Saturday, January 24, 2009

Book Review: Robert Kennedy: His Life by Evan Thomas

by Clarence Yu

Any discussion of Barack Obama's message of hope would not be complete without the inclusion of Robert Kennedy, whose life was cut short by an assassin's bullet on June 5, 1968 at the age of 42. Award-winning journalist and Newsweek assistant managing editor Evan Thomas chronicles the life of this peculiar man who lives on in contemporary mythology as a figure of tragedy and a symbol of unfulfilled greatness. Drawing on unprecedented access to Robert Kennedy's personal papers, Thomas (who shares the same alma mater as his subject, University of Virginia School of Law), creates the most definitive biography of RFK since Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Robert Kennedy and His Times.

Thomas details Kennedy’s life from his unpromising beginnings as the third son of former Ambassador to England and businessman Joe Kennedy; his rise to power as Attorney General to his brother President John F. Kennedy; his fall from grace following his brother’s death in 1963; his career as a US Senator; and finally, his entrance into the 1968 presidential race under the banner of the Democratic Party.

Insightfully, Thomas examines the transformation of Kennedy through various stages of his life. Kennedy was not a perfect man by any measure, but the circumstances surrounding his life brought out the one thing he was least prepared for: direct leadership. Thomas cites that most of RFK's life had been in the shadows, operating behind-the-scenes, and staying out the limelight in favor of his brother's political ambitions. When the President was dead, Kennedy had two choices: to withdraw from political life, or to capitalize on his dead brother's martyrdom.
He opted, albeit subconsciously, for a third alternative, borne out of an existentialist nature: he suffered, experienced much about loss, and ultimately, in his pain, connected with the American people and much of the world in a way that few other politicians ever could. Thomas' excellent perspective on the matured Kennedy's multi-faceted, often self-contradicting personality gives the reader a closer look at the man who could have been a great President. In this sense, His Life reads like a classical Greek tragedy, like the many that Robert Kennedy himself carried around for inspiration.

Relevant now more than ever, His Life gives readers a profound glimpse into a man who really promised hope in the turbulent world he lived in, but who never had a chance to carry his message into action. To fully appreciate the meaning of hope and change, read and re-read this excellent book.

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