tv The Revolution of Robert Kennedy and Kennedy and King CSPAN June 11, 2017 4:59pm-5:47pm EDT
>> on the printers row with fast in chicago the final panel of the day is a conversation about the kennedy administration and relationship between the president, robert kennedy and martin luther king junior. >> hello, ladies and gentlemen. welcome to the 33rd annual printers row lit fest. i want to give a special thank you to all of the sponsors. the program will be broadcast live on c-span book tv. if there's time at the end with the offers we ask that you use the microphone provided and speak into it so the viewers at home can hear you. before we begin today's program we ask that you silence your phones and turn off your cameras. please welcome the interviewer, jane daly. >> i'm from the university of chicago department of history.
i'm not going to be talking so much today which is just as well because we have two fabulous authors to talk about their incredible books. let me tell you a little bit about them and then they will talk to you. the first author today is john bohrer, reporter, writer, television news producer, morning joe, i want to say he's the producer of morning show but apparently there's others as well. his writing has been published across a wide range of outlets including politico and the new republic and his book here, "the revolution of robert kennedy: from power to protest after jfk" is his first book published by bloomsbury. the second author today is steven levingston, journalist who has recorded and edited for "the wall street journal" and the international herald tribune and is currently the mom fiction book editor for the "washington post." he's also the author of little demon and the city of light the true story of murder and
mesmerism in paris which is published in 2014 and i can recommend this fascinating story where you have a woman that is a cold hearted murderer or did she tell under hypnotism. his book today that we will talk about is "kennedy and king: the president, the pastor, and the battle over civil rights." it's published by hashtag. i would start by asking a question to you. your book is the overlook years of robert kennedy's life which are the years after the assassination of john f. kennedy in 1963 until 1966. why did you pick those three years of all the different chronological spans. >> i think that is how he represented change and come they'd change and these are the
years in which it manifested itself. this is a time of upheaval in the country. not only his boss who have gone away but his life for his entire life. he had suddenly decided what it was he was going to do. most books have taken a path of robert kennedy is depressed, runs for the senate, then runs for the presidency and picks up the story midway in the senate years where it was a much more complicated path going back and looking at the memorandum to the correspondence and the oral history and also the news clippings because robert kennedy was covered so extensively in this peer code to the point that it rivaled only the president of the united states. you would find five or six stories on a busy day.
there was this incredible case of the brother of the slain president i trying to work thins out with lbj for the first six months and then beyond that as robert kennedy is finding his independence and becoming the person he was at the end of his life. >> you say that he never had a goal that wasn't john kennedy's. both of you mentioned in the books the relationship of both kennedys to joseph. so i'm interested in hearing about bobby kennedy working with joseph mccarthy that it was your story not to distance himself from mccarthy but the way that he managed not to distance himself to the degree that other senate democrats did. that surprised me. they both seem to have a sympathy and a fondness for the
unwillingness to jettison mccarthy more than i expected. >> kennedy had an excuse to not say anything about joseph mccarthy during the time when mccarthy was causing so much trouble in the united states because john was very sick and had been many times in his life, but this time he was having a back issue again and was in the hospital. so he took the opportunity of sort of hiding around his operation to avoid having to speak out and condemn mccarthy. but what is interesting about this particular moment in his life is that as he did many times in his career and his life, he thought about it again a second time later and realized perhaps he didn't show the courage that he needed to show. so it was soon after this but he
started thinking about writing the book profiles in courage where he looked at a group of senators who sort of acted on their best intentions even at the risk of their political careers to take a solid stand on an issue. in some ways it was an early moment in john kennedy's career where he began to feel he wanted to become something more than he had ever been and become a leader in a way that had never been. he could recognize courage that he couldn't practice it. >> i think it was more courage and less profile, something like that. when it comes to robert kennedy and joseph mccarthy as a political leader he wasn't
jettison people who were loyal to his family. they were good to us in 1960 with something that the senate staff dreaded to hear because that meant he was about to do something they felt was more about politics and principle. that was robert kennedy's reputation especially at the end of jfk blank life. he was opportunist and would do anything for votes. that was part of it that he didn't have this kind of guiding set of principles. it was a political liability for him and in some ways it showed i think political courage to stand by a person he had been previously had feelings for. he also blamed one of the political mentors for a lot of
failings as well so that brings it back a little bit. >> what makes the books nicely paired together as both are about kennedys brothers trying to become something better than they had ever been. they are involved and looking at their lives trying to decide what can they do to truly fulfill the family's goal for public service. bobby was coming along in a certain way and throughout the story in my book that is basically what john was trying to do. from the lopez when they came into the presidency he wasn't a civil rights advocate but as we know. they announced the civil rights legislation and spoke about civil rights in a way that had never been spoken before
speaking of it in moral terms. how did he become the john kennedy of 63, as i searched and tried to figure that out, where did he get his empathy and his mobile guidance and find his conscience? i found martin luther king was always popping up in my researches and martin luther king was one of the key figures if not the key figure helping john kennedy along the path to become basically the first civil rights president. bobby kennedy was a big figure in the evolution as well. it's about who gets to be first.
