports, his statements were penciled in his own hand and were delivered in a "calm and confident" manner.[12]

St. Paul's and Portsmouth Priory

In September 1939, Robert began eighth grade at St. Paul's School, an elite Protestant private preparatory school for boys in Concord, New Hampshire,[13] that his father favored.[14] However, after two months his mother, unhappy with their use of the Protestant Bible, took advantage of her Ambassador husband's absence from Boston and withdrew Robert from St. Paul's. She enrolled him instead in Portsmouth Priory School, a Benedictine Catholic boarding school for boys in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where there were morning and evening prayers along with mass three times a week and high mass on Sundays.[15] He attended Portsmouth for eighth through tenth grades.[citation needed]

At Portsmouth Priory School, Robert was known as "Mrs. Kennedy's little boy Bobby" after he introduced his mother to classmates, who made fun of them. He was defensive of his mother and on one occasion chased a student out of the dormitory after the student commented on her appearance.[16] He befriended Peter MacLellan and wrote to him when his brother John was serving in the U.S. Navy that he would be visiting his brother "because he might be killed any minute."[17]

Robert blamed himself when his grades failed to improve. In letters to her son, Rose urged Robert to read more and strengthen his vocabulary.[18] Rose also expressed disappointment and wrote that she did not expect him to let her down.[19] He began developing in other ways and his brother John noticed his increased physical strength, predicting that Robert "would be bouncing me around plenty in two more years."[18] Monks at Portsmouth Priory School regarded Robert as a student who was moody and indifferent. Father Damian Kearney who was two classes behind him reflected that he "didn't look happy" nor did he "smile much". According to Father Damian's review of school records, he was a "poor-to-mediocre student, except for history."[16]

Milton Academy

In September 1942, Robert transferred to his third boarding school, Milton Academy, in Milton, Massachusetts,for eleventh and twelfth grades.[20] That same month, his mother wrote his two older brothers and explained that Robert was transferring since he "did not seem to like" the headmaster at Portsmouth Priory School. She also reasoned that her son "did not seem to make much headway in his classes last year".[19]

At Milton, Robert met and became friends with David Hackett. He invited Hackett to join him for Sunday mass. Hackett started accompanying him and was impressed when on one Sunday, Robert took it upon himself to fill in for a missing altar boy.[4] Hackett admired Robert's determination to bypass his shortcomings and remembered him redoubling his efforts whenever something did not come easy to him, which for Robert included athletics, studies, success with girls and popularity.[19] Hackett remembered the two of them being "misfits", a commonality that drew him to Robert along with an unwillingness to conform to how others acted even if doing so meant not being accepted.[4]

Robert's grades improved and one of his first relationships was with a girl named Piedy Bailey. The pair were photographed together when Robert walked her home after chapel on a Sunday night. Bailey was fond of him and remembered him as being "very appealing". She recalled him being funny, "separate, larky; outside the cliques; private all the time." Soon after he transferred to Milton, Robert pressed his father to allow him to enlist, as he wanted to catch up to his brothers, who were both serving in the military.[4]

Robert had arrived at Milton knowing no one and made little attempt to know the names of his classmates; he instead called most of the other boys "fella". For this, he was nicknamed "Fella". Most of the school's students had come in eighth or ninth grade and cliques had already been formed. Despite this, his schoolmates would later say the school had no prejudice. Robert had an early sense of virtue; he disliked dirty jokes and bullying, once stepping in when an upperclassman tried bothering a younger student.[4] The headmaster at Milton would later summarize that he was a "very intelligent boy, quiet and shy, but not outstanding, and he left no special mark on Milton."[8]

Relationship with parents

In Robert's younger years, his father dubbed him the "runt" of the family and wrote him off. Close family friend Lem Billings once remarked to Joe Sr. that Robert was "the most generous little boy" and Joe Sr. replied that he did not know where his son "got that". Billings commented that the only similarity between Robert and Joe Sr. was their eye color.[16] As Robert grew, his father worried that Robert was soft on others, conflicting with Joe's ideology. In response, Robert developed a tough persona that masked his gentle personality, attempting to appease his father.[21] Biographer Judie Mills wrote that Joe, Sr.'s lack of interest in Robert was evident by the length of time it took for him to decide to transfer him to Milton Academy; both Joe, Jr. and John attended the exclusive Protestant prep school Choate from their freshman year while Robert was already a junior by the time he was enrolled at Milton. Despite his father's disdain, Robert continued to seek the approval of his father, requesting that Joe, Sr. write him a letter about his opinions on different political events and World War II.[19]

As a child, Robert also strove to meet the expectations of his mother, to become the most dutiful, religious, affectionate and obedient of the Kennedy children, but there grew greater distance between him and his father.[5] Rose found his gentle personality endearing, though this was noted as having made him "invisible to his father".[19] She heavily influenced him and like her, he became a devout Catholic, practicing his religion more seriously than the other boys in the family throughout his lifetime.[22] He impressed his parents as a child by taking on a newspaper route, seeking their approval and wishing to distinguish himself. However, he had the family chauffeur driving him, so that he could make his deliveries, in a Rolls-Royce. His mother discovered this and the deliveries ceased.[21]

Joe Sr. was satisfied with Robert as an adult, believing him to have become "hard as nails", more like him than any of the other children while his mother believed he exemplified all she had wanted in a child. Mills wrote, "His parents' conflicting views would be echoed in the opinions of millions of people throughout Bobby's life. Robert Kennedy was a ruthless opportunist who would stop at nothing to attain his ambitions. Robert Kennedy was America's most compassionate public figure, the only person who could save a divided country."[21]

Navy service (1944–1946)

Six weeks before his 18th birthday, Robert Kennedy enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a Seaman Apprentice,[23] but was released from active duty until March 1944 when he left Milton Academy early to report to the V-12 Navy College Training Program at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His V-12 training was at Harvard (March–November 1944); Bates College in Lewiston, Maine (November 1944 – June 1945, where he received a completion degree); and back to Harvard (June 1945 – January 1946).[24][25] While serving in Lewiston, Robert wrote a letter to David Hackett which reflected his feelings of inadequacy and frustration at being isolated from the action. "Things are the same as usual up here, and me being my usual moody self I get very sad at times." He added, "If I don't get the hell out of here soon I'll die." Aside from Hackett, who was serving as a paratrooper, more of his Parker Hall dorm mates went overseas and left him behind. One of them getting into combat before him was a thought that made him "feel more and more like a Draft Dodger or something." He was also frustrated with the shirker's mentality of some of the others serving in V-12 at Bates. He complained their attitudes really made him "mad especially after Joe being killed."[26]

On December 15, 1945, the U.S. Navy commissioned the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., and shortly thereafter granted Robert's request to be released from naval-officer training to serve aboard Kennedy, starting on February 1, 1946, as a seaman apprentice on the ship's shakedown cruise in the Caribbean.[24][27] On May 30, 1946, he received his honorable discharge from the Navy.[28] For his service in the Navy, he was eligible for the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.

