Chris Matthews On The 'Raging Spirit' Of Bobby Kennedy

Dec 2, 2017
Originally published on December 3, 2017 2:33 am

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball, wrote a new book on Robert Kennedy, holding the compelling figure up to the light of history. It raises the question: Do voters in the U.S. permit their politicians to change their minds, learn and grow throughout their lives?

Robert Kennedy served as attorney general under his older brother President John F. Kennedy and his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. Robert Kennedy also served as senator for New York, until his assassination in 1968.

Matthews recently met with NPR's Scott Simon to discuss his new book. During the interview, they discussed Kennedy's life and political career — but also the situation regarding Today show host Matt Lauer, who was fired for sexually harassing women.


Interview Highlights

On the pervasive sexual abuse in media

You know I think, maybe this seems odd to believe, but men, I don't think talk about these things with other men. I know all these cases like you and everyone listening and they come as a surprise even to people who even know them. When I think about a Charlie Rose, I think: "Can you shorten the question a little bit?" And when I think about, man, you got that Humphrey Bogart upper lip and you ask the tough questions and people like you: How do you do that? How do you seem so tough and likeable?

I look at them professionally. I look at Charlie Rose and I say when do you sleep? I mean he was doing the morning show, getting up at five in the morning, doing the night show, he tapes — but having this social life on the side. How does — and I heard he sleeps at four different places and he gets a few hours sleep here and there. ... That's the level of which I understood Charlie. I also wondered why he never got married and those kinds of things.

Again, I don't think men brag about — why would you brag about using your power for sex or even romance? I don't think people talk about that.

In each case, they're dealing with individual people who were cognizant, who have memories and feelings, and anger. And in every case they were creating a problem.

On what Robert Kennedy would say today

I think: "Unity."

I think of the train tracks in New Jersey and that grim June day in 1968 when his body was taken down from St. Patrick's in New York down to Arlington to join his brother. And the people who spontaneously showed up along the tracks, the African-Americans of Baltimore who began to sing. And this was something that had never happened in America, they began to sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. They learned it at church, they knew all the verses! And then the poor white people, really dirt poor white people saluting him as a patriot. Someone had an affection for him in a patriotic sense.

I think this is something we really need today: unity.

On Robert Kennedy's familial influence

I think that shook him deep to his soul, but I think the other thing that happened was his father's stroke. He had to get his father off his back. Joe Kennedy Sr. was a formidable but, I think, menacing figure in his life, who took a sweet, young, seventh-born — who he had called a "runt" — and encouraged him to become tough and ruthless; first a jock at Harvard, getting his letter with a broken leg. Then becoming this enforcer for his brother — that's what won finally the attention of the old man. And only when he was tough did the old man respect him.

And I think when his father became incapacitated, Bob began to resort to who he was as a kid. As a kid he hung around all the time with African-American kids — those were his playmates. When Father [Leonard] Feeney said "no salvation outside the Catholic Church," [Robert Kennedy] railed against that, which was so extraordinary in that very Catholic family.

He insisted that the great African-American statesman [Ralph Bunche] get to speak to an integrated audience at [the University of Virginia] when he was in charge of a lecture series down there. There's all kinds of evidence of Bobby Kennedy being a liberal — in the best sense of that word. And I think it just came more to life after [John F. Kennedy] was gone and after the old man was out of action.

On how public figures can change in public

I think the hardest thing for him, and to me the sweetest thing in the book was his evolution on Joe McCarthy. There's no doubt that he loved the guy, it came through right to the end when he was driving in the car to the national airport, and Kathleen, his young daughter said he was so stricken by the news that McCarthy had just drank himself to death at Bethesda [Naval Hospital], that he drove around the airport three times. He was just destroyed. And he ended up sneaking off to the funeral and the burial site to try to protect his brother. But he did come out against [McCarthy], he wrote the resolution against him and he tried very manfully to avoid committing those mistakes when he ran the rackets committee.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Chris Matthews is in our studios. The host of "Hardball" has a new book which holds a compelling figure up to the light of history, which may move us to wonder if Americans permit their politicians to change their minds - learn and grow along the trail. His book - "Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit." Chris, thanks for joining us this morning.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Scott, thank you.