in the beginning with john kennedy going to jackie robinson and trying to get to the keepers of the black vote before martin luther king seemed to be jackie robinson and harry belafonte. it's an interesting part where you remind us that richard nixon had a much better reputation for civil rights than john kennedy did as a democrat. the democratic party wasn't the party, it was white supremacy at this point and they were much smarter and in particular nixon hadn't martin luther king already. so they tried to get his way into politics and he's having a hard time doing it. >> he didn't have the black vote going into the election. bobby kennedy and others realized he had to do something to attract the black vote.
some of those early meetings didn't go very well with jackie robinson turned into a bit of a dispute where jackie robinson felt they were trying to buy him off and that he wasn't looking him in the eye when he was speaking to him and he had committed to the relationship going back sometime. john kennedy couldn't satisfy martin luther king in the belief
that kennedy knew about civil rights and was committed enough to it. so they had the long way to go o build a road. one of the strongest advocates who was bobby kennedy's republican opponent in the 1964 senate race. and he continued to be a critic of the actions on civil rights as he went along in the senate as well. >> i was surprised reading your book at how strongly they wanted
to be the vice president which made no sense to me at first. >> it was robert kennedy's understanding of the political scene in december of 1963. he said we will not matter a damn about the legacy. he would have been shocked at the celebration of the centennial. just because he thought it was going to be lyndon johnson's party and things were changing so he said we need to do what we can to stay in power and continue the things we started. the most conventional path to power in december of 1963 was to become the vice president because then he would be the natural successor to the democratic party and have the chance to rekindle that. it's tough to say when the campaign began, but the first days of january, 1964.
it was a write-in primary at the time and you could write in for the vice president as well. a couple operatives began a campaign and was in close contact with the call logs and messages. to go forward a little bit more we prepared an itinerary for him, things you should do if interested in going to build good rapport for the convention in 1964. and by following bobby's travels, i was able to show that he did it. he not only heard the advice, but he followed it. pressuring johnson through other means having other conversations and other things that were not previously reported about and robert kennedy decided that lyndon johnson does not understand loyalty, and he kind
of comes to that conclusion when he hears lyndon johnson berated his staff to him. johnson's staff. how could he talk about these people that had been so loyal to him. johnson wasn't the right way for him to go and he kind of meandered its way into the senate and rode johnson's coattails to the seat and then he began to discover his own independent path after that and that is the kind of trace that i take you through in the book. >> because the primary is so less important. >> an >> did you look like you were going to talk about vice the vie presidency. i was interested in your book, you talk about how bobby kennedy
didn't have access to the president anymore but he manages to get his ideas through to lyndon johnson. lyndon johnson would hear him out and say great to hear from you, i will consider that and then he would get on the phone with senator richard russell on the issue of vietnam. can you tell us a little bit about what it's like writing a dual biography. >> in this case it probably was
a little bit easier because my goal was to show the relationship between the two men. you can't really write the one biography without another. but in this case, it was a matter of trying to show their development from a early days and i start with the beginning of their lives and how the theye so different coming from. different backgrounds. there were still some similarities between the man in the sense they both suffered from discrimination if you can believe they did suffer from discrimination when they first arrived of being catholics in boston his family suffered being black in the south but there was sort of a beginning saenz of feeling kennedy may understand a little bit of what king has been through in his family. and it was from that beginning point that i felt as i
researched it more there was the sense that he had the potential to understand the plight, but he was just very slow at accepting it and constantly was concerned about the political situation and took his time and looked at civil rights more as a law and order issue or policy issue and not a moral issue until martin luther king was able to teach him and educate him and bring him along by his persistence to the point where he made his famous speech in june of 63. >> i would push back a little bit on that one. if you are looking at the circumstances that put john kennedy into the position of backing him into the position without having to take a strong