Further study and journalism (1946–1951)

In September 1946, Robert Kennedy entered Harvard as a junior, having received credit for his time in the V-12 program.[29] He worked hard to make the Harvard varsity football team as an end, was a starter and scored a touchdown in the first game of his senior year before breaking his leg in practice,[29] earning his varsity letter when his coach sent him in for the last minutes of a game against Yale, wearing a cast.[30] His father spoke positively of him when he served as a blocking back and sometime receiver for the faster Dave Hackett. Joseph, Sr. attended some of Robert's practices and saw his son catch a touchdown pass in an early-season rout of the Western Maryland. His teammates admired his physical courage. Robert was five feet ten and 155 pounds, which made him too small and too slow for college football. Despite this, he was a fearless hitter and tackled a 230-pound fullback head-on. Wally Flynn, another player, looked up in the huddle after one play to see him crying after having broken his leg. Disregarding the injury, he kept playing.[31]

He graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in political science in March 1948.[32] After graduating, he immediately sailed on the RMS Queen Mary with a college friend for a six-month tour of Europe and the Middle East, accredited as a correspondent of the Boston Post, for which he filed six stories.[33] Four of these stories, submitted from Palestine shortly before the end of the British Mandate, provided a first-hand view of the tensions in the land.[33] He was critical of the British policy in Palestine, and praised the Jewish people he met there "as hardy and tough". He held out some hope after seeing Arabs and Jews working side by side but, in the end felt the "hate" in Palestine was too strong and would lead to a war.[34]

In September 1948, he enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville.[35] On June 17, 1950, Robert Kennedy married Ethel Skakel at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. He graduated from law school in June 1951 and flew with Ethel to Greenwich to stay in his father-in-law's guest house. The couple's first child, Kathleen, was born on July 4, 1951.[36] Robert spent the summer studying for the Massachusetts bar exam.[37]

John Kennedy served as best man at his brother's wedding, the pair still maintaining the same distant relationship they had in their younger years. The two focused on their father—Robert at getting his attention, John trying to keep Joe, Sr. "at arm's length"—but still rarely interacted until Robert was contacted by Kenny O'Donnell to repair the relationship of his brother John and their father during John's Senate campaign. As a result of this, Joe, Sr. came to view Robert favorably as reliable and "willing to sacrifice himself" for the family.[38]

In September 1951, he went to San Francisco as a correspondent of the Boston Post to cover the convention concluding the Treaty of Peace with Japan.[39] In October 1951, he embarked on a seven-week Asian trip with his brother John (then Massachusetts 11th district congressman) and their sister Patricia to Israel, India, Vietnam, and Japan.[40] Because of their age gap, the two brothers had previously seen little of each other—this 25,000-mile (40,000 km) trip came at the behest of their father[38] and was the first extended time they had spent together, serving to deepen their relationship.

Senate committee counsel and political campaigns (1951–1960)

JFK Senate campaign and Joseph McCarthy (1952-1955)

Robert, Ted, and President John F. Kennedy outside the Oval Office in 1963.

In November 1951, Robert moved with his wife and daughter to a townhouse in Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and started work as a lawyer in the Internal Security Section of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice; the section was charged with investigating suspected Soviet agents.[41] In February 1952, he was transferred to the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn to prosecute fraud cases.[42]

On June 6, 1952, Robert resigned to manage his brother Jack's successful 1952 U.S. Senate campaign in Massachusetts.[42] JFK's victory was of great importance to the Kennedy family, elevating him to national prominence and turning him into a serious potential presidential candidate, but the race and his brother's victory were equally important to Robert who felt he had succeeded in eliminating his father's longtime negative perceptions of him.[43]

In December 1952, at the behest of his father, Robert was appointed by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy as assistant counsel of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.[44] McCarthy was a friend to the Kennedy family, and was the godfather of Robert's daughter Kathleen.[45] This was a highly visible job for Robert. He resigned in July 1953, but "retained a fondness for McCarthy".[46] The period of July 1953 to January 1954 saw Robert have "a professional and personal nadir" being due to Kennedy feeling that he was adrift while trying to prove himself to the rest of the Kennedy family.[47]

After a period as an assistant to his father on the Hoover Commission, Robert rejoined the Senate committee staff as chief counsel for the Democratic minority in February 1954.[48] That month, McCarthy's chief counsel Roy Cohn subpoenaed Annie Lee Moss, accusing her of membership in the Communist party. Robert revealed that Cohn had called the wrong Annie Lee Moss and he requested the file on Moss from the FBI. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had been forewarned by Cohn and denied him access, referring to RFK as "an arrogant whipper-snapper."[49]

When the Democrats gained the majority in the Senate in January 1955, he became chief counsel and was a background figure in the televised Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954 into McCarthy's conduct.[50] The Annie Lee Moss incident turned Cohn into an enemy, which led to Robert's assisting Democratic senators in ridiculing Cohn during the hearings. The animosity grew to the point of Cohn being restrained after asking RFK if he wanted to fight him.[49]

For his work on the McCarthy committee, Robert was included in a list of "Ten Outstanding Young Men of 1954", created by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce. His father had arranged the nomination, his first national award.[51]

Stevenson aide and focus on organized labor (1956-1960)

Robert went on to work as an aide to Adlai Stevenson during the 1956 presidential election which would instruct him on how campaigns worked, in preparation for a possible future run by Jack. Unimpressed with Stevenson, he reportedly voted for incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower.[52] He soon made a name for himself as the chief counsel to the 1957–59 Senate Labor Rackets Committee under chairman John L. McClellan. In a famous scene, Kennedy squared off with Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa during the antagonistic argument that marked Hoffa's testimony.[53]

Senators Barry Goldwater and Karl Mundt wrote to each other and complained about "the Kennedy boys" as having hijacked the McClellan Committee, by their focus on Hoffa and the Teamsters. They believed Robert covered for Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers, a union which typically would back Democratic office seekers. Amidst the allegations, Robert wrote in his journal that the two Senators had "no guts" as they never addressed him directly, only to the press.[54] Robert left the Rackets Committee in late 1959 in order to run his brother's presidential campaign.

JFK presidential campaign (1960)

In 1960, he published the successful book The Enemy Within, describing the corrupt practices within the Teamsters and other unions that he had helped investigate, which he had drafted over the summer of the previous year. Biographer Evan Thomas wrote that the book was a bestseller and could have launched Robert on a political career on its own, but "family duty called",[55] and he went to work on the presidential campaign of his brother John. In contrast to his role in his brother's previous campaign eight years prior, Robert gave stump speeches throughout the primary season, gaining confidence as time went on.[56] His strategy "to win at any cost" led him to call on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. to attack Hubert Humphrey as a draft dodger; Roosevelt eventually did make the statement that Humphrey avoided service.[57]

Concerned that JFK was going to receive the Democratic Party's nomination, some supporters of Lyndon Johnson, who was also running for the nomination, revealed to the press that JFK had Addison's disease, saying that he required life-sustaining cortisone treatments. Though in fact a diagnosis had been made, Robert tried to protect his brother by denying the allegation, saying that JFK had never had "an ailment described classically as Addison's disease."[58] After securing the nomination, JFK nonetheless decided to offer Lyndon Johnson the vice presidency. This did not sit well with some Kennedy supporters and Robert tried unsuccessfully to convince Johnson to turn down the offer, leading Johnson to view Robert with contempt afterward.[59] Despite Robert's attempts, Johnson became his brother's running mate. Biographer Herbert Parmet speculated that Joseph Sr., who was in favor of the Johnson choice, played a part in convincing Robert to stop interfering with the selection.[60]

Attorney General of the United States (1961–1964)

Robert Kennedy speaking to a civil rights crowd in front of the Justice Department on June 14, 1963.

After winning the 1960 presidential election, President-elect John F. Kennedy appointed his younger brother Attorney General. The choice was controversial, with The New York Times and The New Republic calling Robert inexperienced and unqualified. He had no experience in any state or federal court,[61] causing the President to joke, "I can't see that it's wrong to give him a little legal experience before he goes out to practice law."[62] However, Kennedy did have significant experience in studying and fighting organized crime.

