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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 6.2 (2003) 378-380

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In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. By Joseph A. Palermo. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001; pp 362. $34.00.

There have been many books written about Robert F. Kennedy since his death in 1968, so it is difficult for an author to find unique insights into Kennedy's life, politics, and rhetoric. In In His Own Right, Joseph A. Palermo attempts to provide a political biography of Kennedy while at the same time linking him to the social movements and grass-roots organizing that occurred in the 1960s as well as attempting to show how those movements had an effect on Kennedy. The book specifically examines the political evolution of Robert Kennedy's views and rhetoric on the war in Vietnam. Palermo argues that Kennedy's evolution did not occur in "a vacuum"—that "he was persuaded by antiwar activists, nongovernmental organizations, scholars, and ordinary citizens aligned with the emergent peace movement" (preface). Palermo quotes from the many letters, telegrams, and media advertisements "from civic groups and individual activists" (preface) that attempted to persuade Kennedy to oppose the war. He details how "soldiers serving in Vietnam, student peace organizers, refugee volunteers, black community activists, and Latino farm workers implored Kennedy to take even stronger stands against the war, racism, and poverty" (preface). Palermo also outlines Kennedy's relationship with well-known activists such as Dr. Benjamin Spock, Allard Lowenstein, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez. The description of those relationships is balanced with discussions of Kennedy's often difficult relationships with Lyndon Johnson and Eugene McCarthy.

The book begins with a brief prologue that discusses Kennedy's life prior to his election as a senator from New York in 1964. The first chapter, "On His Own: Kennedy's Evolving Critique of the War, May 1965-February 1966," then details the delicate position that Kennedy faced when he first began to criticize the Johnson administration's actions in Vietnam.

In the second chapter, "A Slow Path to Peace: Kennedy Calls for a Negotiated Settlement, March 1966-March 1967," the author discusses the events leading to [End Page 378] Kennedy's publicly calling upon the administration to stop the bombing of North Vietnam in a significant speech on March 2, 1967. Palermo also illustrates the balancing act Kennedy faced in criticizing Johnson while at the same time answering questions about his own political plans in the face of constant speculation in the press that he wanted to run for president.

The third chapter, "At the Center of the Storm: Kennedy and the Shifting Political Winds of 1967," describes the split in the Democratic Party over Vietnam between those who were openly challenging the administration and those who supported Johnson and his policies. Kennedy found himself in an uncomfortable position: he agreed in many ways with the group that was opposing Johnson, but he still tried to work within the system to get the administration to change its policies.

Chapter 4, "'The Hottest Place in Hell': Kennedy, the Democrats, and the McCarthy Candidacy," outlines how Kennedy eventually chose to distance himself from Johnson and his policies, how he dealt with the major groups who wanted him to challenge Johnson openly, and how he reacted to the candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy. Chapter 5, "The Collapse of the Myths: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Tet Offensive, January-February 1968," outlines how the Tet Offensive destroyed the administration's credibility and provided Kennedy the justification to break with Johnson. Chapter 6, "The Breaking Point: Kennedy Responds to Tet, February 8, 1968," details the events leading to his speech in Chicago on February 8, the speech itself, and the response to the address. This significant speech made it clear that Kennedy would no longer support Johnson and would lead to his challenging Johnson for the presidency.

Chapter 7, "Fifteen Days in March: Kennedy Challenges Johnson, March 1968," details the events that led to Kennedy's announcement that he would openly challenge Johnson, and it...