stance is more the actions of the younger generation during this intense. they said can't you stop doing this it ends and do something less explosive like voting rights. >> they were trying to manage a political situation and i think it took them a long time to see this was a moral situation not a political situation. in may of 63 there was a meeting and park avenue at the father's apartment with activists some of whom were very angry. one man said, i think it was an organizer from new orleans said he wanted to bomb it just by being in a room with a kennedy and he goes on to talk about how he wouldn't fight for his country and he's disgusted by that. he is disgusted by that. how could he say such a thing. but instead of letting his ego overtaken by being the attorney
general having this kind of contentious conversation with people he feels he's trying to help, he realizes no, there is an insult in this country and you see that word creep into his country. he talks about a soldier killed in vietnam buried in arlington national cemetery. and they don't know how they are going to get back up or how they are going to come to see that man buried in arlington. they don't know where they can stop for rest or a drink of water and that is wrong in this country so therefore you see him start to talk about it in a moral sense. he says if washington, adams or jefferson were in the new york city they would be leaving these evolutions, too. >> if you are already in the 63. >> by this point of course we
are about to lose john kennedy. john kennedy dies before the movement hits the hike in 63. november 631 of the first things in the book is how robert kennedy wants to re-sign as the attorney general because he feels he's become politically toxic to both segregationists in the south but he's cramming the orders down their throats and the demonstrators but feel he is slow walking them and he thinks he can't even go back to run the campaign because then people will think that he's still important and jfk says no you can't do that it will look like we are running out on civil rights. but for the most part it will look like a weakness and that's why you can't get rid of a family member once we are in the white house as we are learning. [laughter] and that goes to show they were
viewing it as a political problem and was going to cost them into was a kennedy brothers thing. there've been a lot of books about both of your characters. your book tells us some things about martin luther king that we haven't brought to the floor before. can you tell us what we learned about margin in particular. the people were pushing the movement forward and there was a time when martin luther king was almost receiving in the early 60s. they proceeded and he was a true believer in the nonviolent resistance and that wasn't
giving him so well in the early 60s as the younger people came up and we had the freedom ride and the sit in and protests in albany. he almost was overtaken by these other folks in the movement and as a part of my theme or my fury in the book it is as much as in the end when we come around to birmingham influencing it kind of educating john kennedy to move forward. kennedy by the way he was reacting in such a slow and ambivalent way was forcing king to be more aggressive in the way that he did things and that's why i believe we got birmingham and some of the movements and actions in birmingham were rather extreme. in earlier days he probably wouldn't have gotten along with such as having children as young as six and seven being part of
the protest. and first he was much opposed to this, but they had meetings and discussions and he realized things were not happening fast enough and now thing things havo happen he was willing to take that extra step. so, what i was trying to portray in the book is how both men were working on each other pushing kennedy alone in a strange way by his ambivalence kennedy pushing king to be more aggressive. >> you talked about the earning him in particular. >> they were put into that position by his inability to get the kennedy administration to lift any pressure on the other side. >> and he didn't do that lightly. the thing about martin luther king when he was trying to
decide if he would defy against marching in whether he should go out with everyone else and get arrested or hold back and continue to be the leader in the backroom and asked himself what is the moral thing you have to do and in that particular case he came around to say what is the most important action at that time to lead the movement forward so that there would be some strong action from the administration. and he was right. >> i think i asked the two of you earlier, if they got the wrong kennedy. >> i think that the two brothers were different as everybody knows. robbie was much more passionate
than john. p. wore his emotions on his sleeve and responded in an invisible way things and john was much more reserved. but they both have a capacity for growth and change and evolution. i think it was partly bobbies passion and evolution particularly after that meeting when he was confronted by others about how slow his actions were that he started to evolve much more dramatically and pushed his brother along. >> they died before the 60s really started speeding and getting out of control.
