In much the same way that Warren Beatty's movie Bulworth, for a political movie from Hollywood, was a breath of fresh air, Richard D. Mahoney's Sons and Brothers, the Life and Times of Jack and Bobby Kennedy is a breath of fresh air from an American academic historian. What strikes you in either case is the realism. It is a realism born of the clash of the clearly strong idealism of the writer and the reality of naked, corrupt power in what has become of America's once great republic.
In Bulworth, it hits you early in the little-noted dead-on portrayal of the big-time gangster with whom Senator Bulworth arranges for his own murder. When he ushers the man into his Senate office, Bulworth greets him like a long-lost brother. The visitor looks nothing like the stereotypical Hollywood mobster, nor like the few who have been subjects of the occasional show trial like John Gotti. From the universal respect he appears to command and from the man's confident, prosperous appearance one thinks he might be something like the head lobbyist for the American Association of Retired People or a senior lawyer at Covington and Burling.
Beatty obviously knows his topic. In the late 1970s the Washington Post reported that the organized crime unit of a suburban Washington police force was there writing down license plate numbers (a la The Godfather) outside a mansion where a large dinner party was going on. The host was a major political contributor and king maker who, the Post reported, had been involved in casino ventures with members of the Gambino family and the Meyer Lansky organization. The guest of honor that night was Beatty's sister, the actress Shirley McLain.
A history of the modern American presidency that ignores organized crime is a fairy tale. Mahoney's treatment of the lives and the deaths of Jack and Bobby Kennedy is, in that respect, like a book for grown-ups compared to other historians' children's books. Others may have paid some lip service to the various connections of the Kennedy family to the mob, but Mahoney, the first John F. Kennedy Scholar at the University of Massachusetts and the Kennedy Library, fleshes the story out and sees the larger importance of it.
Joe Kennedy, Sr., of necessity, worked hand and glove with known mobsters in amassing his bootlegging fortune during Prohibition. Working outside the law in a major business enterprise, he was himself, by definition, a member of organized crime. The connection continued at least up to his arrangement with the Chicago mob to deliver the deciding votes in the 1960 presidential election.
Jack and Bobby's connection was not only as beneficiaries of the 1960 accommodation, something of which they had to have been aware, but also through the ongoing Mafia-CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, a plot that they inherited from the Eisenhower administration but poured extra effort into after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Further entangling Jack with the mob was his sharing of the mistress, Judith Campbell Exner, with Chicago kingpin, Sam Giancana.
These are the connections we know about, and yet Mahoney is obviously a deep admirer of both Jack and Bobby, and the reader comes away from his book sharing the admiration. Both of them had leadership qualities that distinguish them from those we have had imposed upon us since their deaths. They grew in office. They learned from their mistakes. They were both extraordinarily courageous.
Jack, who had much greater expertise and interest in foreign than in domestic policy, probably never intended to go as far as he did on civil rights, but circumstances, and his ability to empathize, pulled him along. On the foreign front, on the other hand, his instincts all along were diametrically opposite from that of the Cold Warriors who held the real power in the country. He was determined over the long run not to stand in the way of the nationalist aspirations of the Vietnamese, as the French had done with our encouragement and assistance, and his pursuit of detente with the Soviets in the last few months of his life was genuine.
This was more than enough to get him killed, but Mahoney focuses upon Bobby's anti-Mafia crusade as the straw that broke the camel's back. Looking at the role played by mobster Jack Ruby in the episode is enough to convince one of the mob's involvement in the Kennedy assassination, but there is a lot more evidence as well, which Mahoney brings out. Though they had the motive and the means to pull it off, and a lot of evidence points to them, the question remains as to how they thought they could get by with it and why they were right. Was the mob able to order up a phony investigation and to whip the press into line? Maybe Mahoney simply knew how far he could go and still get his book published. As it is, the book has received far less publicity than it deserves.
Mahoney's big revelation to this reviewer jaded in Kennedy lore was the eerie resemblance of Bobby Kennedy's brief bid for the presidency to the fictional last campaign of Senator J. Billington Bulworth. The more he saw of the world and the more personal tragedy he endured the more he seemed determined simply to do and to say what was right, regardless of the consequences. And like Bulworth he was wildly popular with the poor and with minorities, but also like Bulworth he got quite bad press, even from the "liberal" establishment. Could there be a better indicator of his genuineness? These are the same people who covered up in his brother's assassination, after all.
But there was also the same foreboding, as "...some around Bobby began to talk openly about the inevitable. French novelist Romain Gary, then living in Los Angeles, told Pierre Salinger, Your candidate is going to get killed. When Jimmy Breslin asked several reporters around a table whether they thought Bobby had the stuff to go all the way, John J. Lindsay replied, Yes, of course, he has the stuff to go all the way, but he's not going to go all the way. The reason is that somebody is going to shoot him. I know it and you know it, just as sure as we're sitting here. He's out there waiting for him. "
And, indeed, he, or they were, just as they were waiting for Bulworth.
April 16, 2000
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