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Retracing the life and myth of Robert Kennedy, the author shows how he transformed himself from JFK's right-hand man into a crusader for the poor and down-trodden
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More than 30 years after his death, Robert Kennedy continues to occupy an exalted place in the American psyche as a symbol of unfulfilled promise and shattered expectations. Had he lived, the legend goes, he would have become president and solved the major problems of the age, including the war in Vietnam, racial tension, and social injustice. According to Ronald Steel, he "represented not a rational political alternative, but something more powerful and attractive: an escape from politics." To many, he was the last, best hope for meaningful change. The question at the heart of In Love with Night is why this "strange and enduring phenomenon" remains seductive to so many Americans and what Kennedy's lionization says about the culture that made him a martyr.
"At some point," writes Steel, "without ever quite intending it, American liberals, and even many conservatives, fell in love with Robert Kennedy." The author then shows this romance to be closer to a misguided attempt by the American people to create "a heroic figure to fill our needs" in the wake of the death of John F. Kennedy. Seeing himself as the rightful heir to his brother's legacy, Robert successfully filled the role of political savior by assuming "the identity of the survivor." Imbued with lofty expectations by an adoring segment of the populace, his image came to outweigh by far his modest achievements as a public figure. During his run for the Democratic nomination in 1968, he gathered strong support among minority groups and the underprivileged, while carefully appearing to be all things to all people. Without denying his genuine appeal, Steel debunks Kennedy's image as a champion of the underdog, painting him as a craven opportunist who solicited the support of the more disenfranchised groups not out of altruism but political necessity and self-interest.
Calling his book a "study of character and circumstance" rather than a biography, Steel is primarily interested in the wide gap between the man and the myth, and, on the whole, his deconstruction is not a flattering one. Kennedy admirers will bristle at the book's core message, but Steel makes valid, well-argued, and often compelling points, particularly on the nature and value of cultural myths. In the end, this is all mere conjecture, for it will never be known whether Kennedy would have even been elected, much less what kind of president he would have been. For as Steel writes in one of his kinder moments, "The best of Robert Kennedy was not in what he did, but in what he has inspired in others." And that, perhaps, is the only legacy that matters. --Shawn CarkonenAbout the Author:
Ronald Steel is the author of the award-winning Walter Lippmann and the American Century as well as books on American foreign policy. He is a contributor to The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times. A professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, he lives in Los Angeles, California, and Washington, D.C.
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