i talked with you about how you got to see him progress through the 1960s. robert kennedy had to wrestle with things that jfk did not and i think that therefore makes him kind of a change agent you would look to the. >> the big elephant in the room is lyndon johnson who pushes through the major civil rights legislation and presides over the action and goes through further than either of them legislatively in the great society proposal. where does he sit in this story we have but to kennedy brothers in november i the vendor's lyndn
who i'm sure if you were here -- >> lyndon johnson during that administration bobby was called the number two man in washington. sometimes thought of a as a sustained president. lyndon johnson was telling one of his closest aides in 1963, go on, i'm past my prime. he looks defeated and then he's reinvigorated by power. he does go on to do some legislative feeds. the kennedy orbit was resentful of this, body especially. he didn't like that johnson was being praised. they say julius caesar only ran for years and is immortal. it helps if you have shakespeare to write about you. i think that when it comes to
lyndon johnson, a very powerful person, dynamic person, but also a man who didn't know how to contain his appetite. towards the end of my book, you see bobby having to cut through school lunches that lyndon johnson had initiated you don't get the kennedys without johnson. that plays out i think and especially with bobby. who is going to control the future of the democratic party they couldn't come together and you know how that story ends. they had the momentum has been
suggested by john kennedy. it's always offstage in these narratives driven by bobby kennedy and john kennedy and martin luther king and lyndon johnson in the wings and from the narrative point of view i'm wondering how we can write the biographies that don't. the biography always puts the individual ahead of the story. that is its nature. how do you keep one eye altogether on the actors. >> i enjoy how the buck had a lot of the people that are not kennedy and jfk into the buck.
you have to understand that they are affecting the political actors and therefore, the interpretation has to come through how they push this person to sort of be the constant in that case. everything james farmer did affected, not everything affected what jfk was going to do, but when he did step into the story, that was big. so, i don't know. i think that you have to look at the bigger picture and encompass it in this person because they are vehicles for the story. john f. kennedy, you can hear his voice. robert kennedy, martin luther king you can hear their voices and for us to understand these 50 years later for someone like me two decades after it, that
helps a lot. i do think there were a lot of players involved in how the civil rights movement played out. but when push comes to shove in the end it came down to the white house. the white house and john kennedy and afterwards lyndon johnson was guiding what was happening in the social world already. and john kennedy was a man who believed in the great fury of history where they do guide the civilization along. and i kind of began to subscribe to that myself after seeing what kennedy and king were doing at the time. it's hard not to believe society could go in many different ways. this whole civil rights movement of the 60s could have gone in many different ways of john kennedy had not been there and if dwight eisenhower had still been there. eisenhower was someone who was
not terribly interested and that is why things didn't happen the way they might have. but i think someone like kennedy and bobby kennedy and martin luther king sent a larger sort of view on where society needs to go and i think that holds throughout the spectrum up to the current moment where the leaders we do have impact on what happens to us from day-to-day. >> it is a much bigger cast of characters. >> i want to take some questions from the audience.
