Essential Books on Robert Kennedy
There are countless books on Robert Kennedy, and it comes with good reason, he was an American lawyer and politician who served as the 64th United States Attorney General under his brother President John F. Kennedy, and as a U.S. Senator from New York until his assassination in June 1968.
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance,” he remarked.
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of America’s most consequential figures to the heights of societal contribution, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best books on Robert Kennedy.
Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye
History remembers RFK as a racial healer, a tribune for the poor, and the last progressive knight of a bygone era of American politics. But Kennedy’s enshrinement in the liberal pantheon was actually the final stage of a journey that began with his service as counsel to the red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy. In Bobby Kennedy, Larry Tye peels away layers of myth and misconception to capture the full arc of his subject’s life.
Tye draws on unpublished memoirs, unreleased government files, and fifty-eight boxes of papers that had been under lock and key for forty years. He conducted hundreds of interviews with RFK intimates, many of whom have never spoken publicly, including Bobby’s widow, Ethel, and his sister, Jean. Tye’s determination to sift through the tangle of often contradictory opinions means that Bobby Kennedy will stand as the definitive biography about the most complex and controversial member of the Kennedy family.
During the thirteen days in October 1962 when the United States confronted the Soviet Union over its installation of missiles in Cuba, few people shared the behind-the-scenes story as it is told here by the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy. In this unique account, he describes each of the participants during the sometimes hour-to-hour negotiations, with particular attention to the actions and views of his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
Robert Kennedy: His Life by Evan Thomas
He was “Good Bobby,” who, as his brother Ted eulogized him, “saw wrong and tried to right it…saw suffering and tried to heal it.” And “Bad Bobby,” the ruthless and manipulative bully of countless conspiracy theories. Thomas’s unvarnished but sympathetic and fair-minded portrayal is packed with new details about Kennedy’s early life and his behind-the-scenes machinations, including new revelations about the 1960 and 1968 presidential campaigns, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his long struggles with J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson.
Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlessinger, Jr.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. chronicles the short life of the Kennedy family’s second presidential hopeful in “a story that leaves the reader aching for what cannot be recaptured” (Miami Herald). Schlesinger’s account vividly recalls the forces that shaped Robert Kennedy, from his position as the third son of a powerful Irish Catholic political clan to his concern for issues of social justice in the turbulent 1960s. Robert Kennedy and His Times is “a picture of a deeply compassionate man hiding his vulnerability, drawn to the underdogs and the unfortunates in society by his life experiences and sufferings” (Los Angeles Times).
The Revolution of Robert Kennedy by John R. Bohrer
On November 22nd, 1963, Bobby Kennedy received a phone call that altered his life forever. The president, his brother, had been shot. JFK would not survive.
In The Revolution of Robert Kennedy, journalist John R. Bohrer focuses in intimate and revealing detail on Bobby Kennedy’s life during the three years following JFK’s assassination. Torn between mourning the past and plotting his future, Bobby was placed in a sudden competition with his political enemy, Lyndon Johnson, for control of the Democratic Party.
No longer the president’s closest advisor, Bobby struggled to find his place within the Johnson administration, eventually deciding to leave his Cabinet post to run for the U.S. Senate, and establish an independent identity. Those overlooked years of change, from hardline Attorney General to champion of the common man, helped him develop the themes of his eventual presidential campaign. This gem among books on Robert Kennedy follows him on the journey from memorializing his brother’s legacy to defining his own.
Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit by Chris Mathews
Overlooked by his father, and overshadowed by his war-hero brother, Bobby Kennedy was the perpetual underdog. When he had the chance to become a naval officer like Jack, Bobby turned it down, choosing instead to join the Navy as a common sailor. It was a life-changing experience that led him to connect with voters from all walks of life: young or old, black or white, rich or poor. They were the people who turned out for him in his 1968 campaign. RFK would prove himself to be the rarest of politicians – both a pragmatist who knew how to get the job done and an unwavering idealist who could inspire millions.
Drawing on extensive research and interviews, Matthews pulls back the curtain on the public and private worlds of Robert Francis Kennedy. He shines a light on all the important moments of his life, from his early years and his start in politics to his crucial role as attorney general in his brother’s administration and his tragic run for president.
From 1956 to 1959 the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field (chaired by Sen. McClellan and guided by chief counsel Robert Kennedy) heard more than 1500 witnesses and uncovered a shocking story, proving that labor leaders, management, the underworld, and public officials, sometimes in combination, sometimes separately, had worked to cheat and intimidate the rank-and-file union members.
Writing crisply, with indignation but also with humor, Kennedy focuses on how unions are bought, sold, and sometimes stolen; how ‘democracy’ actually operated in Jimmy Hoffa’s captive unions and what happened to the men who dared to oppose him; how Hoffa was tried on charges of attempting to plant a spy in the McClellan Committee; how an investigating committee works; how the Committee resisted external pressures, threats, and ploys to derail its efforts; and more.
