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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.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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language
6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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