>> can we have some questions. well done among the players that you described, one has gone unmentioned and i wondered if that is intentional. a certain bill and did everything he could behind the scenes to undercut doctor king efforts. is there anything you would like to add about him? >> you are absolutely right. he was there trying to be center stage and he had his views about race. they would have information about king being a communist and
everything else and passing it along to bobby kennedy knowing that he would pass it on to his brother. while they may not have believed it, they had to at least give enough credence to keep king at arms length because if the information got out and it was seen that king was believed to have any communist associations and they were too close to him, it could have an impact on them as well. succumb it was a very messy situation. hoover was a negative force in the situation. >> it's represented in my book as well to uncover some of the conversations that johnson had that were previously redacted about the advice that he was giving them about the democratic party in 1964.
it goes to show that when you have a politically active detective agency and the fbi how dangerous it can be for executive power. >> i'm a little bit interested in joe kennedy, joseph kennedy senior. he sets a patriarchal figure to the whole kennedy clan and of course both brothers. they became such great champions of civil rights and of course joe kennedy was very anti-semite and not quite sure. perhaps you can enlighten me on how we talk about the experience. but did the kennedys have to go against this or were they afraid of his influence?
please, shed some light on that if you can, please. >> on how he'd react to the civil rights portions of the kennedy brothers and by the time we reach the buck joseph kennedy had a stroke and could no longer really communicate. though i will say how he dealt with the disagreements with his father in 1966 he gives a program on the far to the left insisted the speechwriter if my father heard this, he would talk again. [laughter] so they knew where their father stood and would disagree with their father when they did politically. joe kennedy senior had his stroke and 61 so it was earlier in the administration.
he was not capable of when john became more reliant which was only good in the long run because bobby as we saw was the evolving more rapidly towards an empathetic view on the civil rights so joe kennedy was the non- entity at this time. one aspect of the influence in the way that i preceded in my book is par that part of the evolution during this period was to become a more empathetic and compassionate person and that was brought about partly by his father's illness. his father was quite incapacitated and they still engaged him and have him around all the time.
but he was the one who was always there kissing his father on the four head and in a way i think it contributed to the maturation and a sense of becoming more of a compassionate man who was not only able to see the compassion personally but also socially in a larger picture in civil rights. >> i have a question about your reaction to the book. it was left and right and i do not mean that in an unflattering way to.
do you share time with him or . they were trying to bring private money into rebuilding funds. there was the view of the contemporaries that worked closely with him. they were telling a story and i'm not sure i just tried to go through and report it in the way that a moderate reporter would follow the three day by day. when it comes to robert kennedy's position, i will talk
about that and how he came to his beliefs. he was a pragmatist. and if that required a government intervention in which he spoke very favorably of in december of 1963 he writes that the government is where the problems get solved. it's fashionable to look down on it. we need to build a consensus so when they devised a program for eradicating and rebuilding the slums in the separate speeches in 1966, the third speech was how do we bring along the people that feel left behind by the great society. why should the government help them when we are talking about the middle-aged and middle-cla
middle-class. 1965 p. for 27 or 28-years-old. therefore, we need to be able to do something for them which contributes to society and we should be able to help them. it's a small democrat and i think robert kennedy dealt with the situations as they saw the best solutions. it's how relevant they continued
to be and how these books are because of civil rights progress is a never-ending thing. as you make progress there are steps back and in the case of john kennedy he made the speech in june of 1963 it was the most profound thing you've ever heard from a president and the optimism and hope. however as most of us know that might, medgar evers came home from his work that evening and was shot to death in his driveway.
that is a glorious moment in the celebration for civil rights progress. a month later we had four little girls killed in a bombing in birmingham. you can even take it further and say in 2000, obama was elected and we have a black president finally. that was a wonderful thing and that was a major step forward in civil rights. then today we are facing again a backlash on civil rights.
to keep fighting and understanding that the progress must always be put forth as best we can and always expect that it's not going to be an easy task. >> there is another young kennedy now so maybe we can go forward in that direction. but in the meantime, thank you all for coming and thank you to the authors and their fabulous books. don't forget to buy them on the way out. [applause] thank you very much for coming out to today's program. join us outside for book signings. thank you.