14 Surprising Facts About Robert F. Kennedy

George Freston/Getty Images
George Freston/Getty Images

Most Americans will know Robert F. Kennedy as the younger brother of our 35th president, a U.S. attorney general on the vanguard of civil rights, the junior Senator from New York who fought against poverty, and a Democratic candidate for president in 1968. Sadly, his life was cut short by an assassin 50 years ago today, on June 5, 1968, after celebrating his California primary victory at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Here are 14 little-known facts worth remembering about RFK.

1. HE WORKED FOR SENATOR JOE McCARTHY, AND ALMOST HAD ROY COHN'S JOB.

RFK's father Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the former U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, had asked Senator McCarthy to appoint his son as chief counsel of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy opted instead for Roy Cohn, who had helped convict atomic bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951. RFK was named assistant counsel in December of 1952, but resigned the following summer. In early 1954, he rejoined the committee when the Democrats appointed him minority counsel.

2. HE MAY HAVE PREVENTED A RIOT AFTER MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. WAS KILLED.

On April 4, 1968, RFK was campaigning in Indianapolis, Indiana when he heard that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. He told a largely African-American crowd at his campaign stop the news, and in a personal, improvised speech [PDF], defused some of the tension that in other cities led to violent riots. "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”

3. HE WASN'T ABOVE A BAR FIGHT.

RFK was known to have a hot temper. "Shortly after his 21st birthday, Kennedy celebrated by buying his first beer. Soon he was buying rounds for everyone in the bar," Evan Thomas writes in Robert Kennedy: His Life. "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."

4. HE INSPIRED JERRY SPRINGER (THE MAN, NOT THE SHOW).

Before Jerry Springer became the host of his eponymous show, he served as the mayor of Cleveland and unsuccessfully ran for Congress—events that might not have happened if it weren't for RFK, then the Senator from New York. In 1968, during RFK's campaign for president, Springer met the candidate at a dinner meeting and was impressed by his desire for social change. Springer signed up for the campaign, and after Kennedy's assassination, kept the slain candidate's mission alive in his career in public service.

5. HE DEBATED RONALD REAGAN IN 1967.

On 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." Students from around the world who were studying at British universities submitted the questions from London.

"To those unfamiliar with Reagan's big-league savvy, the ease with which he fielded questions about Vietnam may have come as a revelation," Newsweek gushed. "Political rookie Reagan ... left old campaigner Kennedy blinking when the session ended." A 2007 article in the conservative-leaning magazine National Review commented that "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 Mankiewicz was that aide." Later, Mankiewicz would announce Kennedy's death in the early hours of June 6, 1968.

6. HE WAS THE FIRST TO CLIMB MOUNT KENNEDY.

In 1965, on an excursion sponsored by the National Geographic Society, RFK and a team of climbers reached the summit of the 14,000-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 months earlier.

Later, RFK was zinged by his brother Ted in a quote given to UPI: "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.

With RFK as his campaign manager, John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination for president in 1960 with just enough votes, despite a last-ditch effort by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson and his supporters to stop him. To smooth relations in the party, JFK asked Johnson to be his vice president—and, according to RFK, Johnson shocked the Kennedy campaign by accepting. "Now what do we do?' JFK supposedly asked his brother. Although historians differ as to his motivation, RFK went to Johnson's hotel room to talk him out of it, but that awkward move only intensified the animosity. Finally, JFK called Johnson to say he really did want him on the ticket, and that Bobby didn't know what he was talking about.

8. HIS HOUSE WAS A ZOO.

In August of 1962, The New York Times wrote about Attorney General Kennedy's dog Brumus, who was a regular visitor to the Justice Department. (The article states he is "a Labrador dog," but other sources claim he was a Newfoundland.) "He usually stays at home with the children," Kennedy told the paper. "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." In addition to Brumus (spelled Brumis in some accounts), The Times mentions the rest of the Kennedy family pets: "two other dogs, ponies, horses, geese, a burro, a sea lion, Hungarian pigeons, 20 goldfish, rabbits, turtles and a salamander."

9. HE REPEATED THE THIRD GRADE.

An unauthorized biography of Ethel Kennedy, RFK's wife, relates an event at which she revealed her husband's elementary school shortcomings. "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," author Jerry Oppenheimer wrote.

10. HE WAS ONE OF AMERICA'S 10 OUTSTANDING YOUNG MEN OF 1954.

Time listed the honorees named by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, which started off with 29-year-old RFK. The chamber praised his work as the minority counsel of Joe McCarthy's Senate Subcommittee on Investigations (see #1), and specifically 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.

"At his brother Jack's wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier in September 1953, Bobby had behaved like a naughty teenager, stealing a policeman's hat," Thomas writes in Robert Kennedy: His Life. "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."