According to Bobby Baker, the Senate Majority Secretary and a protégé of Lyndon Johnson, President-elect Kennedy did not want to name his brother as Attorney General. However, their father overruled the President-elect. At the behest of Johnson, Baker persuaded the influential Southern Senator Richard Russell to allow a voice vote to confirm the President's brother in January 1961, as Robert "would have been lucky to get 40 votes" on a roll-call vote.[63] Lincoln wrote of that November 19, 1963, conversation just three days before Kennedy's assassination.[64]

Robert performed well in his confirmation hearing and chose what friend and biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. called an "outstanding" group of deputy and assistant attorneys general, including Byron White and Nicholas Katzenbach.[61]

Hilty concludes that Robert "played an unusual combination of roles—campaign director, attorney general, executive overseer, controller of patronage, chief adviser, and brother protector" and that nobody before him had such power.[65] His tenure as Attorney General was easily the period of greatest power for the office – no previous United States Attorney General had enjoyed such clear influence on all areas of policy during an administration.[66] To a great extent, President Kennedy sought the advice and counsel of his younger brother, with Robert being the President's closest political adviser. He was relied upon as both the President's primary source of administrative information and as a general counsel with whom trust was implicit. He exercised widespread authority over every cabinet department, leading the Associated Press to dub him, "Bobby—Washington's No. 2-man."[66]

The president once remarked about his brother that, "If I want something done and done immediately I rely on the Attorney General. He is very much the doer in this administration, and has an organizational gift I have rarely if ever seen surpassed."[67]


As one of President Kennedy's closest White House advisers, Robert Kennedy played a crucial role in the events surrounding the Berlin Crisis of 1961.[68] Operating mainly through a private backchannel connection to Soviet spy Georgi Bolshakov, Robert relayed important diplomatic communications between the US and Soviet governments.[69] Most significantly, this connection helped the US set up the Vienna Summit in June 1961 and later defuse the tank standoff with the Soviets at Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie in October.[70]

Organized crime and the Teamsters

As Attorney General, Robert pursued a relentless crusade against organized crime and the Mafia, sometimes disagreeing on strategy with J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Convictions against organized crime figures rose by 800 percent during his term.[71]

He was relentless in his pursuit of Teamsters union President Jimmy Hoffa, resulting from widespread knowledge of Hoffa's corruption in financial and electoral actions, both personally and organizationally.[72] The enmity between the two men was intense, with accusations of a personal vendetta being exchanged between them, what Hoffa called a "blood feud".[73] In 1964 Hoffa was imprisoned for jury tampering.[74]

Civil rights

As Attorney General

Robert Kennedy expressed the administration's commitment to civil rights during a 1961 speech at the University of Georgia Law School: <templatestyles src="Template:Blockquote/styles.css" />

We will not stand by or be aloof—we will move. I happen to believe that the 1954 [Supreme Court school desegregation] decision was right. But my belief does not matter. It is now the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law.[75]

He predicted during an interview in May 1961 that an African-American "can also achieve the same position that my brother has as President of the United States" over the course of the next thirty to forty years. Larry Sabato would later write that when RFK's family backed Barack Obama in 2008, they picked a candidate with great differences in upbringing from that of the privileged President Kennedy.[76]

In 1963, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who viewed civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. as an upstart troublemaker[77] calling him an "enemy of the state",[78] presented Robert with allegations that some of King's close confidants and advisers were communists.[79] Concerned that the allegations, if made public, would derail the Administration's civil rights initiatives, Robert warned King to discontinue the suspect associations, and later issued a written directive authorizing the FBI to wiretap King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King's civil rights organization.[80] Although Kennedy only gave written approval for limited wiretapping of King's phones "on a trial basis, for a month or so",[81] Hoover extended the clearance so his men were "unshackled" to look for evidence in any areas of King's life they deemed worthy.[82] The wiretapping continued through June 1966 and was revealed in 1968, days before Robert's death.[83]

Robert remained committed to civil rights enforcement to such a degree that he commented, in 1962, that it seemed to envelop almost every area of his public and private life—from prosecuting corrupt southern electoral officials to answering late night calls from Coretta Scott King concerning the imprisonment of her husband for demonstrations in Alabama. During his tenure as Attorney General, he undertook the most energetic and persistent desegregation of the administration that Capitol Hill had ever experienced. He demanded that every area of government begin recruiting realistic levels of black and other ethnic workers, going so far as to criticize Vice President Johnson for his failure to desegregate his own office staff.

Although it has become commonplace to assert the phrase "The Kennedy Administration" or even "President Kennedy" when discussing the legislative and executive support of the civil rights movement, between 1960 and 1963, a great many of the initiatives that occurred during President Kennedy's tenure were as a result of the passion and determination of an emboldened Robert Kennedy, who through his rapid education in the realities of Southern racism, underwent a thorough conversion of purpose as Attorney General. Asked in an interview in May 1962, "What do you see as the big problem ahead for you, is it Crime or Internal Security?" Robert replied, "Civil Rights."[84] The President came to share his brother's sense of urgency on the matters at hand to such an extent that it was at the Attorney General's insistence that he made his famous address to the nation.[61]

Robert Kennedy with Martin Luther King, Jr., June 22, 1963, Washington, D.C.

Robert played a large role in the response to the Freedom Riders protests. He acted after the Anniston bus bombings to protect the Riders in continuing their journey, sending John Seigenthaler, his administrative assistant, to Alabama to attempt to secure the riders' safety there. Despite a work rule which allowed a driver to decline an assignment which he regarded as a potentially unsafe one, he also persuaded a manager of The Greyhound Corporation to obtain a coach operator who was willing to drive a special bus for the continuance of the Freedom Ride from Birmingham, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, on the circuitous journey to Jackson, Mississippi.[85]

Later, during the attack and burning by a white mob of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, at which Martin Luther King, Jr. and some 1,500 sympathizers were in attendance, the Attorney General telephoned King to ask his assurance that they would not leave the building until the force of U.S. Marshals and National Guard he sent had secured the area. King proceeded to berate Robert for "allowing the situation to continue". King later publicly thanked him for his commanding of the force dispatched to break up an attack that might otherwise have ended King's life.[61][86] Robert then negotiated the safe passage of the Freedom Riders from the First Baptist Church to Jackson Mississippi, where they were arrested.[87] He offered to bail the Freedom Riders out of jail, but they refused which upset him, leading him to call any bandwagoners of the original freedom rides "honkers".[citation needed]

Robert's attempts to end the Freedom Rides early were tied to an upcoming summit with Khrushchev and De Gaulle, believing the continued international publicity of race riots would tarnish the President heading into international negotiations.[88] This attempt to curtail the Freedom Rides alienated many of the Civil Rights leaders at the time who perceived him as intolerant and narrow minded.[89] In an attempt to better understand and improve race relations, Robert held a private meeting in New York City in May 1963 with a black delegation coordinated by prominent author James Baldwin.

In September 1962, he sent U.S. Marshals to Oxford, Mississippi, to enforce a federal court order allowing the admittance of the first African American student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi. The Attorney General had hoped that legal means, along with the escort of U.S. Marshals, would be enough to force Governor Ross Barnett to allow the school admission. He also was very concerned there might be a "mini-civil war" between U.S. Army troops and armed protesters.[90] President Kennedy reluctantly sent federal troops after the situation on campus turned violent.[91]

Ensuing riots during the period of Meredith's admittance resulted in hundreds of injuries and two deaths. Yet Robert remained adamant concerning the rights of black students to enjoy the benefits of all levels of the educational system. The Office of Civil Rights also hired its first African-American lawyer and began to work cautiously with leaders of the civil rights movement. Robert saw voting as the key to racial justice, and collaborated with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to create the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped bring an end to Jim Crow laws.

