- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2000

We were gathered, eight or nine Peace Corps volunteers, on the porch of an adobe building in the high Andes of Peru. Some of us were in ponchos against the cold of the night. The light from a kerosene lantern flickered on serious young faces. It was Nov. 22, 1963.

The generator had recently gone silent, and therefore so had the radio, which had been tuned to the Voice of America. We had heard the stunning news from different people earlier in the day, before the sun had gone down. I had been told by a weeping Peruvian nurse in a little hospital. "The president's been shot!" she had said to me, and I had thought at first that she meant President Belaunde.

"Well," somebody said, into the somber silence, "now Bobby will have to run." He was referring to the coming election of 1964, not 1968, which then seemed the far-distant future. Around the kerosene lantern that night there was no disagreement.

I thought of that long-ago Andean evening several times while reading Ronald Steel's evocative "In Love with Night: The American Romance with Robert Kennedy." Many Americans, and not just those first Peace Corps volunteers, saw Robert Kennedy as something other than an ordinary man, an ordinary politician. It was indeed a romance of sorts, and Mr. Steel's polished little book a long essay, really brings it vividly back.

Mr. Steel, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, is a foreign policy specialist who has also written an estimable biography of Walter Lippmann. But this book, he correctly notes in a preface, "is not a biography. Rather, it is a study of character and circumstance, and beyond that of political mythology."

Robert Kennedy, Mr. Steel contends, "is remembered today by millions of Americans with an affection and an unfulfillable longing unlike those accorded any other politician. He has clearly touched something deep in the American psyche."

Of course, what's true today may not be true much longer. Although Bobby Kennedy's brief time on the national stage may still seem as yesterday to those of us whose impressionable youth it also was, it is already fading into the mists of history. RFK died in 1968, 31 years ago. Yet the fascination with him endures, and will probably be with us until the Sixties Generation is finally dust. Meanwhile, politicians in many ideological flavors, Bill Clinton among them, try to portray themselves as his legitimate heirs.

One reason Robert Kennedy remains interesting today, Mr. Steel observes, is that he embodies contradiction, which our uncertain age tends to find appealing. He was "an ardent prosecutor who abused the law, a champion of black pride who allowed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to torment Martin Luther King, a tardy critic of the Vietnam War who organized … assassination operations in the Third World, a fearless rebel who would not take on an unpopular president until another man cleared the way."

And of course there is endless speculation about what might have been, had Sirhan Sirhan not been waiting for him in that California hotel kitchen. To some, he remains the lost, last opportunity to have quickly ended the war in Asia, achieved racial harmony, ended poverty and want, and restored the glory of Camelot to the American federal government.

On the other hand, maybe he would have brought about something else. "What other people found in him was not political but emotional satisfaction," Mr. Steel concludes. "He did not inspire programs; he aroused feelings. The response he stimulated was not polite applause, not mild approval but love or hate. He had the compelling, and disturbing, appeal of a demagogue."

Mr. Steel doesn't demean his subject or insult his readers by indulging in psychobabble. But his straightforward account of RFK's upbringing, family, relationships, and jump-started career make it clear that this was an unusual, complex and not always attractive personality. "Bobby's like me," his father Joseph Kennedy once boasted. "He's a hater."

It was father Joe, Mr. Steel notes, who insisted that Jack name Bobby attorney general of the United States, at least in part to keep an eye on J. Edgar Hoover, who knew much too much about the Kennedys. When, at 35, he became the nation's top lawyer, Bobby had never practiced law or argued a case before a jury. His work experience had been as a congressional investigator and as his brother's campaign manager.

Robert Kennedy, serious and rather pessimistic by nature, was also a genuinely religious man. This may well have helped him make his life what Michael Novak has described as "a quest for martyrdom," and certainly intensifies the tragic quality of his career. He was driven, through his life and to his death, by an overpowering sense of obligation.

In early 1968, just after he became a candidate for president, the following mocking verse was briefly popular: Higgledy-piggledy/Bobbidy Kennedy/Bounces up mountains and barrels down streams./Toodle-oo Hubertie!/Nothing beats puberty!/Incontrovertibly/Destiny screams.

And scream it did, though not perhaps the way the doggerel writer anticipated. Three decades later, the echoes still linger.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer living in Maryland.

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