From the Leonard Lopate show, an interview with David Talbot about the Kennedy brothers, Jack and Bobby.
It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water, soil and sea, to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal... John F. Kennedy
Leonard Lopate: David Talbot’s new book, “Brothers,” is the story of the Kennedy presidency and the two assassinations. The author takes us inside JFK’s close circle of advisors – chief among them, Bobby Kennedy, his brother and the Attorney General. Along the way Mr. Talbot reveals the conflicts that pitted the Kennedys against the military and the national security agencies about which we just heard a speech. And he considers the consequences of those conflicts. The book is published by the Free Press, and it has brought David Talbot, the founder and former editor-in-chief of Salon.com, to my show.
LL: You were a volunteer for Bobby Kennedy during his presidential campaign. How old were you?
David Talbot: I was only 16 at the time. That was 1968 in California, the primary campaign.
LL: Was that the beginning of political awareness for you?
DT: Pretty much! My mother was very enthralled by the Kennedy glamour and she got us excited. But even at that age – I was in military school at the time – I knew kids who had gone through military school and off to Vietnam. Even at that age I saw Bobby as our last hope.
LL: Did volunteers have any opportunity to come in contact with Bobby himself?
DT: No… There was a film by Emilio Estevez that some of your listeners might have seen recently, “Bobby.” And of course it focuses on his volunteers at the Ambassador Hotel during the last day of his life. No, I didn’t get to do that myself.
LL: Where were you when he was shot?
DT: Well (laughs), funny you should ask! I was in Laurel Canyon with friends listening to the radio, celebrating… his victory, and we were smoking some marijuana and having a good time… and then of course the shock came immediately after that.
LL: Did that influence your decision to go into journalism, do you think?
DT: I think it did. I think we felt closed off politically from the American system. Many people in my generation at that point. There seemed to be no way to move things forward, to stop this war. In some ways it’s like the situation we find ourselves in today with the political system out of sync with the American public’s will. We felt that very strongly as kids, because unlike today we were being drafted also to fight in this war that we thought was a mess. So journalism seemed to be particularly – as I got out of college after Watergate – seemed to be the avenue to actually effect change.
LL: Because of your personal experience, were you one of those people who read all of those Kennedy books over the years?
DT: To tell you the truth, I avoided them for many years because it was so painful to me. It was just a sad journey. And so I didn’t actually read them until later. I’ve been inspired to read them in recent years out of a need to be reminded again of what we lost and what America could be.
LL: There have been three kinds of approaches to the Kennedy story. There’s the Camelot books. The sex and scandal exposés. Then the assassination and conspiracy books. Did you think that something was missing from all of them?
Bobby believed there was a conspiracy
DT: Yes. I see my book, rather, as part of a wave of new scholarship on this subject. It’s not hagiography. It’s not worshipful. And yet it’s not scandal-driven either. And I tried to avoid some of the same dark labyrinth that many people disappeared into with conspiracy books.
LL: Though this comes closer to conspiracy book partly because Bobby believed there was a conspiracy.
DT: Well, that’s it. Bobby was, in fact, one of our – you could say Bobby was our first conspiracy theorist. He decided on the afternoon of November 22nd, 1963, that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the full story.
LL: …He decided right on that day? Most people just went into shock and then thought about it some time later.
DT: I think as Jack Newfield, who was such a close friend of Bobby Kennedy’s, told me before he died, that Bobby was lit up with the electricity of the drama on that day. And with that computer-like brain of Bobby’s, he put together what he thought was the outline of the plot. Of course he could do that because Bobby was deeply immersed in the administration. He felt the tensions and the dark intrigue that was building within the Kennedy presidency himself, personally. He was in charge of the dark side of the administration for his brother. He took care of the tougher tasks from civil rights to organized crime to Cuba – which could have become the Iraq of its day. So that’s why Bobby immediately began to go there in his mind, right after Dallas.