As U.S. senator and presidential candidate

He was to maintain his commitment to racial equality into his own presidential campaign, extending his firm sense of social justice to all areas of national life and into matters of foreign and economic policy. During a campaign speech at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana on April 4, 1968, Robert questioned the student body on what kind of life Americans wished for themselves; whether privileged Americans had earned the great luxury they enjoyed and whether such Americans had an obligation to those, in U.S. society and across the world, who had so little by comparison. It has been argued that although this speech has been largely overlooked and ignored because of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it was one of most powerful and heartfelt speeches Robert Kennedy delivered.[92]

Robert undertook a 1966 tour of South Africa in which he championed the cause of the anti-apartheid movement. The tour was greeted with international praise at a time when few politicians dared to entangle themselves in the politics of South Africa. He spoke out against the oppression of the native population and was welcomed by the black population as though he were a visiting head of state. In an interview with Look magazine he said:

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At the University of Natal in Durban, I was told the church to which most of the white population belongs teaches apartheid as a moral necessity. A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve. 'But suppose God is black', I replied. 'What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?' There was no answer. Only silence.[93]

In South Africa, a group of foreign press representatives chartered an aircraft, after the National Union of South African Students failed to make sufficient travel arrangements. he not only accommodated a suspected Special Branch policeman on board, but took with good grace the discovery that the aircraft had once belonged to Fidel Castro.[94]

U.S. Steel

Robert also used the power of federal agencies to influence U.S. Steel not to institute a price increase.[95] The Wall Street Journal wrote that the administration had set prices of steel "by naked power, by threats, by agents of the state security police."[96] Yale law professor Charles Reich wrote in The New Republic that the Justice Department had violated civil liberties by calling a federal grand jury to indict U.S. Steel so quickly, then disbanding it after the price increase did not occur.[96]

Death penalty issues

During the Kennedy administration, the federal government carried out its last pre-Furman federal execution (Victor Feguer in Iowa, 1963)[97] and Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General, represented the Government in this case.[98]

In 1968, he expressed his strong willingness to support a bill then under consideration for the abolition of the death penalty.[99]


RFK with his brother President Kennedy, 1963

As his brother's confidant, Robert oversaw the CIA's anti-Castro activities after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. He also helped develop the strategy to blockade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis instead of initiating a military strike that might have led to nuclear war. He had initially been among the more hawkish members of the administration on matters concerning Cuban insurrectionary aid. His initial strong support for covert actions in Cuba soon changed to a position of removal from further involvement once he became aware of the CIA's tendency to draw out initiatives and provide itself with almost unchecked authority in matters of foreign covert operations.[citation needed]

Allegations that the Kennedys knew of plans by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro, or approved of such plans, have been debated by historians over the years. JFK's friend and associate, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., for example, expressed the opinion that operatives linked to the CIA were among the most reckless individuals to have operated during the period—providing themselves with unscrutinized freedoms to threaten the lives of Castro and other members of the Cuban revolutionary government regardless of the legislative apparatus in Washington—freedoms that, unbeknownst to those at the White House attempting to prevent a nuclear war, placed the entire U.S.–Soviet relationship in perilous danger.[citation needed]

The "Family Jewels" documents, declassified by the CIA in 2007, suggest that before the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Attorney General personally authorized one such assassination attempt.[100][101] However, ample evidence exists disputing that fact, specifically that Robert was only informed of an earlier plot involving the CIA's use of Mafia bosses Santo Trafficante, Jr. and John Roselli during a briefing on May 7, 1962, and in fact directed the CIA to halt any existing efforts directed at Castro's assassination.[102] Concurrently, Robert served as his brother's personal representative in Operation Mongoose, the post-Bay of Pigs covert operations program established in November 1961 by the president. Mongoose was meant to incite a revolution within Cuba that would result in the downfall of Castro, not Castro's assassination.[citation needed]

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert proved himself to be a gifted politician, with an ability to obtain compromises tempering aggressive positions of key figures in the hawk camp. The trust the President placed in him on matters of negotiation was such that Robert's role in the crisis is today seen as having been of vital importance in securing a blockade, which averted a full military engagement between the United States and Soviet Russia. His clandestine meetings with members of the Soviet government continued to provide a key link to Nikita Khrushchev during even the darkest moments of the Crisis, in which the threat of nuclear strikes was considered a very present reality.[103]

On the last night of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy was so grateful for his brother's work in averting nuclear war that he summed it up by saying, "Thank God for Bobby".[104]

Assassination of President John F. Kennedy

Robert Kennedy at his brother President John F. Kennedy's funeral, November 25, 1963.

The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was a brutal shock to the world, the nation, and the rest of the Kennedy family. Robert was devastated, and was described by many as being a completely different man after his brother's death.

Robert was at home, eating with aides from the Justice Department when J. Edgar Hoover called and told him his brother had been shot.[105] Before RFK could ask any questions, Hoover hung up, showing no empathy; RFK later said he thought Hoover had enjoyed telling him the news .[106] Robert then received a call from Tazewell Shepard, a naval aide to President Kennedy, who told him that his brother was dead.[105]

Shortly after the call from Hoover, Robert phoned McGeorge Bundy at the White House, instructing him to change the locks on the President's files. He ordered the Secret Service to dismantle the Oval Office and cabinet room's secret taping systems. Robert scheduled a meeting with CIA director John McCone and asked him if the CIA had any involvement in his brother's death. McCone denied it, with Robert later telling investigator Walter Sheridan that he asked the director "in a way that he couldn't lie to me, and they [the CIA] hadn't".[107] Robert received a phone call from Vice President Johnson while the vice president boarded Air Force One. The two concluded that the best course of action would be for Johnson to take the oath of office before returning to Washington.[108]

In his 1971 book We Band of Brothers, aide Edwin O. Guthman recounted Robert admitting to him an hour after receiving word of his brother's death that he thought he would be the one "they would get" as opposed to his brother.[109] In the days following the assassination, Robert wrote letters to his two eldest children, Kathleen and Joseph, saying that as the oldest Kennedy family members of their generation, they had a special responsibility to remember what their uncle had started and to love and serve their country.[110][111] Robert was originally opposed to Jacqueline Kennedy's decision to have a closed casket, as he wanted the funeral to keep with tradition, but he changed his mind after seeing the cosmetic, waxen remains.[112]

Robert was asked by Democratic Party leaders to introduce a film about his late brother at the 1964 party convention. When he was introduced, the crowd—including party bosses, elected officials and delegates—applauded thunderously and tearfully for a full 22 minutes before they would let him speak.[113] He was close to breaking down before he spoke about his brother's vision for both the party and the nation, and recited a quote from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (3.2) that Jacqueline had given him:

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When [he] shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

The ten-month investigation by the Warren Commission of 1963–1964 concluded that President Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald and that Oswald had acted alone. On September 27, 1964, Robert issued a statement through his New York campaign office: “As I said in Poland last summer, I am convinced Oswald was solely responsible for what happened and that he did not have any outside help or assistance. He was a malcontent who could not get along here or in the Soviet Union.”[114] He added: "I have not read the report, nor do I intend to. But I have been briefed on it and I am completely satisfied that the Commission investigated every lead and examined every piece of evidence. The Commission's inquiry was thorough and conscientious."[114] After a meeting with Robert in 1966, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. wrote: "It is evident that he believes that [the Warren Commission's report] was a poor job and will not endorse it, but that he is unwilling to criticize it and thereby reopen the whole tragic business."[115] Jerry Bruno, an "advance man" for JFK who also worked on RFK's 1968 Presidential campaign, would later state in 1993: "I talked to Robert Kennedy many times about the Warren Commission, and he never doubted their result."[116] In a 2013 interview with CBS journalist Charlie Rose, son Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. told CBS that his father was "fairly convinced" that others besides Oswald were involved in his brother's assassination and that he privately believed the Commission's report was a "shoddy piece of craftsmanship."[117]

Vice presidential candidate

Robert Kennedy with David Dubinsky in an undated photo. The sign in the background reads, "For President - Lyndon B. Johnson".

