By: Dale King Contributing Writer
The brief presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a torch that illuminated the merits of youth, accomplishment and exploration, burned barely 1,000 days from the time he took office to the day he was felled by an assassin’s bullet.
That period is still celebrated as “Camelot,” which, like the mystical story, was a time when good prevailed and bad was all but expunged.
A child of Camelot came to Boca Raton last month, one of the 29 youngsters known as the “Kennedy cousins,” all of them grandchildren of Joe and Rose Kennedy, the elders who bore a family that would produce a dynasty of politicians, community activists and war heroes, yet would endure insufferable tragedy and loss.
Robert Francis Kennedy Jr., standing tall in a pinstripe suit on the University Theater stage where he appeared as part of the Palm Beach Book Festival, drew significant applause the evening of Nov. 2. He was there to talk about his new book –“American Values, Lessons I Learned from My Family” — and to receive FAU’s Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters Making Waves Award.
“The award recognizes the incredible impact his environmental activism has had on our society,” said Michael Horswell, dean of FAU’s Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters.
Son of Robert Kennedy, who was known as “Bobby” or “RFK,” his dad was U.S. attorney general during the presidencies of his brother, John, and Lyndon Johnson. RFK was a U.S. senator from New York and later an aspiring presidential candidate when he himself was gunned down in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles minutes after winning the 1968 California presidential primary.
Bobby Kennedy was 43; his son, now 64, was just 14 years of age when his father passed, leaving his pregnant wife, Ethel, and 10 children.
The younger Kennedy, who bears a striking resemblance to his dad, is an American environmental attorney, author and activist. He serves as president of the board of Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit environmental group that he helped found in 1999. In addition to “American Values, Lessons I Learned from My Family,” his books include “Crimes against Nature” and “The Riverkeepers.”
The eco-attorney admitted to some befuddlement during his Boca visit. He had just completed trying a lawsuit against chemical company Monsanto, maker of the backyard pesticide Roundup, which the government has determined to be carcinogenic. Kennedy won the case and $289 million. But to step into the proceedings unexpectedly, he had to cancel his book tour.
Now back promoting the tome, he joked: “I have kind of forgotten what the book is about.” As the audience laughed, he said, “You tell me.”
RFK’s son spoke on a variety of topics, but the allure of Camelot and all its trappings seemed to prevail. The younger Kennedy remembered how the family gathered at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport on Cape Cod. Visitors to the seaside spot were unable to see over the tall white wooden fence, but could hear the playful revels of the athletically inclined Kennedy clan.
The big, white house at Hyannisport was Ground Zero for the Kennedy administration. It housed the infamous red “hotline” phone. “If you picked it up, Khrushchev would answer,” he said.
And he also remembered seeing three Marine helicopters approaching the Compound each week “carrying my dad, my uncle Steve Smith, my uncle Ted and my uncle, the president.” On the porch sat Joe and Rose Kennedy, awaiting the family’s arrival.
When Bobby and Ethel moved to Washington, D.C., they had a zipline installed behind the house, an apparatus that young Kennedy said caused “many trips to Georgetown Hospital.”
Robert Jr. spoke proudly of his mom, Ethel, who just celebrated her 90th birthday in Palm Beach. She raised 11 children – including one born after her husband’s death. “I admire and love my mom as much as anyone could,” he said. “I appreciated it more now that I have six children of my own.”
He revealed that his mother was “a party girl,” yet his father was “very shy. He didn’t enjoy making small talk. If he didn’t have to go to a party, he wouldn’t.”
The Virginia home of his parents, Hickory Hill, was a place where “we had a lot of laughter. But there were serious times, too, like discussions of civil rights.” He said the home had 40 phones, each with five lines.
Kennedy solemnly remembered Black Sunday during the 1962 Missile Crisis. “The Feds came to evacuate us. My dad said, ‘If there’s a war, it’s better to be dead.’ We disagreed with that.”
After a 13-day crisis, there was no nuclear war, but it was close. As commentators at the time said, “Khrushchev blinked,” and turned back the Soviet ships bound for Cuba with missiles on board.
Before he was hustled off stage, Kennedy offered new comments on a couple of issues from that era that are still of interest today.
“My uncle (President Kennedy) and my father didn’t want to go into Vietnam. The president sent 16,000 advisors, but no combat troops. Four days before he was killed, President Kennedy ordered all troops out of Vietnam by 1965.”
“It’s said that Lyndon Johnson was jealous of my father. But he really showed much courtesy to our family. When my father was crushed and shattered (after JFK’s death), Lyndon was concerned about my father’s psychological state.” Kennedy said LBJ sent him on a diplomatic trip to Indonesia where he was able to concentrate on his work and stave off some of his grief.