12. HE'S BEEN PORTRAYED BY EVERYONE FROM MARTIN SHEEN TO ANDREW McCARTHY.

Martin Sheen, in The Missiles of October, and Andrew McCarthy, in the TV movie Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, are just two of the many actors to play RFK. Lesser-known stars include Stephen Culp (Thirteen Days and Norma Jean & Marilyn), Zeljko Ivanek (TV movie The Rat Pack), John Shea (1983 miniseries Kennedy; Martin Sheen played JFK in this one), and Robert Knepper (The Women of Camelot).

13. HE SHARED AN INTEREST IN STAMP COLLECTING WITH FDR.

Eleven-year-old RFK was a budding philatelist, a hobby he shared with then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Your dad has told me that you are a stamp collector and I thought you might like to have these stamps to add to your collection. I am enclosing a little album which you may find useful," Roosevelt wrote to Bobby on July 12, 1935. "Perhaps sometime when you are in Washington you will come in and let me show you my collection."

Bobby replied, "I liked the stamps you sent me very much and the little book is very useful. I am just starting my collection and it would be great fun to see yours which mother says you have had for a long time. I am going to frame your letter and I am going to keep it always in my room." The letters are now in the National Archives.

14. SOME SAY HE GOT AROUND.

Like with his brother, the trashier histories of RFK link him romantically to several prominent figures, such as Marilyn Monroe, Candice Bergen, sister-in-law Jackie, and even ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. But these stories are debated, because many of the so-called witnesses were either second-hand storytellers or had a beef with the Kennedys.

The Time the U.S. Government Planned to Nuke Alaska

iStock.com/mesut zengin
iStock.com/mesut zengin

In the 1950s, the idea of harnessing nuclear power was a bit of a public relations disaster. The world at large knew nuclear bombs only as tools of mass death and destruction. But if the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—later the Department of Energy—had its way, nuclear explosions would have been reinvented as peacetime assets to humanity.

As proof of concept, the AEC planned to nuke Alaska.

Atlas Obscura details the plot, which reads almost as farce. In the late 1950s, the AEC was developing Project Plowshare, a plan to repurpose thermonuclear weapons to change the literal face of the Earth. Imagine blasting through mountains to create railways or widening the Panama Canal. The instantaneous landscape shifts caused by such weapons were economically attractive—saving on labor costs—and might also provide access to natural resources like oil. The excavation and fracking potential seemed limitless.

In 1958, the AEC and physicist Edward Teller proposed the first step in this bold new direction: Project Chariot. The plan was to detonate a 1-megaton H-bomb near Cape Thompson in Alaska along with several other, smaller explosions to create a crater 1000 feet in diameter and 110 feet deep. The resulting deepwater harbor would facilitate mineral mining and fishing access. The U.S. government rhapsodized about the idea in the media, claiming the then-contemporary weapons had low fallout and would create a port that would be nothing but a net gain for Alaskans.

Residents, however, met these plans with a degree of skepticism. The Inuit population who lived nearby and would have to cope with the radioactive consequences of such a scheme voiced their opposition to the idea. They pointed to earlier test blasts that showed radioactivity showering the vicinity. In 1954, a blast in the Bikini Atoll had a nuclear fallout of 7000 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. Owing to such tests, the Inuit were already demonstrating heightened radioactivity levels. So were the caribou they ingested. The notion of a “clean” nuclear bomb was something no one wanted to test with their own life.

Project Chariot never materialized, and the idea of wielding nuclear power to replace manual labor was laid to rest by 1977.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Vermont and Maine Are Replacing Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples' Day

David Ryder/Getty Images
David Ryder/Getty Images

The narrative surrounding Christopher Columbus has shifted in recent years, leading some U.S. states and cities to reconsider glorifying the figure with his own holiday. If the governors of Vermont and Maine sign their new bills into law, the two states will become the latest places to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day, CNN reports.

In 1971, the Uniform Holiday Bill went into effect, officially designating Columbus Day as a federal holiday to be celebrated on the second Monday of October. The holiday was originally meant to recognize the "discovery" of America—a version of history that erases the people already living on the continent when Columbus arrived and ignores the harm he inflicted.

As Columbus's popularity decreases in the U.S., some places have embraced Indigenous Peoples' Day: A day dedicated to Native American culture in history. The holiday is already observed in Seattle, Washington; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Alaska. Earlier this year, Sandusky, Ohio announced they would swap Columbus Day for Voting Day and give municipal workers the election Tuesday of November off instead.

Indigenous Peoples' Day has been celebrated in place of Columbus Day in Vermont for the past few years, but a new bill would make the change permanent. The Vermont state legislature has voted yes on the bill, and now it just needs approval from Governor Phil Scott, which he says he plans to give. If he passes the law, it will go into effect on October 14, 2019 (the date Columbus Day falls on this year).

Maine voted on a similar bill in March, and it gained approval from both the state's Senate and House of Representatives. Like Governor Scott, Maine governor Janet Mills plans on signing her state's bill and making the holiday official.

Regardless of the legal status of Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples' Day celebrations take place across the country every October. South Dakota hosts Native American Day festivities at the Crazy Horse Memorial each year, and in Seattle, Indigenous Peoples celebrations last a whole week.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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