In the wake of the assassination of his brother, Lyndon Johnson's ascension to the presidency, and the office of Vice President now vacant, Robert was viewed favorably as a potential candidate for the position in the 1964 presidential election. Several Kennedy partisans called for Robert to be drafted in tribute of his brother, national polling showing that 3 in 4 Democrats were in favor of him as Johnson's running mate. Democratic organizers were supportive of his being a vice-presidential write-in candidate in the New Hampshire primary, 25,000 Democrats writing in Robert's name in March 1964, only fewer by 3,700 than the number of Democrats who wrote in Johnson's name as their pick for president.[105]

Robert Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office in 1964.

Despite the fanfare within the Democratic Party, President Johnson had no inclination to have Robert on his ticket. The two men intensely disliked one another, feelings often described as “mutual contempt” that went back to their first meeting in 1953, and had intensified during JFK’s presidency.[118][119] Johnson instead chose Hubert Humphrey to be his running mate.[105]

During a post-presidency interview with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Johnson claimed that Robert "acted like he was the custodian of the Kennedy dream" despite Johnson being seen as this after JFK was assassinated, arguing that he had "waited" his turn and Robert should have done the same. Johnson recalled a "tidal wave of letters and memos about how great a Vice President Bobby would be" being swept upon him, but knowing that he could not "let it happen" as he viewed the possibility of having Robert Kennedy on the ticket as making it such that he would never know if he could be elected "on my own".[120]

In July 1964, President Johnson issued an official statement ruling out all of his current cabinet members as potential running mates, judging them to be "so valuable were they in their current posts." In response to the statement, angry letters poured in directed towards both Johnson and his wife Lady Bird, expressing disappointment at Robert being dropped from the field of potential running mates.[120] Johnson worried that delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City would draft RFK onto the ticket, which led to his ordering the FBI to monitor Robert's contacts and actions there and to make sure that Robert would not speak until after Hubert Humphrey was confirmed as the running mate.[105]

Senator from New York

Senator Robert F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office, 1966.

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1964 election

Nine months after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Robert Kennedy left the Cabinet to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate, representing New York,[121] announcing his candidacy on August 22, 1964, two days before that year's Democratic National Convention. Robert had considered the possibility of running since early spring, but also giving consideration to leaving politics altogether after the plane crash and injury of his brother Ted in June, two months prior to his announcement. Positive reception in Europe convinced Robert to remain in politics.[122] Despite their notoriously difficult relationship, President Johnson gave considerable support to Robert's campaign. His opponent in the 1964 race was Republican incumbent Kenneth Keating, who attempted to portray Robert as an arrogant carpetbagger. Robert won the November election, helped in part by Johnson's huge victory margin in New York.[citation needed]


Robert Kennedy drew attention in Congress early on due to being the brother of President Kennedy, which set him apart from other senators. He drew more than fifty senators as spectators when he delivered a speech in June 1965 in the Senate on nuclear proliferation.[123]

In June 1966, Robert visited apartheid-era South Africa accompanied by his wife, Ethel, and a few aides. At the University of Cape Town he delivered the Annual Day of Affirmation speech. A quote from this address appears on his memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. ("Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope")[124]

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration Act of 1965 as Ted and Robert Kennedy, and others look on.

During his years as a senator, he helped to start a successful redevelopment project in poverty-stricken Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in New York City, visited the Mississippi Delta as a member of the Senate committee reviewing the effectiveness of 'War on Poverty' programs, and, reversing his prior stance, called for a halt in further escalation of the Vietnam War.

As Senator, he was popular among African Americans, and other minorities such as Native Americans and immigrant groups. He spoke forcefully in favor of what he called the "disaffected", the impoverished, and "the excluded", thereby aligning himself with leaders of the civil rights struggle and social justice campaigners, leading the Democratic party in a pursuit of a more aggressive agenda to eliminate perceived discrimination on all levels. He supported desegregation busing, integration of all public facilities, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and anti-poverty social programs to increase education, offer opportunities for employment, and provide health care for African Americans.

The administration of President Kennedy had backed U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world in the frame of the Cold War. While Robert vigorously supported President Kennedy's earlier efforts, like his brother he never publicly advocated commitment of ground troops. As Senator, he had cautioned President Johnson against commitment of U.S. ground troops as early as 1965, but Johnson chose to commit ground troops on recommendation of the rest of President Kennedy's still intact staff of advisers. However, Robert did not strongly advocate withdrawal from Vietnam until 1967, within a week of Martin Luther King, Jr. taking the same public stand. Consistent with President Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, Robert also placed increasing emphasis on human rights as a central focus of U.S. foreign policy.

Presidential candidate

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Tired, but still intense in the last days before his Oregon defeat, Robert Kennedy speaks from the platform of a campaign train.

In 1968, President Johnson prepared to run for reelection. In January, faced with what was widely considered an unrealistic race against an incumbent President, Robert Kennedy stated he would not seek the presidency.[125] But after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, in early February 1968, Robert received a letter from writer Pete Hamill that said that poor people kept pictures of President Kennedy on their walls and that Robert Kennedy had an "obligation of staying true to whatever it was that put those pictures on those walls".[126]

Robert traveled to Delano, California, to meet with civil rights activist César Chávez who was on a twenty-five-day hunger strike showing his commitment to nonviolence.[127] It was on this visit to California where Robert decided he would challenge Johnson for the presidency, telling his former Justice Department aides, Edwin Guthman and Peter Edelman, that his first step was to get lesser-known Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to leave the presidential race.[128]

The weekend before the New Hampshire primary, Robert announced to several aides that he would attempt to persuade McCarthy to withdraw from the race to avoid splitting the antiwar vote, but Senator George McGovern urged Robert to wait until after that primary to announce his candidacy.[125] Johnson won a narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968, against McCarthy, but this close second-place result dramatically boosted McCarthy's standing in the race.[129]

After much speculation and reports leaking out about his plans,[130] and seeing in McCarthy's success that Johnson's hold on the job was not as strong as originally thought, Robert declared his candidacy on March 16, 1968, in the Caucus Room of the old Senate office building—the same room where his brother declared his own candidacy eight years earlier.[131] He stated, "I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I'm obliged to do all I can."[132]

McCarthy supporters angrily denounced Robert Kennedy as an opportunist, believing that McCarthy had taken the more courageous stand by opposing a sitting president of his own party and that his surprising result in New Hampshire had earned him the mantle of being the anti-war candidate. Kennedy's announcement thus split the anti-war movement in two.[133] But then on March 31, 1968, President Johnson stunned the nation by dropping out of the race. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a champion of labor unions and civil rights, entered the race with the support of the party "establishment", including most members of Congress, mayors, governors and labor unions.[134] He entered the race too late to enter any primaries, but had the support of the president.[135] Robert Kennedy, like his brother before him, planned to win the nomination through popular support in the primaries.

Robert Kennedy campaigns in Los Angeles (photo by Evan Freed).

