Massachusetts native Larry Tye's interest in Robert Kennedy's life began shortly after Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. His new book, Robert Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, is the culmination of years of research and interviews with family members and friends of the late Senator, some of whom have never spoken to an RFK biographer in the past.
Tye attended Middlesex School with Kennedy's late son, David, and spent a number of years as a reporter for the Boston Globe, covering a variety of stories but left his post to focus on writing books.
"I started and ended as a medical reporter, and in between covered the environment, was the roving national writer and spent a year in sports," said Tye. "I wrote about Bobby for two reasons. Because my mentors in journalism, famously tough-minded reporters like Bill Kovach and David Halberstam, had, for the first and only times in their career, fallen in love with a politician. I wanted to understand what it was in Bobby that elicited that reaction in these two and so many others in my profession. I also saw RFK's life as a lens into how America changed from the conservative era of Eisenhower to the tumultuous '60s. Bobby, of course, was a harbinger as well as a reflection of that change."
Tye's book focuses on Kennedy's transformation from a hard-charging right-hand man to arch conservative Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 50s to someone dedicated to addressing poverty, racism and the protracted war in Vietnam in the intervening years. He said that this evolution was what surprised him the most about Kennedy. That some politicians, including Kennedy, are able to grow and change as time marches on.
While interviewing myriads of people including Kennedy's widow Ethel and sister Jean as well as his close friend John Seigenthaler and closest aide Peter Edelman, Tye said he got a fuller view and appreciation of Kennedy as a politician, husband, father, son and brother.
"Ethel let me test out every theory I had about Bobby, telling me where I was right and where I was way off," said Tye. "She was candid, in a way that other friends and family weren't, about how Joe McCarthy might have seemed like a monster to much of America but was a cherished friend to Bobby and her."
Tye said the one issue Kennedy was slow to change on, but he believed would have evolved on, is LGBT rights. He noted that Kennedy was a product of his time ( pre-Stonewall ) regarding LGBT rights and this was confirmed during his interviews with Edelman. Tye noted that much of Kennedy thoughts about the world stemmed from his father Joe's macho nature but that his instincts for the underdog and human rights overcame Joe's bad modeling throughout the 60s.
"Peter helped me see more than anyone how bad Bobby was on gay rights and yet how likely it was that he would change," said Tye. "Peter, as anyone who knows him knows, doesn't say such things lightly, nor does his wife Marian Wright Edelman, who loved Bobby almost as much as Peter did."
Kennedy's history with LGBT people, more specifically gay men, was problematic as Tye recounts in the book. This included Roy Cohn ( who worked alongside Kennedy on McCarthy's staff in the early 50s ), Gore Vidal ( who was Jackie Kennedy Onassis' step-sibling one time removed through their stepfather Hugh D. Auchincloss ), Truman Capote ( who lived in the same New York City apartment building as Kennedy ) and the copy editor who worked on Kennedy's book.
Tye explained that while interviewing New York Times journalist Anthony Lewis ( who knew both Kennedy and Cohn ) he discovered that Kennedy's disdain for Cohn ran deep and at times transcended his sexual orientation. Lewis, like Edelman, told Tye that Kennedy would've evolved on LGBT issues.
"Gore was like Roy Cohn in that respect: his being gay was a factor in Bobby's disdain, but not the only one," said Tye. "There were family reasonsGore's step-relationship with Jackie and Bobby's always feeling like he was Jackie's protectorthat underlay Bobby's inability to get along with Gore. And surely the antipathy was mutual."
While researching the book Tye discovered that Kennedy's relationship with Capote was more complicated than his interactions with Cohn and Gore. Capote told friends that while both men would have drinks together and chat when they walked their dogs he always felt Kennedy didn't fully accept him because he was gay.
Tye noted that the one relationship that, for the most part, transcended Kennedy's issues with gay people was with his brother John Kennedy's longtime friend LeMoyne "Lem" Billings ( who was gay ). Bobby and Ethel even named one of their sons, Michael LeMoyne Kennedy ( Feb. 27, 1958-Dec. 31, 1997 ), after Billings.
Tye will be appearing at a number of venues in Chicago Sept. 26-30 to discuss the book. See larrytye.com/author-event/ for more information.