Chris Matthews on RFK’s Run for Redemption
Chris Matthews’ new biography of RFK is a needed reminder that politics can be a noble profession where flawed heroes can improve and strive for the greater good.
There have been 105 books written about Robert F. Kennedy since his death—more than two for every year the man lived. So you'd be forgiven for asking why the world needs another tome about RFK. But Hardball’s Chris Matthews has provided an excellent addition to the canon with his new book, Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit.
It is essentially a tribal biography, punctuated by personal reminiscence, rooted in a raconteur's love for politics and deeply informed by the cultural catechism of the Irish-Catholic community.
As Matthews explains, Bobby’s foundational Catholic faith was “hierarchical and mysterious and was meant to be as strict in its observance as in its devotion. Bobby loved it.”
This world of heroes and villains inspired a politics of moral clarity, sometimes wrong but rarely in doubt. It also offered a vision of suffering as ennobling to the soul, and helped Bobby expand his empathy and compassion for the downtrodden and dispossessed with whom the millionaire's son endearingly identified. It’s telling that when Bobby set his sights on winning over Ethel Skakel, a young beauty who was considering the convent, Bobby despaired to a friend, “How can I compete with God?” But he did and would throughout his life.
The younger Bobby could be a mess of contradictions, compassionate and ruthlessly competitive. As a UVA law student, he protested the school’s segregated policy on behalf of the pioneering African-American Ambassador Ralph Bunche. But he also found common cause for a time with Senator Joe McCarthy, serving as a member of his investigative staff. He was an ardent anti-communist as a matter of political and religious faith, but he wearied of McCarthy's erratic behavior and fact-free obsessions and had particular contempt for Roy Cohn as a duplicitous and preening rival.
Matthews, of course, luxuriates in raw politics. In the dozen or so RFK books I’ve read over the years, I’ve never seen more detailed appreciation of the management style Bobby brought to his brother’s campaigns. He enjoyed making crisp decisions and loathed inefficiency in all its forms, and he was capable of corralling both his gregarious brother and their imperious and often meddling father. Characteristically, Matthews spends significantly more time on Bobby's agonizing over whether to get in the 1968 presidential race than he does on the assassination in Dallas.
More than his brother, Bobby was motivated by moral conflicts and the search for meaning in fighting for the right. His showdown with the mobbed-up Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa is recounted with blood-boiling detail, from witness intimidation to defiance of justice in all its forms. Legendary New York columnist Murray Kempton said RFK recognized in Hoffa “a general fanaticism for evil that could be thought of as the opposite side of his own fanaticism for good, and therefore involved direct combat.”
Flashes of humor humanize the icon. As attorney general, RFK said to staffers in the Justice Department, "I started in the department as a young lawyer in 1950. The salary was only $4,000 a year, but I worked hard. I was ambitious, I studied, I applied myself and then my brother was elected president of the United States." Then Matthews' deftly pivots to a reference to one of his principles from his early Hardball aphorisms on politics, "That way of meeting the nepotism issue head-on fell into the category he liked to refer to as ‘hanging a lantern on your problem.’”
Matthews loves the research and writing of books himself, without the crutch of ghostwriters that many of his fellow anchors rely upon to build their brands. His debut effort, Kennedy and Nixon, deserves to be considered a modern classic. Matthews’ distinctive voice rings throughout this latest history, making it more personal, a fan’s notes. So we get a glimpse of a long-forgotten 15‑minute televised debate about America in the eyes of the world conducted between then Senator Kennedy and soon-to-be Governor Reagan. We hear Nixon channeling bad vibes when Bobby got in the 1968 race by saying, "Something bad is going to come of this. God knows where this is going to lead."
His final crusade for the presidency is recounted with the rush of possibility. Eager, grasping crowds clustered around the candidate, treating him like a redemptive rock star, inspired by RFK’s ability to unite while confronting injustice. RFK’s speech telling a predominately African-American crowd in Indiana about the assassination of Martin Luther King remains a chilling and compassionate classic of American politics, capped by the candidate quoting Aeschylus from memory: “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.”
The reading in which he immersed himself to get out of grief inspired his political evolution, like Camus’ essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” which turned him against capital punishment. There is the still-brave pro-gun control speech he gave in rural Roseburg, Oregon, speaking to a skeptical audience of hunters. Does it make any sense, Kennedy asked, "that you should put rifles and guns in the hands of people who have long criminal records, of people who are insane, of people who are mentally incompetent or people who are so young they don't know how to handle rifles and guns?" His courageous candor received jeers from the crowd. But then in San Francisco days later, he was spat upon by hippies and called “a fascist pig.”
While Mathews stays away from sketching the painful details of Kennedy's assassination in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, his recounting of conversations that evening are haunting, as when RFK said to longtime Kennedy aide Kenny O’Donnell, “You know, I feel now for the first time that I’ve shaken off the shadow of my brother. I feel I made it on my own.”
Minutes before hope turned to tragedy, RFK’s final speech retains its urgency almost a half-century later. He was running to "bring the country back together … [but] if the division continues, we're going to have nothing but chaos and havoc here in the United States.”
Bobby Kennedy’s life retains the ability to inspire because there was a principled purity to his politics, heightened by his own evolution through life, achieving grace through suffering. Chris Matthews evocatively brings the man and his moment back to life. It is a story that needs to be told again as a heroic counterpoint to the Trump era’s fundamental disrespect for the idea that politics can be a noble profession.