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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5.1 (2002) 192-195

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Book Review

In His Own Right:
The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy

In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy . By Joseph A. Palermo. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001; pp. xv + 349. $32.50.

This is not a traditional biography but "an analysis of his [Robert Kennedy's] evolving critique of the Vietnam War, his views on racism and poverty, and his communication with his growing national constituency" (x). Six out of ten chapters are devoted to Kennedy's growing disillusionment with the war in Vietnam and his search for a politically viable way to deal with the issue. The war was extremely troubling for Kennedy because as attorney general he had participated in the decisions [End Page 192] that led to the expansion of the American commitment, and many of President Kennedy's former cabinet officers and advisers were now involved in the escalation of the war. Kennedy and Johnson shared a mutual hatred dating back to the Democratic Convention of 1960, and Johnson viewed Kennedy as a potential rival. Thus any criticism of the war by Kennedy was seen in personal and political terms by Johnson and his inner circle.

Kennedy's first tentative criticism of Johnson's Vietnam policy occurred in his Senate speech of May 6, 1965, which stated explicitly Kennedy's belief that "we should [not] be under the self-delusion that this military effort will bring Ho Chi Minh or the Vietcong to their knees" (12). Under tutelage from such diverse people as John Paul Vann (an American adviser to the Agency for International Development in Vietnam), ordinary American soldiers who wrote to him from the field, academic specialists in Southeast Asia such as George Kahin of Cornell University, and antiwar activists such as Marcus Ruskin, Howard Zinn, and Staughton Lynd, Kennedy gradually came to see that the war was a hopeless cause that not only needlessly sacrificed the lives of American troops and Vietnamese civilians, but diverted resources and attention away from the festering urban problems of racism and poverty. Palermo discusses the two major speeches on Vietnam that Kennedy delivered on March 2, 1967, and February 8, 1968. In each case, he carefully summarizes the arguments and puts them into context by providing the comments and suggestions made by Kennedy's advisers. He devotes 11 pages to the March 2, 1967, speech, giving much attention to the evolution of the speech through 12 drafts and noting the number of people who commented on it—at least ten—and the substance of Robert Kennedy's last-minute changes. The February 8 speech was the precursor to Kennedy's announcement of his candidacy on March 16, 1968. In it he finally broke with the Johnson administration on its policy in Vietnam, charging that "a military victory is not in sight, and it probably will never come" (124).

The last two chapters of the book describe Kennedy's attempt to gain the nomination by demonstrating his political appeal through winning the primaries in Indiana and California. Kennedy was campaigning in Indiana when Martin Luther King was assassinated and addressed a predominately black crowd in Indianapolis that night. Palermo includes the text of Kennedy's extemporaneous eulogy for King. Eugene McCarthy, who had announced his candidacy for president earlier while Kennedy hesitated to risk his political future in challenging Johnson, resented what he saw as Kennedy's opportunism and, bolstered by his army of college student volunteers, battled Kennedy for delegates. Robert Kennedy became the first Kennedy to lose an election when McCarthy defeated him in the Oregon primary. California would be the crucial test of Kennedy's campaign, which ended with his triumphant win and his assassination shortly after his victory speech. This is an interesting story that is well told, but surprisingly Palermo did not consult the Eugene McCarthy [End Page 193] papers or the Allard Lowenstine papers, which might have given him more insight into the rivalry between the two "peace" candidates for...