LL: Why have we not been more aware of this? Did he keep these thoughts to himself?
DT: Absolutely. What he said in public was to endorse the Warren Report. He did that pretty much throughout his life until he himself was killed in 1968. But he did that for political as well as personal reasons. What he was telling his closest advisors secretly or privately was that he was going to reopen the case if he made it to the White House.
LL: So – one of the reasons, you say, he ran for president was to reopen the case because he rejected the Warren Report?
DT: That’s right. Well, he wasn’t even waiting till then. He was very quietly using surrogates – using private investigators, using journalists who were friends, using advisors who were close to him – to pursue various leads. He went to Mexico City himself to look into the mysterious trip Oswald made there before Dallas. He went back to the Justice Department after he’d been elected to the Senate from New York. After hours with Walter Sheridan, the former FBI agent who was helping him with the investigation to look through files. He sent Sheridan to New Orleans when Jim Garrison was starting his prosecution there to see if Garrison had anything. So he was very much on the trail, looking into various leads, but particularly that first week. That’s when you can really see, in the hours and days right after the assassination, Bobby Kennedy at full bore looking into this crime.
Why did RFK keep quiet about his investigations?
LL: But he may have been the only Kennedy who felt that way. The others aren’t talking and they shut out Frank Mankiewisz just because he took a job related to Oliver Stone’s movie, “JFK.”
DT: Yes. The family has decided to follow – I think unfortunately -- Bobby’s public pronouncement which is “let’s move forward, not look back.” And you can understand for emotional reasons why Bobby’s children and the second generation of Kennedys would take that tack. It’s enormously painful for them to this day. They lost and uncle; they lost a father. It devastated that family emotionally. And it shouldn’t be up to the family, frankly, to get to the bottom of this. That’s the job of the judicial system and the political system in this country.
LL: So did he think that questioning the single shooter idea would destabilize the country? Was that why he was quiet?
DT: That was one reason. He made a political decision, as I said, right after Dallas to keep quiet publicly about it. One reason – I do believe – is that he thought it would split the country. There was a wonderful journal called “Minority of One” that was published by a survivor of Auschwitz, Menachem Arnoni, who, immediately after the assassination wrote in the journal just that. [See also Bertrand Russell’s “16 Questions.”] He suspected that one reason LBJ (who probably knew more about the crime than he was letting on) and Bobby weren’t saying anything publicly was that they were worried this would produce such civil strife that it could tear the country apart. Even having American soldiers firing at other American soldiers. That was one reason. The other reason I think Bobby kept quiet was that he had no power, really, to do anything. That was the main reason. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI which was basically in charge of the investigation…
LL: …Bobby hated J. Edgar…
DT: …and they hated each other. They were poisonous enemies. LBJ, of course, hated Bobby and vice versa! Bobby thought he was a usurper, that his brother should have been in that position, not LBJ, and if not his brother, he himself. So they had contempt for one another. Bobby felt his power slipping away, minute-by-minute, right after the shots were fired in Dallas.
LL: So you say you talked to people who knew what he was really thinking. You also found newly released government documents?
The internal life of the Kennedy administration
DT: Yes. Well, I think these new documents that have come out over the years don’t shed as much light particularly on the assassination as they do on the chemistry of the Kennedy administration. That’s a big part of my book, I should say. It’s not just about Dallas. It’s about the internal life of the Kennedy administration.
LL: Which you depict as being a lot more peace-oriented than people remember.
DT: Absolutely. I’m so glad you began the show today with a clip from his famous peace speech. JFK was at American University in June 1963. Imagine those words being spoken by any American leader during the Cold War or even today during our war on terror. That we can actually empathize with our enemy and see them as human beings and live in the same world with them peacefully. That’s a remarkably revolutionary message. So JFK was trying to – I think – lead the country out of the Cold War before the national security bureaucracy was ready for it. There were extremely volatile tensions between the White House and the Pentagon and the CIA, starting with the Bay of Pigs, of course – the failed CIA invasion of Cuba. They wanted Kennedy to go in right after to rescue [?] and engage them with a full military onslaught on Cuba. But he knew they’d get bogged down and we’d have an Iraq-like situation there. So he refused.
