Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Our book today is "Brothers - The Untold History of the Kennedy Years" by David Talbot, and it must be said up front that this is a disturbingly silly work of psuedo-history. The disturbing part and the silly part both merit their own discussions, naturally.

The king of a sunlit country appoints his younger brother to be his justiciary. The king is then killed, and the justiciary swears a vow of inhuman intensity to avenge his brother's death. It's the stuff that Greek tragedies, medieval morality plays, and Stan Lee comic books are based on.

Talbot has such a scenario in mind when he asks the animating question of his book about the relationship between John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy before and especially after the former's assassination in Dallas: what steps, if any, did Robert Kennedy take to avenge - or even investigate - is brother's murder?

Robert Kennedy didn't become Doctor Doom; the answer to the above question is, damningly and unhelpfully, nothing.
The truth of the matter is simple, though equally unhelpful: Bobby Kennedy, despite the depth of his fierce intellect (a personality trait pumped up by his various biographers as a way to differentiate him from his more famous brother, although in reality JFK was all along the smarter of the two; the 'fierce intellect' of RFK was ever and always overcompensation), partook in full measure of his family's ingrained Irish fatalism. In that medium, the violent death of his brother melded into the violent deaths of so many of the rest of his family before him, most especially his eldest brother young Joe and his older sister Kathleen.

This is where the problem seeps in, for Talbot and anybody else who hasn't grown up in an Irish Catholic family: the concept of a family's DOOM pursuing it, regardless of anything anybody can do. Regardless, that is, of anything anybody can commission or investigate. Bobby Kennedy publically endorsed the Warren Commission and refused to talk about the subject beyond that.

David Talbot comes smack up against that wall, and he seems to know that the book he wants to write is on the other side of it. Not ANY book on the relationship between the Kennedy brothers - far from it, several very good books have been written in part or in whole on that subject (although since Talbot refers to their relationship as a 'life partnership' and that they were 'best friends,' both concepts laughably wide of the mark, he himself was never in any danger of writing such a book). No, HIS book - the one about Doctor Doom clenching his mailed fist to the sky and vowing to hunt down his brother's killers.

'Killers' because Talbot dismisses out of hand what he calls the Warren Commission's conclusion that Oswald acted alone (it bears pointing out here that Vincent Bugliosi, in his crushingly long book 'Reclaiming History,' is correct when he says this wasn't, in fact, the conclusion of the commission - what they really said was that there was no conclusive evidence that Oswald DIDN'T act alone, i.e. no evidence of anybody else acting WITH him). Talbot starts there, which, as Bones McCoy would say, is a Hell of a time-saver.

He has Bobby Kennedy start there too, though he has not a scrap of evidence to do so. Talbot, it turns out, isn't really big on evidence - he prefers innuendo and badgering octogenarians with leading questions, and when he's adjusted the truth's rabbit-ears long enough, he gets just the picture he wants:

"[Robert] Kennedy was trapped in an impossible position. Privately, he contemptuously dismissed the Warren Report as nothing more than a public relations exercise designed to reassure the public. But unwilling at this point to publically challenge it, he was stuck with supporting it. Perfunctorily giving the report his stamp of approval was his way of deflecting any further press inquiries about the assassination. You know my position, let's move on. In 1964, he was in no political - or emotional - condition to do anything more. 'He always stood by the Warren Commission in public - he thought that was the right political thing to do,' said RFK aide Frank Mankiewicz, who knew that Kennedy privately harbored very different views about Dallas. 'He didn't want to talk about it. I think he was physically unable to talk about it.'"

We're still counting - anybody have a quick tally of all he separate suppositions going on in that one paragraph? Not one syllable of it rests on any documentation, except for the quote from Mankiewicz (the requisite badgered octogenarian), and that quote a) is a recollection made fifty years after the fact, and b) speaks only to public behavior. For the rest of it - that RFK 'contemptuously dimissed' the Warren Report in private, that he thought it was a 'public relations exercise,' that he ever thought or implied anything like 'you know my position, let's move on,' that anything is knowable about his emotional state in 1964, etc., etc. - there is no actual historical evidence at all. Talbot's just making it up.

In the end, he offers no 'hidden history,' nor does he offer any insights into the relationship between these two complicated men (readers wanting that had best go to Arthur Schlesinger's 'Robert Kennedy and His Times'), nor does he offer any kind of intelligent assassination conspiracy theory, or any kind of helpful gloss on existing theories.

What he does offer is an excitedly written pile of bootless speculation, third-hand gossip, and sentimental fantasy. And surely, no matter what we think of the Kennedys, we can agree that there's been far too much of all three of those things already?

1 comment:

Sam said...

Have none of the Kennedys gotten caught up in the fervor of conspiracy theories and alternate hypotheses, none posited their own ideas of what took place? That would be remarkable, if so. (Maybe even...suspicious...)

Good post--always appreciative to have recommendations for good books, when those under review don't cut it.