SIMON: We will talk about your book. But you're in the news business, and, you know, first question has to be - you know Matt Lauer. Any idea he was abusing women or behaving that way?

MATTHEWS: You know, I think maybe this seems odd to believe, but men, I don't think, talk about these things with other men. I mean, I know all these cases like you and everyone listening, and they come as a surprise even to people who know them. And when I, like, think about Charlie Rose, I think, well, can you shorten the question a little bit? You know, when I think about Matt, I got - you got that Humphrey Bogart upper lip. And you asked a tough question. Yet people like you. How do you do that? How do you seem so tough and likable?

I look at them professionally. I look at Charlie Rose, and I say, when do you sleep? I mean, he was doing the morning show and getting up at 5 in the morning, doing the night show he tapes but having this social life on the East Side. How does he - and I heard that he sleeps at four different places, and he gets a few hours sleep here and there. That's the level in which I understood Charlie. I also wondered why he never got married and, you know, those kind of things. But, you know, again, I don't think men brag about - why would you brag about using your power for sex or even romance? I don't think people talk about that.

SIMON: So were men in powerful positions in the media willfully blind? Did they laugh it off? Did they - why doesn't it register?

MATTHEWS: I don't know because in each case, they were dealing with individual people who were cognizant, who have memories and feelings and anger. And in every case, they were creating a problem.

SIMON: Let's ask about your book about Robert F. Kennedy. What makes the story timely now? I know you've been working on it for a long time, but what do you think he has to say to this generation?

MATTHEWS: I think unity. I think of the train tracks in New Jersey and that grim June day in 1968 when his body was taken down from St. Patrick's in New York down to Arlington to join his brother and the people who spontaneously showed up along the tracks - the African-Americans of Baltimore who began to sing. And this was something that had never happened in America. They began to sing the "Battle Hymn Of The Republic" they'd learned at church. They knew all the verses. And that spontaneous - and the white - poor white people. I mean, really dirt-poor white people saluting him as a patriotic compatriot someone had an affection for in a patriotic sense. I think that was something we really need today - unity.

SIMON: As you write in the book, though, for much of his public life, he was derided as ruthless...

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

SIMON: ...His brother's hatchet man. How did he...

MATTHEWS: He was all those things. I...

SIMON: Did his brother's death, in a sense, liberate him to seek a new identity, to travel, to get to know and reflect the world?

MATTHEWS: I think that shook him deep to his soul. But I think the other thing that happened was his father's stroke. He had to get his father off his back. Joe Kennedy Sr. was a formidable but, I think, menacing figure in his life who took a sweet, young seventh born who he had called a runt and encouraged him to become tough and ruthless - first a jock at Harvard, getting his letter with a broken leg, and then becoming this enforcer for his brother.

That's what won, finally, the attention of the old man. And only when he was tough did the old man respect him. And I think when his father became incapacitated, Bobby began to resort to who he was as a kid. As a kid, he was - he hung around all the time with African-American kids. Those were his playmates, even in Hyannis. He was - he, you know, Father Feeney - when Father Feeney said no salvation outside the Catholic Church, he railed against that, which was so extraordinary in that very Catholic family.

You know, Ralph Bunche - he insisted that that great African-American statesman get to speak to a integrated audience at UVA when he was in charge of the lecture series down there. There's all kinds of evidence of Bobby in the beginning being a liberal in the best sense of that word. And I think it just came more to life after Jack was gone and after the old man was out of action.

SIMON: Will American voters these days - and donors and journalists, for that matter - let a public figure change in public the way Robert Kennedy did?

MATTHEWS: Well, I think the hardest thing for him - and to me, the sweetest part of the book - was his evolution on Joe McCarthy. There's no doubt that he loved the guy. It came through right to the end when he was driving in the car at National Airport. And Kathleen, his young daughter, said he was so stricken by the news that McCarthy had just drank himself to death at Bethesda Naval Hospital that he drove around the airport three times. He was just distraught.

And he ended up sneaking off to the funeral and the burial site to try to protect his brother. But he did come out against him. He wrote the resolution against him, and he tried very manfully to avoid committing those mistakes when he ran the Rackets Committee.

SIMON: OK. Chris Matthews, thanks so much for being with us. His book is "Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit." Thanks for joining us today.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.