Bobby And Jack: 2 Brothers, 1 Political Dynasty

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President John F. Kennedy, right, confers with his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy at the White House on Oct. 1, 1962 during the buildup of military tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that became Cuban missile crisis. (AP)
President John F. Kennedy, right, confers with his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy at the White House on Oct. 1, 1962 during the buildup of military tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that became Cuban missile crisis. (AP)

On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy announced the U.S. Naval blockade of Cuba. The next evening, the president and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, discussed the blockade over dinner. JFK says, "I don't think there was a choice." Bobby Kennedy responds, "Well, there isn't any choice." Bobby adds, if the president hadn't acted, "I mean, you would have been impeached." JFK agrees, saying, "I think I would have been impeached."

It's one of the many conversations the two brothers had which demonstrated the close connection they had.

"They were spiritual twins in a way, that they would finish one another's sentences," said Robert Kennedy biographer Larry Tye.

Tye said it is impossible to understand JFK's legacy without understanding the relationship he had with his brother. Again and again, Bobby filled the role assigned to all the younger Kennedy brothers — advisor, supporter and, most importantly, protector — a political relationship forged in a 1951 trip the brothers took to the Middle East.


Larry Tye, author of "Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon." He tweets @larrytye.

Interview Highlights

On the bond between the brothers

"The term the 'Kennedy brothers' was used perpetually, but it meant something quite magical. It didn't just mean a co-presidency, it meant two guys with very different strengths who gave the country this opportunity to see not just brothers working together, but collaboration in the best way of trying to solve our problems.

[On a trip to the Middle East] Jack got deathly ill. And Bobby essentially saved his life. He brought him to Okinawa, he got him the medical treatment, his temperature went from 107 back to normal. It was the Addison's disease that Bobby would later help Jack cover up and if Bobby hadn't been there, who knows whether Jack would've survived?"

On if Bobby Kennedy was his brother's keeper

"That was exactly the way that Joe had raised his kids. It was that whoever was the oldest was gonna be the first to be president, and the younger ones would look out for and do whatever it took to advance the career of the older one. And Bobby did that more brilliantly than even Joe had ever scripted. He did it when Jack first ran for Congress in Cambridge. He did it much more when he ran his campaign for Senate. And then when Jack ran for president, Bobby was his campaign manager, was his alter-ego, was his hatchet man."

"And as much as any single person alive, it was Bobby Kennedy who made Jack Kennedy president."

Larry Tye

On Bobby's role during Jack's run for Congress

"[Jack] had enough faith in Bobby that he gave him the district that mattered the least in East Cambridge, one that he was convinced he was gonna lose. And he put Bobby there. He basically told his best buddy, take him out to the movies and don't have him hanging around too much. And he had no sense that this younger brother, who Joe Kennedy had described as the runt of the Kennedy litter ... was gonna amount to much or be much good in that campaign.

And of course Bobby, like he always did, took that as a challenge. He went out and while he didn't win his district, he came closer than anybody had dreamed possible. And he proved just how good he was to the point where the next time where it really mattered, when Jack was running for Senate, there was no question who was gonna be in charge of that campaign."

On Bobby's role as the 'hatchet man'

"That was in a way, reversal in roles. Everyone thought that Bobby was the tough guy, the ruthless guy, the mean guy, and the truth was, that Jack was just better at having the veneer of being the gentleman. But [Jack] was actually the tough guy and after they did a hatchet job on somebody, it was Bobby who would go the next day and find out, are you really alright?"

On how Bobby took care of Jack during the presidential campaign

"Bobby understood that his brother had Addison's disease, a very serious condition back then that could be fatal. He had the treatments for the Addison's disease stashed in safe deposit boxes in places around the country where Jack was gonna be campaign. And they all understood that this was something that mattered to Jack, and that if the public understood it, it could doom the campaign. So they lied about it. And that's the kind of low road or deception that Bobby was willing to practice on behalf of his brother.

And between the high road and the low road, he pioneered a new way of campaigning — to the point where Richard Nixon said that he learned his best tricks from Bobby Kennedy back in 1960."

On Bobby's role in the campaign

"The gift that Jack gave Bobby the night of their election victory was an engraved case that said, you're after me, you're next. It was very clear in the way that Jack brought Bobby along that he was not just coming along for the ride as Attorney General — that he came closer to being a co-president than we've ever seen in America's history."

"Everything that Jack pulled him in on, from politics, to the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, this was all training Bobby to be Jack's successor."

Larry Tye

On Bobby's appointment of Attorney General under Jack

"There was a lot of pushback, to the point where a law — that's getting a whole lot of attention today in the era of Trump with the Trump family — the so-called nepotism law, is known on Capitol Hill as the Bobby Kennedy law.

It was passed because of the fear of having families take over White House like that and it turned out Bobby Kennedy when he was appointed by Jack as Attorney General may have been the least qualified person ever to be named to that position. Jack joked that he was giving Bobby the job to give him a little bit of legal experience ... and yet by the time Jack was assassinated, Bobby I think deserved to go down as the best Attorney General in the modern era in America."

On the parallels between the Kennedy family at the White House and the Trump family

"You could describe it as arrogance in thinking that because you were elected president, that your brother or your daughter or your son-in-law belong in the White House as well. And Bobby Kennedy was on the one hand, a case study of the arrogance of a president thinking that his brother deserved to be Attorney General. And yet, [Bobby] met the highest of standards whether the issue was civil rights, whether it was going after organized crime, whether it was cracking down an allegedly corrupt teamsters union and Jimmy Hoffa, Bobby Kennedy did all of that. He defied all the Democrats' political wishes by going after Democrats as well as Republicans. And if the Trumps could live up to that kind of standard of even-handedness and exemplary service, then we can excuse the nepotism."

This segment aired on May 23, 2017.



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