LL: But hadn’t Kennedy run for president as a cold warrior? After all, one of the big things he claimed the Republicans had done was to allow for a missile gap – which turned out to not be true, but he really out-cold-warred Richard Nixon in that campaign.
DT: Yes, he did. And I think he paid for it. And of course what he was trying to do was avoid being another Adlai Stevenson, a liberal intellectual who couldn’t possibly get elected. We’ve seen a number of Democratic candidates get out-muscled that way over the years, but Jack Kennedy was a different kind of animal. He was determined to win, one way or the other. I agree with you. I think he did go too far.
LL: But even later, he greeted the survivors of the Bay of Pigs with a promise to fly the rebel flag over Cuba some day.
DT: That’s right. He got caught up in the euphoria addressing that crowd. Again, a very emotional issue. The Cuban prisoners had just been released by Castro. They were at the Orange Bowl in Florida. And Jack Kennedy, who was usually a very cool customer, got caught up in the mood.
LL: And then he didn’t pull all of the troops out of Vietnam. There’s still a debate over whether he would have ended that war if he hadn’t been assassinated. But it seems to me he was sending out mixed signals.
Kennedy was not popular with the “military-industrial complex”
DT: I don’t agree about Vietnam, by the way. I think there’s enough scholarship now that shows he fully intended to withdraw all the troops after he was reelected in 1964. Again, he was a very shrewd political animal and he knew that if he tried to withdraw from Vietnam before the election of 1964 that would be used as a club against him by Barry Goldwater and the Republicans. So yes. What Jack Kennedy’s trying to do, I think, is something very interesting. He’s trying on the one hand to position himself – this is the height of the Cold War, let’s not forget – as a muscular, aggressive foreign policy leader. On the other hand, what he’s doing through back channels and diplomacy with Khrushchev and Castro, even Castro at the end of his life… was to establish a diplomatic dialogue that would take us out of this very dangerous hair trigger situation.
LL: And you’re saying that really angered all of the people who were part of the military-industrial complex.
DT: Absolutely. Absolutely. These were people who, in the case of Curtis LeMay, head of the Air Force, who wanted to have it out with the Soviet Union. They wanted nuclear war.
LL: Is this based on what his friends – Ted Sorenson and the like – told you? Or is there any solid proof?
DT: This is based on over 150 interviews that I’ve done with former Kennedy administration officials, friends, and colleagues. It’s based on, as you said earlier, government documents that have been released over the past 20 years. Particularly since the passage of the JFK Records Collection Act of 1992. We have a wealth of information now that is available to scholars because of that. So it’s a variety of sources. As well as histories that I’ve found by these generals, these admirals who were staunchly opposed to Kennedy. LeMay at one point in an oral history at the LBJ library calls them “cockroaches” – the Kennedy people – “who should be stepped on.” They thought that Jack Kennedy was weak, inexperienced. That he was an appeaser “like his old man, Joe Kennedy” who’d been with the Nazis in World War II. They felt he was putting the country at risk. It’s very clear from their oral histories that these hard liners in the CIA and the Pentagon did over the years, that’s the way they felt about JFK.
November 22, 1963
Two years ago in Paris, I introduced myself by saying I was the man accompanying Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I’m getting some of that sensation as I travel around Texas! [sustained applause]. Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear. [loud laughter]
LL: John F. Kennedy speaking on the morning of November 22nd 1963, just hours before he was killed in Dallas. …You say that the first call Bobby made after he heard the news that JFK had been killed was to Kenny O’Donnell. Who was Kenny O’Donnell?
