Almost a third of a century has passed since Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, yet he remains a compelling, controversial public figure -- strangely a mysterious one to some people. And that's after he has been the subject of 21 or more books and figured prominently in at least 82 more.
For many of us who knew him well, the mystery is that there's a mystery. The record is clear. Look long and hard at what he did. Read or listen to what he said. No need to psychoanalyze him. The real Bob Kennedy is right there. He was a loving father and husband. He was committed to a career of public service and grew with each exposure to a new problem or situation. He was an efficient executive and a natural leader. Followers and foes sensed that he meant what he said, but he was not satisfied to just talk about a problem. He had to act to right a wrong or help people who needed it.
Personal relationships were central to everything he did. Once a bond of friendship was formed -- usually after going through some difficult experience -- it was unbreakable. It is no overstatement to say there were many men who would have taken the assassin's bullet, if they could have shielded their friend.
The newest RFK book, "Robert Kennedy: His Life" by Evan Thomas (Simon & Schuster, 509 pages, $28), which has a publication date of Sept. 13, comes close. It is the most thoroughly researched since "Robert Kennedy and His Times" by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (Houghton Mifflin, 916 pages, $19.95), which was published in 1978. Thomas, assistant managing editor of Newsweek's Washington bureau, is a perceptive, careful, honest writer, but it's one thing to research what Kennedy did and another to have worked for him and been his friend. I did both.
I met Kennedy in November 1956 and I spoke with him in his room in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles only a few minutes before he left to claim victory in the California presidential primary June 5, 1968.
But, our first meeting was tentative and at arm's length. I was a reporter for the Seattle Times and with Paul Staples, the paper's veteran labor reporter, had been investigating Dave Beck, a Seattle man who had risen to be international president of the Teamsters' Union, since 1948. That year I had interviewed Beck while helping Staples cover a strike of machinists at the Boeing Airplane Co. Beck, probably with the encouragement of Seattle business leaders who worried that Boeing might move to Wichita, Kan., was trying to break the strike and organize the strikers into the Teamsters.
Beck lied during the press conference. When I told Staples, I asked why a man with Beck's power would lie. Staples frowned and said, "Didn't you know? Beck lies all the time."
"But why?" I asked naively.
"I'm pretty sure he's stealing money from the union," said Staples. We talked about that and decided to see if we could get proof. It was not easy. We couldn't get a look at the union's financial records, but by the fall of 1956 the Seattle Times had published some of our articles that raised questions about Beck's real estate ventures. However, in 1954, I had met Clark Mollenhoff, a reporter for the Des Moines, Iowa, Register-Tribune and upon learning we had a mutual interest -- he was investigating Beck's counterpart in Detroit, James R. Hoffa -- we began exchanging information.
It was Mollenhoff who called to arrange my meeting Kennedy.
"The Senate investigations subcommittee is going to investigate union corruption and I've suggested they start with Beck and the Teamsters in the Pacific Northwest," he said. "A young lawyer from the committee would like to come and see you and Staples and I hope you'll help him." "Who is he?" I asked.
"Bob Kennedy," said Mollenhoff and when I didn't respond he continued, "You know, he's Senator Kennedy's brother."
I thought for a moment and then said: "That's fine, Clark, but can you trust him?" In 1956, the name Kennedy didn't mean much in the far northwest corner of the country and that was the first I was aware John Kennedy had a brother named Bob. So, I was wary, but not only because I had never heard of Bob Kennedy. Beck was at the peak of his power and our experience with investigating committees of the Congress and the Washington legislature had not been very reassuring. The last thing we wanted was for a committee to hold some hearings, make a few headlines and leave us with Beck still in power.
However, Mollenhoff vouched for Kennedy and pointed out that the committee with its subpoena power could get to the union's financial records and that was the clinching argument. Shortly after that I received a phone call from Bob and we met when he came to Seattle two weeks later. We talked for several hours -- somewhat stand-offishly. I wanted assurances that our informants would be protected and that the investigation would be thorough.
Kennedy said the committee would take the investigation wherever it went and dig so deeply that it would vouch for the truth of the testimony and evidence that its witnesses would make public. Staples and I recommended to our editors that we help the committee. They agreed and we never regretted it.
Kennedy kept his word totally. We put him in touch with two troubled men who provided helpful information, and as promised, he protected their identity. He and his investigators pressed on regardless of the roadblocks.
In Seattle, Teamster financial records were destroyed, potential witnesses became unavailable, the committee's subpoenaes were ignored and Beck postured and puffed. But by the following spring, in dramatic public hearings in Washington, the committee exposed Beck as a greedy, paper lion who had used hundreds of thousands of union funds as his own, even profiting from a widow's fund. Hoffa unceremoniously replaced Beck as international president. He was convicted of filing false tax returns and grand larceny and served 18 months in a federal prison.
The investigation continued for two years, embroiling Hoffa and many other powerful labor leaders and business executives. Its findings convinced Congress in 1959 to pass the Labor Reform Act that made embezzlement of union funds a federal crime, prohibited offering or accepting bribes in labor-management relations and provided for a secret ballot in union elections.
When Kennedy came to Seattle he was only dimly aware that corrupt union leaders were in league with organized crime, but by the following year he was telling his chief aides and investigators that organized crime's growing power threatened the country's democratic foundation.
"Either we're going to be successful or they're going to have the country," he told his staff, but that perception was not shared then by most major law enforcement officers, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, or by political leaders. But certainly now we can see it was on the mark. He was 31 years old.
When he became attorney general in 1961, he brought the FBI and 26 other federal law enforcment agencies into a coordinated effort against organized crime that made a major impact and has had a lasting effect.
That was how he was -- strongly motivated to find out for himself about whatever was catching his attention. Then he had to act, and he was capable of acting to make a real difference whether in civil rights, Vietnam, the deteriorating condition of the Washington, D.C. schools, the plight of the urban and rural poor or whatever.
I was his press secretary during the Kennedy administration and the early months of his term as the junior senator from New York. Then I went back to being what I was -- a journalist. Since his death, not a day has gone by that I haven't thought of him and when I have had a decision to make, I've often asked myself, "What would Bob do?"
Edwin O. Guthman, a professor at the University of Southern California school of journalism, was editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1977 to 1987, and before that served on the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times and the Seattle Star. He was press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy when R.F.K. was U. S. Attorney General and when he first ran for the U.S. Senate. He has edited and written several books, including "We Band of Brothers" in 1971.