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Back in Paperback: The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy

By (March 22, 2013) No Comment

The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy 

halberstam rfk

By David Halberstam

Open Road, 2013


Even after forty-five years, the ecstatic blurbs on David Halberstam’s relentlessly slight 1968 The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy still have the power to astound. Theodore White called it “a distinguished work of literature.” John Leonard preferred “probing and powerful.” Russell Baker said it was “the best thing on Robert Kennedy that I’ve read.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a first-rate prose stylist in his own right, raved that it was “poignant and powerful.” Readers unfamiliar with the practice of journalistic log-rolling will be incited to awe before they’ve read a word. Readers new to the book (and surely Open Road is hoping to snare a number of such readers with their pretty new trade paperback reprint?) might be led to believe Halberstam’s book was actually good.

It isn’t. It’s as choppy, sluggish, verbose, distracted, and sanctimonious as the day it was born. There are countless passages like this one, about the Kennedy family, that combine with gruesome efficiency untenable claims and unreadable prose:

They wanted to be able to get the full measure and mileage out of the power and unity of the family, to the degree that outsiders felt that the power thrust of the family came first and issues second, and they wanted, at the same time, to convince the uneasy, sophisticated dissenter that they were doing all these things because of the issues involved.

Or this, about RFK himself, the younger brother of slain U.S. President John F. Kennedy:

Yet finally he was judged, he had to be judged, not jus on the past and the mythology of the past, but in his time, when America itself was changing so rapidly, and on his capacity for growth.

Or this, about a dinner RFK attended during his 1968 run for the presidency:

It was awkward to start with because [rival candidate Hubert] Humphrey was to be the main speaker, and thus Kennedy seemed an interloper. Kennedy was to speak first and then leave. When he first walked into the hall (journalistic applausemeter: Kennedy polite applause; Humphrey warm applause), he already looked different, tense, his hands knotted. The band played the national anthem, the soloist sang, Bobby sang, and no one else sang. It was the kind of thing he loved.

Such examples abound in these pages; the thing is one protracted case-demonstration of why journalists shouldn’t be allowed to imitate their betters and write books. And yet journalists do, and some of those books become classics, and sometimes they deserve to be classics (it’s miraculous what a good editor can do to a manuscript composed in large part of scribbles, old taxi receipts, and misremembered quotes from Edmund Burke). Marathon by Jules Witcover, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, The Friends of Richard Nixon by George Higgins, even Halberstam’s own later book The Best and the Brightest – these are political classics, worthy of study even after all their living subjects have shuffled off to Hell. And like all the Kennedys, RFK had about him that strange lightning-field that could often elicit inspired prose; Jack Newfield’s book (published one bitterly crucial year after Halberstam’s) Robert Kennedy: A Memoir is exactly the sharp, intelligent you-are-there kind of account Halberstam’s book wants to be but isn’t, and neither work can compete with Arthur Schlesinger’s towering 1978 masterpiece, Robert Kennedy and His Times.

The admittedly slim appeal that remains for The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, apart from its status as a curio of its time, is its immediacy: in its pages, RFK is a living, striving young man, not yet frozen by his own tragedy. Halberstam was often present for the rough-and-tumble of that 1968 campaign, when angry students would heckle the candidate and vent their frustrations over social injustice and the bloodshed in Vietnam. RFK was sometimes bewildered by the depth of these angers, but he was working his way toward an understanding of them that would have been profound. “What we need in this country is to cut down the belligerence,” we hear him say in Halberstam’s book. “If we let this hatred and emotion control our lives, we’re lost.”

The agonized patrician, the basically reluctant activist behind those words is mostly absent from this book, but at least the words themselves are a good introduction.