Robert Kennedy ran on a platform of racial and economic justice, non-aggression in foreign policy, decentralization of power, and social change. A crucial element of his campaign was an engagement with the young, whom he identified as being the future of a reinvigorated American society based on partnership and equality. His policy objectives did not sit well with the business world, where he was viewed as something of a fiscal liability, opposed as they were to the tax increases necessary to fund social programs. At one of his university speeches (Indiana University Medical School) he was asked, "Where are we going to get the money to pay for all these new programs you're proposing?" Robert replied to the medical students, about to enter lucrative careers, "From you."[61][136]

It was this intense and frank mode of dialogue with which he was to continue to engage those whom he viewed as not being traditional allies of Democratic ideals or initiatives. In a speech at the University of Alabama, he argued, "I believe that any who seek high office this year must go before all Americans: not just those who agree with them, but also those who disagree; recognizing that it is not just our supporters, not just those who vote for us, but all Americans, who we must lead in the difficult years ahead."[137] He aroused rabid animosity in some quarters, with J. Edgar Hoover's Deputy Clyde Tolson reported as saying, "I hope that someone shoots and kills the son of a bitch."[138]

It has been widely commented that Robert Kennedy's campaign for the American presidency outstripped, in its vision of social welfare that of President Kennedy; Robert's bid for the presidency saw not only a continuation of the programs he and his brother had undertaken during the President's term in office, but also an extension of these programs through what Robert viewed as an honest questioning of the historic progress that had been made by President Johnson.

Robert openly challenged young people who supported the war while benefiting from draft deferments,[citation needed] visited numerous small towns, and made himself available to the masses by participating in long motorcades and street-corner stump speeches, often in troubled inner-cities. He made urban poverty a chief concern of his campaign, which in part led to enormous crowds that would attend his events in poor urban areas or rural parts of Appalachia.

On April 4, 1968, Robert learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and gave a heartfelt impromptu speech in Indianapolis's inner city, calling for a reconciliation between the races. Riots broke out in 60 cities in the wake of King's death, but not in Indianapolis, a fact many attribute to the effect of this speech.[139] Robert attended King's funeral, accompanied by Jacqueline and Ted Kennedy; Robert is described as being the "only white politician to hear only cheers and applause."[140]

Robert won the Indiana Democratic primary on May 7 and the Nebraska primary on May 14, but lost the Oregon primary to McCarthy on May 28.[141] If he could defeat McCarthy in the California primary, the leadership of the campaign thought, he would knock McCarthy out of the race and set up a one-on-one against Hubert Humphrey at the Chicago national convention in August.


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Robert Kennedy scored a major victory in winning the California primary. He addressed his supporters shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, in a ballroom at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California.[142] Leaving the ballroom, he went through the hotel kitchen after being told it was a shortcut to a press room,[143] despite being advised to avoid the kitchen by his bodyguard, FBI agent Bill Barry. In a crowded kitchen passageway, Robert turned to his left and shook hands with busboy Juan Romero just as Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian,[144] opened fire with a .22-caliber revolver. Robert was hit three times and five other people also were wounded.[145]

George Plimpton, former decathlete Rafer Johnson, and former professional football player Rosey Grier are credited with wrestling Sirhan Sirhan to the ground after Sirhan shot the Senator.[146] As he lay wounded, Juan Romero cradled the senator's head and placed a rosary in his hand. Robert asked Romero, "Is everybody OK?" and Romero responded, "Yes, everybody's OK." Robert then turned away from Romero and said, "Everything's going to be OK."[147][148] After several minutes, medical attendants arrived and lifted the Senator onto a stretcher, prompting him to whisper, "Don't lift me..." which were to become his last words.[149][150] He lost consciousness shortly thereafter.[151] He was first rushed to Los Angeles's Central Receiving Hospital and then to the city's Good Samaritan Hospital where he died early the next morning.[152] Sirhan later said that he felt betrayed by his support for Israel in the June 1967 Six-Day War, which had begun exactly one year before the assassination.[153]

Robert Kennedy's body was returned to New York City, where it lay in repose at Saint Patrick's Cathedral from approximately 10:00 p.m. until 10:00 a.m. on June 8.[154] A high requiem mass attended by members of the extended Kennedy family, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson, and members of the Johnson Cabinet was held at St. Patrick's Cathedral at 10:00 a.m. on June 8.[155] Robert's brother Ted, the only surviving Kennedy brother, said the following:

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My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: 'Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.'[156]

Robert F. Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

The requiem mass concluded with the hymn "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", sung by Andy Williams.[157] Immediately following the mass, Robert's body was transported by a special private train to Washington, D.C. Thousands of mourners lined the tracks and stations along the route, paying their respects as the train passed. The train departed New York at 12:30 pm.[158] The normally four hour trip took more than eight because of the thick crowds lining the tracks on the 225 miles (362 km) journey.[159]

When the train arrived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, an eastbound train on a parallel track to the funeral train hit and killed two spectators after they were unable to get off the track in time even though the eastbound train's engineer had slowed to 30 mph for the normally 55 mph curve and had blown his horn continuously and rang his bell through the curve.[160][161][162] Scheduled to arrive at about 4:30 pm,[163][164] sticking brakes on the casket-bearing car also contributed to delays,[160] and the train arrived at 9:10 p.m. on June 8.[159]


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Robert Kennedy was buried close to his brother, President John F. Kennedy, in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia (just outside Washington, D.C.).[157] Although Robert had always maintained that he wished to be buried in Massachusetts, his family believed he should be interred in Arlington next to his brother.[165] The procession left Union Station and passed the New Senate Office Building, where he had his offices, and then proceeded to the Lincoln Memorial where it paused. The Marine Corps Band played The Battle Hymn of the Republic.[161] The funeral motorcade arrived at the cemetery at 10:24 pm. As it entered the cemetery, people lining the roadway spontaneously lit candles to guide the motorcade to the burial site.[161]

The 15-minute ceremony began at 10:30 p.m. Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, officiated at the graveside service in lieu of Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, who fell ill during the trip.[159] Also officiating was Archbishop of New York Terence Cooke.[161] John Glenn presented the folded flag on behalf of the United States to Senator Ted Kennedy, who passed it to Robert's eldest son Joe, who passed it to Ethel Kennedy. The Navy Band played The Navy Hymn.[161]

Arlington National Cemetery officials say that Robert Kennedy's burial was the only night burial to have taken place at the cemetery.[166] (The re-interment of Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, the infant son of President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline who died two days after birth in August 1963, and the couple's stillborn daughter Arabella, however, also occurred at night; after the president was interred in Arlington Cemetery, the two infants were buried next to their father on December 5, 1963, in a private ceremony without publicity.)[161]

On June 9, President Lyndon B. Johnson assigned security staff to all U.S. presidential candidates and declared an official national day of mourning. After the assassination, the mandate of the U.S. Secret Service was altered by Congress to include Secret Service protection of U.S. presidential candidates.

Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, built in 1971 across from his grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

Personal life


Robert Kennedy (middle) with brothers Ted (right) and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in July 1960.

On June 17, 1950, Robert F. Kennedy married socialite Ethel Skakel, the third daughter of businessman George and Ann Skakel (née Brannack) at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. The couple had eleven children; Kathleen (born 1951), Joseph (born 1952), Robert Jr. (born 1954), David (1955–1984), Courtney (born 1956), Michael (1958–1997), Kerry (born 1959), Christopher (born 1963), Max (born 1965), Douglas (born 1967), and Rory (born 1968). Rory was born the December after her father's assassination.[61]

Robert owned a home at the well-known Kennedy Compound on Cape Cod in Hyannis Port, but spent most of his time at his estate in McLean, Virginia, known as Hickory Hill, located west of Washington, D.C. His widow Ethel and their children continued to live at Hickory Hill after his death. She now lives full-time at the Hyannis Port home.

