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Book Review: Robert Kennedy – His Life by Evan Thomas

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Any discussion of Barack Obama's message of hope would not be complete without the inclusion of Robert Kennedy, whose life was cut short by an assassin's bullet on June 5, 1968 at the age of 42. Award-winning journalist and Newsweek assistant managing editor Evan Thomas chronicles the life of this peculiar man who lives on in contemporary mythology as a figure of tragedy and a symbol of unfulfilled greatness. Drawing on unprecedented access to Robert Kennedy's personal papers, Thomas (who shares the same alma mater as his subject, University of Virginia School of Law), creates the most definitive biography of RFK since Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Robert Kennedy and His Times.

Thomas details Kennedy’s life from his unpromising beginnings as the third son of former Ambassador to England and businessman Joe Kennedy; his rise to power as Attorney General to his brother President John F. Kennedy; his fall from grace following his brother’s death in 1963; his career as a US Senator; and finally, his entrance into the 1968 presidential race under the banner of the Democratic Party.

Insightfully, Thomas examines the transformation of Kennedy through various stages of his life. Kennedy was not a perfect man by any measure, but the circumstances surrounding his life brought out the one thing he was least prepared for: direct leadership. Thomas cites that most of RFK's life had been in the shadows, operating behind-the-scenes, and staying out the limelight in favor of his brother's political ambitions. When the President was dead, Kennedy had two choices: to withdraw from political life, or to capitalize on his dead brother's martyrdom.

He opted, albeit subconsciously, for a third alternative, borne out of an existentialist nature: he suffered, experienced much about loss, and ultimately, in his pain, connected with the American people and much of the world in a way that few other politicians ever could. Thomas' excellent perspective on the matured Kennedy's multi-faceted, often self-contradicting personality gives the reader a closer look at the man who could have been a great President. In this sense, His Life reads like a classical Greek tragedy, like the many that Robert Kennedy himself carried around for inspiration.

Relevant now more than ever, His Life gives readers a profound glimpse into a man who really promised hope in the turbulent world he lived in, but who never had a chance to carry his message into action. To fully appreciate the meaning of hope and change, read and re-read this excellent book.

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About Clarence Yu

  • It is so strange having read this book review. When Barack Obama was running for president I had read a newspaper article comparing him to JFK and making the point that there were more parallels to Robert Kennedy than to Jack. I decided to learn more about RFK and this book was the first thing I read about him. Thinking back on his short life and watching the current state of American politics, I can’t help but feel that the nation was dealt a serious blow that it may never truly recover from when Robert Kennedy was murdered. Evan Thomas’ book was very well written and only deepened my curiosity about this man who, to my mind, is the definition of the word multifaceted. Robert Kennedy was something that no politician has been since he was shot. He was honest with the people. He didn’t know or have all the answers and wasn’t shy about telling you that. He gave off the feeling that he didn’t exactly know what to do but, if you were willing to sacrifice, to work with him to figure out the problems facing the nation, that we could come through togther. That…hesitating, that questioning is something that American politics has been lacking to the nation’s detriment. I don’t know if he would have been elected but his message was truly admirable. This was an excellent book about an extraordinary man who never got the chance he deserved to prove himself and it was the nation’s loss. Think of what happened after his assassination. 7 more years in Vietnam, Watergate, the Reagan Revolution, and of course 8 years of the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush. Imagine what could have been if, in the history books it read President Robert Kennedy.

  • Thanks for your comments! As the book reads, RFK lives in the world of “What ifs,” and it is fascinating to imagine a world if this man was elected President.

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