A Lie Too Big to Fail by Lisa Pease
In A Lie Too Big to Fail, longtime Kennedy researcher (of both JFK and RFK) Lisa Pease lays out, in meticulous detail, how witnesses with evidence of conspiracy were silenced by the Los Angeles Police Department; how evidence was deliberately altered and, in some instances, destroyed; and how the justice system and the media failed to present the truth of the case to the public. Pease reveals how the trial was essentially a sham, and how the prosecution did not dare to follow where the evidence led.
The book asserts the idea that a government can never investigate itself in a crime of this magnitude. Was the convicted Sirhan Sirhan a willing participant? Or was he a mind-controlled assassin? It has fallen to independent researchers like Pease to lay out the evidence in a clear and concise manner, allowing readers to form their theories about this event.
Robert F. Kennedy: Ripples of Hope by Kerry Kennedy
Robert F. Kennedy staunchly advocated for civil rights, education, justice, and peace; his message transcended race, class, and creed, resonating deeply within and across America. He was the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency and was expected to run against Republican Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election, following in the footsteps of his late brother John. After winning the California presidential primary on June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy was shot, and he died the following day. He was forty-two.
Ripples of Hope captures the legacy of former senator and U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy through commentary from his daughter, as well as interviews with dozens of prominent national and international figures who have been inspired by him. They include Barack Obama, John Lewis, Marian Wright Edelman, Alfre Woodard, Harry Belafonte, Bono, George Clooney, Gloria Steinem, and more. They share personal accounts and stories of how Kennedy’s words, life, and values have influenced their lives, choices, and actions.
Delta Epiphany by Ellen B. Meacham
In April 1967, a year before his run for president, Senator Robert F. Kennedy knelt in a crumbling shack in Mississippi trying to coax a response from a listless child. The toddler sat picking at dried rice and beans spilled over the dirt floor as Kennedy, former US attorney general and brother to a president, touched the boy’s distended stomach and stroked his face and hair. After several minutes with little response, the senator walked out the back door, wiping away tears.
In this profound installment to the ever-growing index of books on Robert Kennedy, Ellen B. Meacham tells the story of his visit to the Delta, while also examining the forces of history, economics, and politics that shaped the lives of the children he met in Mississippi in 1967 and the decades that followed.
All This Marvelous Potential by Matthew Algeo
In early 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy ventured deep into the heart of Appalachia to gauge the progress of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Kennedy viewed his two days in Kentucky as an opportunity to test his antiwar and antipoverty message with hardscrabble white voters.
Among the strip mines, one-room schoolhouses, and dilapidated homes, however, Kennedy encountered a strong mistrust and intense resentment of establishment politicians.
Author Matthew Algeo meticulously retraces RFK’s tour of eastern Kentucky, visiting the places he visited and meeting with the people he met. Algeo explains how and why the region has changed since 1968, and why it matters for the rest of the country.
The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke
After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Robert Kennedy – formerly Jack’s no-holds-barred political warrior – almost lost hope. He was haunted by his brother’s murder, and by the nation’s seeming inabilities to solve its problems of race, poverty, and the war in Vietnam. Bobby sensed the country’s pain, and when he announced that he was running for president, the country united behind his hopes.
Over the action-packed eighty-two days of his campaign, Americans were inspired by Kennedy’s promise to lead them toward a better time. And after an assassin’s bullet stopped this last great stirring public figure of the 1960s, crowds lined up along the country’s railroad tracks to say goodbye to Bobby.
With new research, interviews, and an intimate sense of Kennedy, Thurston Clarke provides an absorbing historical narrative that goes right to the heart of America’s deepest despairs – and most fiercely held dreams – and tells us more than we had understood before about this complicated man and the heightened personal, racial, political, and national dramas of his times.
Make Gentle the Life of this World; Edited by Maxwell Taylor Kennedy
Throughout the 1960s, Robert F. Kennedy kept a private journal of favorite quotations, recording the philosophies of great leaders and thinkers throughout history. Thirty years after his father’s tragic death, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy has culled the highlights of this journal, along with moving portions of Robert Kennedy’s most memorable speeches, to create an inspiring, immortal voice for his father’s vision.
With passages on freedom, democracy, civil rights, education, justice, tragedy, and peace, Make Gentle the Life of This World speaks powerfully to America’s unstoppable drive for a better world. Complemented by poignant photographs of Robert Kennedy, this is an extraordinary tribute to an extraordinary hero, whose dream for America has never been extinguished.
If you enjoyed this guide to the best books on Robert Kennedy, check out our article about John F. Kennedy’s Reading Obsession!