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Robert F. Kennedy

Senator, Attorney General, presidential candidate

Robert F. Kennedy

Robert Francis Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on November 20, 1925, the seventh of nine children born to Joseph Patrick and Rose (Fitzgerald) Kennedy. The family moved to Riverdale, New York, in 1927, and to Bronxville, New York, in 1929. His siblings included future President John F. Kennedy and future U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy. After graduating from the Milton Academy in 1942 he entered Harvard University, but his studies were interrupted by World War II. Entering the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1944, he ultimately served until 1946, but the war ended before he completed his basic training and he never saw combat. He returned to Harvard after his tour of duty ended, and graduated with a degree in government from that institution in 1948. He went on to earn his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School in 1951, and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar that same year. He married Ethel Skakel on June 17, 1950, and the couple ultimately had eleven children (Kathleen, Joseph, Robert Jr., David, Courtney, Michael, Kerry, Christopher, Max, Doug and Rory).

Kennedy began his career as an attorney in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice, 1951-1952. He began his political career as the manager of brother John's 1952 campaign for the U.S. Senate. In December of 1952, he became one of the lawyers assigned to Joseph McCarthy's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. One of his principal tasks in this role was to research Western trade with China, and he ultimately reported that approximately 75 percent of all cargo ships that unloaded in China had originated from Western Europe. A disagreement with McCarthy led to his resignation in July of 1953. In February of 1954, after a short time as an assistant counsel for the Hoover Commission, he returned to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations as chief counsel to the Democratic minority; he became chief counsel for the Subcommittee in January of 1955.

In 1957, Kennedy was named chief counsel of the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, in which capacity he served until 1959. He became a nationally-known figure during televised hearings into corruption within the Teamsters Union when he verbally squared off against Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa.

Robert and John Kennedy confer at a Senate Select Committee hearing in February 1957
Robert and John Kennedy

Kennedy left the Senate committee in 1960 to run brother John's presidential campaign, and then served as his brother's Attorney General. In the latter role, he gained further national prominence by aggressively pursuing organized crime figures, and by using the full weight of his department to enforce federal voting rights and desegregation laws. He initially stayed on as Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson, but resigned on September 3, 1964, to run for the U.S. Senate (representing New York). Taking his seat in the Senate on January 3, 1965, Kennedy became an advocate for the State of New York, initiating assistance to underprivileged children and students with disabilities, working for the establishment of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation to improve living conditions and employment opportunities in depressed areas of Brooklyn, and pushing legislation to encourage private industry to locate in poverty-stricken areas. He was also a very vocal proponent of ending the Vietnam War, and he made that cause a principal reason for declaring his candidacy for President on March 16, 1968.

Robert Kennedy conferring at Los Angeles after the Democratic National Convention with Larry O'Brien, Stephen Smith, and Pierre Salinger
Robert Kennedy as head of John's election campaign

Kennedy's chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination was Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had already had a good showing in the New Hampshire primary before Kennedy entered the race (although he lost to President Johnson, who got 50% of the vote). Putting on a whirlwind campaign to "catch up with" McCarthy, Kennedy lost to McCarthy by substantial margins in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts before reversing the trend and taking Indiana and Nebraska by substantial margins. After McCarthy won a close race in Oregon, both men knew California would be crucial to their prospects and focused all of their efforts there, despite South Dakota and New Jersey holding their primaries on the same day.

On June 4, 1968, Kennedy defeated McCarthy in California 46% to 42%, the closest margin between the two throughout the entire campaign, and won South Dakota by a margin of 50 to 20%, but lost New Jersey by a margin of 36 to 31%. Although Kennedy now technically had enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination, McCarthy refused to concede defeat and vowed that he would carry his campaign all the way to the national convention. In the early morning of June 5th, after giving a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy was shot three times by Sirhan Sirhan; he died several hours later, on June 6, 1968, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

SOURCES
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=k000114
Freedom Riders http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders/people/robert-f-kennedy
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/The-Kennedy-Family/Robert-F-Kennedy.aspx

SEE ALSO
John F. Kennedy
Edward M. Kennedy
World War II
President Lyndon Johnson

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Late 20th Century, 1961-2001 > Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on April 16, 2017.