14 Stories You May Not Know About Robert F. Kennedy

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My wife was away last weekend, leaving the dog and me to fend for ourselves. What wild and crazy stuff went on in her absence? Well, after watching a two-hour American Experience documentary on the life of Robert Kennedy, I rented Bobby and borrowed a few RFK biographies. Oh, and I ordered Baja Fresh. Take-out. Raucous, indeed.

I learned a lot "“ and not just about how un-fun I've become. Here are fourteen of the tidbits I stumbled across.

1. He worked for Senator Joe McCarthy, and almost had Roy Cohn's job.

Picture-11.jpgJoe Kennedy had asked Senator McCarthy to appoint his son as staff director of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy opted instead for Roy Cohn, who had helped convict atomic bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (and would be portrayed by Al Pacino in Angels in America a half-century later). Kennedy was appointed Assistant Counsel in December of 1952, but resigned the following summer. In January of 1954, he rejoined the committee when the Democrats appointed him Minority Counsel. [Source]

2. He may have prevented an Indianapolis riot the night Dr. King was killed.

3. He wasn't above a bar fight.

"Shortly after his twenty-first birthday, Kennedy celebrated by buying his first beer. Soon he was buying rounds for everyone in the bar. Some of the patrons began singing 'Happy Birthday' to someone else, and Kennedy, inebriated for the first time in his life, became enraged at their ingratitude. He smashed a beer bottle over one man's head and refused entreaties by [Kenneth] O'Donnell to apologize." [Source]

4. He inspired Jerry Springer (the man, not the show).

"In 1968, [Springer's] life changed during a dinner meeting with then New York Senator Robert Kennedy, who was running for president behind the force of social change. Springer signed on with the Kennedy campaign, but shortly thereafter felt the horror of Kennedy's assassination along with the rest of the world. That moment in history compelled him to the political action he has never abandoned." [Source]

5. He debated Ronald Reagan in 1967.

RFK-Reagan1.jpgOn May 15, 1967, the giants of the left and right met on CBS News. The topic: "The Image of America and the Youth of the World." This debate, which featured questions from students in London, is not mentioned in any of the great Kennedy biographies (well, at least not Robert Kennedy: His Life, Robert Kennedy and His Times or Up Close.)

Newsweek called Reagan the victor: "To those unfamiliar with Reagan's big-league savvy, the ease with which he fielded questions about Vietnam may have come as a revelation." They continued: "Political rookie Reagan...left old campaigner Kennedy blinking when the session ended." According to the National Review, "Kennedy himself conceded defeat to Reagan, telling his aides after the debate to never again put him on the same stage with 'that son-of-a-bitch.' Kennedy was heard to ask immediately after the debate, 'Who the f—- got me into this?' Frank Mankiewitz was that aide, as Kennedy was quick to remind him a few weeks later: 'You're the guy who got me into that Reagan thing.'"

[You can read the complete transcript and score it yourself.]

6. He was the first to climb Mount Kennedy.

mountkennedy.jpgIn 1965, with a three-man team on an excursion sponsored by the National Geographic Society, RFK reached the summit of the 13,000 foot Canadian mountain. He had no previous climbing experience. Up to that point, Mount Kennedy was the highest unclimbed peak in North America. It had been named after President John F. Kennedy earlier that year.

RFK was zinged by his brother Ted in a quote given to The New York Times: "I wish to point out for the record he is not the first Kennedy to climb a mountain. I climbed the Matterhorn in 1957, which is higher, and I didn't need the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

7. He tried to talk LBJ out of the VP job he'd already accepted.

JFK-LBJ.jpgFrom the PBS.org companion to the aforementioned American Experience piece: "At around 11 a.m. on the day a nominee was to be presented, John Kennedy visited Johnson in his hotel suite and offered him the [VP] job. Robert Kennedy maintained afterward that his brother offered the job to Johnson only as a courtesy, and then felt trapped when he accepted. 'Now what do we do?' the candidate asked, then answered by sending Bobby back to talk Johnson out of it. Around 4 p.m., with tensions running high all around, John Kennedy called Johnson to assure him he was the one. Ignore Bobby, he said, because 'he's been out of touch and doesn't know what's happening.'" [Here's a YouTube montage of awkward moments between RFK and LBJ.]

8. His house was a zoo.

rfkdog.jpgIn August of 1962, The New York Times wrote about Attorney General Kennedy's dog Brumus (not sure if that's him in the photo), who was a regular visitor to the Justice Department. "He usually stays at home with the children," Kennedy explained. "But the children are away on vacation and he gets very lonely. So I bring him down here and get pretty girls to take him for walks." The article ended by listing the rest of Kennedy's animal friends: "two other dogs, ponies, horses, geese, a burro, a sea lion (!?), Hungarian pigeons, twenty goldfish, rabbits, turtles and a salamander."

9. He repeated the third grade.

"In Berlin, at the German-American community school, Ethel urged a group of third-graders not to be discouraged if they did not always do well at their lessons. 'After all, Bobby had to repeat third grade,' she said brightly, a fact that had never appeared in any of the history books. Ethel's revelation embarrassed and annoyed the Attorney General." [Source]

10. He was one of America's Ten Outstanding Young Men of 1954.

Time listed the honorees named by the Junior Chamber of Commerce: "Lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, 29, younger brother of Senator John Kennedy, and minority counsel of Joe McCarthy's Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, for assembling the facts which persuaded owners of 242 vessels not to trade with Iron Curtain countries."

11. He and Ted embarrassed the family at JFK's wedding.

rfk-ted-jfk.jpg"At his brother Jack's wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier in September 1953, Bobby had behaved like a naughty teenager, stealing a policeman's hat. Joe Kennedy was furious. He summoned Bobby and his co-conspirators, his brother Teddy and some younger cousins, and gave them a lecture about disgracing the family name." [Source]

12. He's been portrayed by everyone from Martin Sheen to Andrew McCarthy.

RFKs.jpg
Sheen (The Missiles of October) and McCarthy (TV movie Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis) are just two of many actors to play RFK. IMDb has the complete list, which includes Stephen Culp (Thirteen Days and Norma Jean & Marilyn; he's pictured above), Zeljko Ivanek (TV movie The Rat Pack), John Shea (1983 miniseries Kennedy; Martin Sheen played JFK), and Robert Knepper (The Women of Camelot).

13. Some say he got around.

Like his brother, RFK was romantically linked to several prominent figures "“ from Marilyn Monroe to Candice Bergen, sister-in-law Jackie O. to male ballerina Rudolf Nureyev. Though these stories came from the trashier novels. We can't confirm. I wasn't there.

14. He's not forgotten by the social networking crowd.

His 1968 campaign has a MySpace page. RFK Facebook groups include the Bobby Kennedy Fan Club, Bobby Kennedy's Vision, and even a fantasy group called RFK Wins California, Midwest to Defeat Nixon, 283-209. (I'm pretty sure these links will only work for Facebook users.)

If you've got an RFK story not listed here, by all means leave a comment. And let me thank my favorite library scientist friend, who helped find sources for all these facts.

November 2, 2007 - 3:40am
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