Attitudes and approach

He was said to be the gentlest and shyest of the family as well as the least articulate orally.[11] By the time Robert was a young boy, his grandmother Josie Fitzgerald worried he would become a "sissy"; his mother had a similar concern,[16] as he was the "smallest and thinnest", but soon after the family discovered "there was no fear of that."[167] Family friend Lem Billings met Robert when he was 8 and would later reflect that he loved him, adding that he "was the nicest little boy I ever met."[11] Billings also said he was barely noticed "in the early days, but that's because he didn't bother anybody."[5] Luella Hennessey, who became the nurse for the Kennedy children when Robert was 12, called him "the most thoughtful and considerate" of his siblings.[11]

Robert was teased by his siblings, as in the Kennedy family it was a norm for humor to be displayed in that fashion. He would turn jokes on himself or remain silent.[16] Despite his gentle demeanor, Robert could be outspoken, once engaging a priest in a public argument that horrified his mother, who later conceded that he had been correct all along. Even when arguing for a noble cause, his comments could have "a cutting quality".[168]

Despite the fact that his father's most ambitious dreams centered around his older brothers, Robert maintained the code of personal loyalty that seemed to infuse the life of the Kennedy family. His competitiveness was admired by his father and elder brothers, while his loyalty bound them more affectionately close. A rather timid child, Robert was often the target of his father's dominating temperament. Working on the campaigns of older brother Jack, he was more involved, passionate and tenacious than the candidate himself, obsessed with detail, fighting out every battle and taking workers to task. He had, all his life, been closer to Jack than the other members of the Kennedy family.[61]

Robert's opponents on Capitol Hill maintained that his collegiate magnanimity was sometimes hindered by a tenacious and somewhat impatient manner. His professional life was dominated by the selfsame attitudes that governed his family life—a certainty that good humor and leisure must be balanced by service and accomplishment. Schlesinger comments that Robert could be both the most ruthlessly diligent and yet generously adaptable of politicians—at once both temperamental and yet forgiving. In this, he was very much his father's son; lacking truly lasting emotional independence and yet possessing a great desire to contribute. He lacked the innate self-confidence of his contemporaries and yet found a greater self-assurance in the experience of married life, an experience that he stated had given him a base of self-belief from which to continue his efforts in the public arena.[61]

Upon hearing yet again the assertion that he was "ruthless", Robert once joked to a reporter, "If I find out who has called me ruthless I will destroy him." And yet he also openly confessed to possessing a bad temper that required self-control: "My biggest problem as counsel, is to keep my temper. I think we all feel that when a witness comes before the United States Senate he has an obligation to speak frankly and tell the truth. To see people sit in front of us and lie and evade makes me boil inside. But you can't lose your temper—if you do, the witness has gotten the best of you."[169]

Religious faith and Greek philosophy

Central to Robert's politics and personal attitude to life and its purpose was his Catholicism, which he inherited from his family. He was easily the most religious of his brothers.[61] Whereas Jack maintained an aloof sense of his faith, Robert approached his duties with a Catholic worldview. Throughout his life, h made reference to his faith, how it informed every area of his life, and how it gave him the strength to re-enter politics following the assassination of his elder brother. His was not an unresponsive and staid faith, but the faith of a Catholic Radical—perhaps the first successful Catholic Radical in American political history.[170]

In the last years of his life, he also found great solace in the metaphysical poets of ancient Greece, especially the writings of Aeschylus,[61] suggested to him by Jacqueline after JFK's death.[171] In his Indianapolis speech on April 4, 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby slightly misquoted[172] these lines from Aeschylus:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.[173]

Electoral history

1964 New York United States Senatorial Election

Robert F. Kennedy (D) 53.5%
Kenneth Keating (R) (inc.) 45.4%


Robert Kennedy was the first sibling of a President of the United States to serve as U.S. Attorney General. Biographer Evan Thomas wrote that he misused his powers at times by "modern standards", but concluded "on the whole, even counting his warts, he was a great attorney general."[174] Some of his successors as Attorney General have been unfavorably compared to him, as not displaying the same level of poise in the profession.[175][176] Near the end of his time in office, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder cited Robert Kennedy as the inspiration for his belief that the Justice Department could be "a force for that which is right."[177]

Robert Kennedy has also been praised for his oratory abilities. Joseph A. Palermo of The Huffington Post summarized that his words "could cut through social boundaries and partisan divides in a way that seems nearly impossible today."[178]


The Justice Department building being renamed in honor of Robert Kennedy.

Numerous roads, public schools, and other facilities across the United States were named in memory of Robert F. Kennedy in the months and years after his death.

The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights[179] was founded in 1968, with an international award program to recognize human rights activists.

The sports stadium D.C. Stadium in Washington, D.C., was renamed Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in 1969.

In 1978, the United States Congress awarded Robert Kennedy its Gold Medal of Honor.

In 1998, the United States Mint released a special dollar coin that featured his image on the obverse and the emblems of the United States Department of Justice and the United States Senate on the reverse.

On November 20, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft dedicated the Department of Justice headquarters building in Washington D.C. as the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, honoring Robert F. Kennedy on what would have been his 76th birthday. They both spoke during the ceremony, as did Robert's eldest son, Joseph.

The 1998 Robert F. Kennedy special dollar coin.

In a further effort to not just remember the late Senator, but continue his work helping disadvantaged, a small group of private citizens launched the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps in 1969, which today helps more than 800 abused and neglected children each year.

A bust of RFK resides in the library of the University of Virginia School of Law, from where he obtained his law degree.

On June 4, 2008, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of his assassination, the New York State Assembly voted to rename the Triborough Bridge in New York City the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge. New York State Governor David Paterson signed the legislation into law on August 8, 2008.[180] The bridge is now commonly known as the RFK-Triborough Bridge.

Personal items and documents from his office in the Justice Department Building are displayed in a permanent exhibit dedicated to him in the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. RFK's papers from his years as attorney general, senator, peace and civil rights activist, and presidential candidate as well as personal correspondence are also housed in the library.[181]

Kennedy and King

Several public institutions jointly honor Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • In 1969, the former Woodrow Wilson Junior College, a two-year institution and a constituent campus of the City Colleges of Chicago, was renamed Kennedy–King College.
  • In 1994, the City of Indianapolis erected the Landmark for Peace Memorial in Robert Kennedy's honor near the space made famous by his oration from the back of a pickup truck the night King died. The monument in Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park depicts a sculpture of RFK reaching out from a large metal slab to a sculpture of King, who is part of a similar slab.[182] This is meant to symbolize their attempts in life to bridge the gaps between the races—an attempt that united them even in death. A state historical marker has also been placed at the site.[183] A nephew of King and Indiana U.S. Congresswoman Julia Carson presided over the event; both made speeches from the back of a pickup truck in similar fashion to RFK's speech.[184]


Robert Kennedy wrote extensively on politics and current events:



Documentary filmmaker DA Pennebaker made several films featuring Robert Kennedy. His short film Jingle Bells (1964) follows Robert and his children as they celebrate Christmas in New York City with local school children and Sammy Davis, Jr. His later film Hickory Hill documents the 1968 Annual Spring Pet Show at Hickory Hill, the Kennedy Virginia estate.

In 1970 ABC-TV presented the David L. Wolper film The Journey of Robert F. Kennedy, narrated by John Huston.

The 2008 film A Ripple of Hope is a documentary that retells his call for peace during a campaign stop in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, the night of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. [185]

The 2010 film RFK in the Land of Apartheid: A Ripple of Hope is a documentary that follows his five-day visit to South Africa in June 1966, during which he made his famous Ripple of Hope speech at the University of Cape Town.[186]

The 2012 documentary film Ethel about the life of Ethel Kennedy recounts many of the major personal and political events of Robert Kennedy's life, through interviews with family members including Ethel herself, and news footage.

Films and television

Robert Kennedy's role in the Cuban Missile Crisis has been dramatized by Martin Sheen in the 1974 TV playThe Missiles of October and by Steven Culp in Thirteen Days (2000).

He is portrayed by John Shea in the 1983 TV miniseries Kennedy.

The 1985 three part TV mini-series Robert Kennedy & His Times stars Brad Davis and is based on the book of the same title by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

He was portrayed in Hoffa (1992) by Kevin Anderson, and by Željko Ivanek in the 1998 HBO film The Rat Pack.

The 2002 made-for-TV movie RFK portrays his life from the time of his brother's assassination to his own death. He is played by Linus Roache.

The 2006 film Bobby is the story of multiple people's lives leading up to the RFK assassination. The film employs stock footage from his presidential campaign, and he is briefly portrayed by Dave Fraunces.

Barry Pepper won an Emmy for his portrayal of Robert Kennedy in The Kennedys, an 8-part 2011 miniseries.

In the 2011 biographical movie J. Edgar, RFK is played by Jeffrey Donovan.[187]

He will be played by Peter Sarsgaard in the upcoming film about Jacqueline Kennedy, Jackie.

The arts

In 1967, Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko met with Robert Kennedy and in 1968 wrote a poem about him, "Я пристрелен эпохой" ("I was shot by an epoch").

Robert Lowell wrote several poems about Robert Kennedy, his elegy for him included the line 'doom was woven in your nerves'.[61]

The Rolling Stones began recording the song "Sympathy for the Devil" on June 4, 1968, continuing into the next day, with overdubs done on the 8th, 9th and 10th.[188] The original lyrics had the line "I shouted out 'Who killed Kennedy?'", and this was changed to "I shouted out 'Who killed the Kennedys?'"[189]

The British playwright Roy Smiles' play about RFK's 1968 presidential campaign, The Last Pilgrim, was staged in London in 2010. It was shortlisted for Best Play at the Off West End Awards in the UK in 2011.

See also


  1. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  2. Hilty, p. 18.
  3. David Nasaw, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P, Kennedy, Penguin Press (2012), pp 584, 602–3, 671.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Thomas, pp. 37-40.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
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  7. Mills, p. 23.
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  9. Oppenheimer, Jerry. The Other Mrs. Kennedy, p. 307.
  10. Hilty, pp. 23-24.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Schlesinger, pp. 21-23.
  12. Hilty, p. 28.
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  15. Schlesinger, p. 30.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 Thomas, pp. 30-31.
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  18. 18.0 18.1 Hilty, p. 38.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 Mills, pp. 34-35.
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  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Mills, pp. 18-19.
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  44. Schlesinger (1978) p. 101
  45. C. David Heymann, RFK (1998) p. 60
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  82. Herst, Burton, (2007) pp 372–374
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  86. Ayers, Edward. Gould, Lewis. Oshinsky, David. (2008). American Passages: A History of the United States: Since 1865, Vol. 2, Cengage Learning, p. 853.
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  89. Thomas, p. 298.
  90. Schlesinger 2002, pp. 317–320.
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  100. January 4, 1975, memorandum of conversation between President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, made available by the National Security Archive, June 2007
  101. CIA's 'family jewels' on show, The Daily Telegraph, June 23, 2007
  102. Schlesinger 2002 (reprint), pp. 493–494.
  103. Schlesinger, "The Cuban Connection", Robert Kennedy and His Times
  104. Clarity Through Complexity, October 2000,, Retrieved June 10, 2007
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  118. Jeff Shesol, Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade (2012)
  119. Robert A. Caro, The Passage of Power (2012) pp. 61-63, 243-249.
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  136. Newfield, Jack. (1969;1988). Robert Kennedy: A Memoir. Plume
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  138. Clyde Tolson, qu. in: Thurston Clarke, 'The Last Good Campaign', Vanity Fair, No. 574, June 2008, p. 173.
  139. See e.g. Statement of Mayor Bart Peterson April 4, 2006 press release.[dead link]
  140. Clarke, p. 129.
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  150. Clarke 2008, p. 275
  151. Witcover 1969, p. 273
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  153. | Part II: Why Sirhan Sirhan Assassinated Robert Kennedy by Mel Ayton |
  154. Lukas, J. Anthony. "Kennedy's Body Is Flown Here For Funeral Rites." New York Times. June 7, 1968.
  155. Shipler, David K. "Family Serves in Funeral Mass." New York Times. June 9, 1968; Kilpatrick, Carroll. "Johnsons Attend Kennedy Services." Washington Post. June 9, 1968.
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  158. "Kennedy Rites Are Announced." Washington Post. June 7, 1968.
  159. 159.0 159.1 159.2 Reed, Roy. "Thousands Visit Kennedy's Grave on Day of Mourning." New York Times. June 10, 1968.
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  163. White, Jean M. "Kennedy to Be Buried Near Brother." Washington Post. June 7, 1968.
  164. Madden, Richard L. "Kennedy Will Be Buried a Few Steps From the Arlington Grave of His Brother." New York Times. June 8, 1968.
  165. Martin, p. 19; Barnes, p. 289.
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  168. Hilty, pp. 51-52.
  169. Schlesinger, p. 150.
  170. Schlesinger, p. 191 Cf. Murray Kempton, The Progressive, September 1960.
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  172. RFK's version compared to 2 by Edith Hamilton
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  179. RFK Memorial
  180. Newsday article about the rename.
  181. [1]
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  184. "Assassination: The Night Bobby Kennedy was Shot". The Independent (London). January 21, 2007. Retrieved May 5, 2009.
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  187. Fleming, Mike (March 8, 2011). "Jeffrey Donovan Playing RFK in 'J. Edgar'". Retrieved March 8, 2011.
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  • Barnes, John A. Irish-American Landmarks. Canton, Mich.: Visible Ink, 1995.
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  • Grubin, David, director and producer, RFK. Video. (DVD, VHS). 2hr. WGBH Educ. Found. and David Grubin Productions, 2004. Distrib. by PBS Video
  • Hilty, James M. Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector (1997), vol. 1 to 1963. Temple U. Press., 1997.
  • Martin, Zachary J. The Mindless Menace of Violence: Robert F. Kennedy's Vision and the Fierce Urgency of Now. Lanham, Md.: Hamilton Books, 2009.
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. RFK's speech after the death of Martin Luther King in 1968.
  • Navasky, Victor S. Kennedy Justice (1972). Argues the policies of RFK's Justice Department show the conservatism of justice, the limits of charisma, the inherent tendency in a legal system to support the status quo, and the counterproductive results of many of Kennedy's endeavors in the field of civil rights and crime control.
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
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  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. National Book Award.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur, M. Jr. (2002 re-print), Robert Kennedy And His Times, Mariner Books-Houghton Mifflin Co., ISBN 0-618-21928-5
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. ISBN 1-55849-730-7
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  • Schmitt, Edward R. President of the Other America: Robert Kennedy and the Politics of Poverty (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) 324 pp. ISBN 978-1-55849-730-6
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External links

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Legal offices
Preceded by U.S. Attorney General
Served under: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson

Succeeded by
Nicholas Katzenbach
United States Senate
Preceded by U.S. Senator (Class 1) from New York
Served alongside: Jacob K. Javits
Succeeded by
Charles E. Goodell
Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic Nominee, United States Senate (Class 1), New York
Succeeded by
Richard Ottinger

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