DB: Kenny O’Donnell was part of what was called the “Irish mafia” -- these very loyal pols who had been with the Kennedys through the years. He was chief of staff in the White House. He was riding 10’ behind the president’s limousine in Dallas that day. He was a World War II veteran. He knew gunfire. He saw where the shots came from and reported back to Bobby that the gunfire had come both from the so-called infamous grassy knoll area as well as from behind – the Texas Book Depository.
LL: And you spoke to him as well, right?’
DB: No. Kenny O’Donnell died a young man. He basically drank himself to death having had a very sad life after the Kennedys were killed. One old Boston politician at this funeral said, “Without the Kennedys, Kenny O’Donnell was the music without the heart.” But I knew Kenny O’Donnell’s son, Kenny O’Donnell Jr. That’s where I was able to get that information.
LL: You also say he called the CIA.
DB: He did. Bobby called a number of people on November 22nd from his home at Hickory Hollow in Virginia. He called the CIA and spoke to John McCone. He spoke to an anonymous CIA official – we don’t know who – and asked “Did your outfit have anything to do with this horror?” in a voice vibrating with fury and pain. Later he called the director of the CIA, John McCone, over to his home, and he spent the rest of the afternoon as McCone assured him that the CIA had not been involved. But McCone himself believed that there were two shooters that day in Dallas, not just one. Bobby Kennedy later realized that he was talking to the wrong person because John McCone was not in control of his own agency.
LL: Because he hadn’t had a real background in intelligence and so he wasn’t really respected by the other people in the agency?
DB: That’s right. He was a political appointment. He was a Republican businessman who knew very little about the inner workings of the agency.
The mafia and the CIA come under suspicion
LL: Many other people thought that the mob might have been involved because he sure had done a lot to go after the mob.
DB: Absolutely. There’s been a debate through the ages – CIA, mafia, who did this? Bobby didn’t separate the two. Bobby’s political career began back in the 1950’s going after organized crime, the corruption of darker forces at work within the American political system and the corporate world and the unions. So Bobby was horrified to find out when he was Attorney General that the CIA had banded together with the mafia in an attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro. He knew these two organizations were already working together.
LL: His own father had been connected to the mob. As a bootlegger.
DB: Absolutely! He had. And that’s where much the family’s wealth came from. I think Bobby was somehow trying to clean the stain from the family name and being so fervent about the way he went after organized crime. In any case that day – November 22nd – he immediately linked the CIA and the mafia in his mind and he thinks that the plot against his brother has come out of the shadowy war against Castro.
LL: He said that the mafia was a greater threat to the country than communism.
DB: That’s right. J. Edgar Hoover of course – at the FBI – was still chasing communists. Bobby Kennedy said, “You know, there are more FBI undercover agents in the Communist Party in the US than there are actual communists. So he knew that was a paper tiger, the Communist Party. What he focused on was the growing power of organized crime.
LL: I get the feeling that JFK was much more willing to compromise to get his political ends than Bobby was. Bobby could be a little more reckless or at least at this time was a bit more reckless.
DB: Yes. Haynes Johnson, the Washington journalist who knew them both, called Jack an English lord – he was smooth, he was sophisticated, and he was more measured. Bobby was more an Irish priest or an Irish cop in Haynes’ description. He was a hothead. He saw things in black and white. He was a true believer. I think that became tempered over time and he became a much deeper man.
LL: Bobby wrote a book about the prosecuting the mafia called “The Enemy Within” and it had been optioned as a movie. Bud Schulberg and Paul Newman were involved in the production. But it was never made. Why?
DB: Well, because of the influence of organized crime.
LL: There wasn’t a dead horse in the bed…?
DB [laughing]: There might have been! The Hollywood studio that was set to do it did pull out at the last minute. And this was probably the influence of organized crime in the unions in Hollywood.
LL: Because the mob played a major role in Hollywood at that time.
DB: Absolutely. And there was a well-known actor who was set to go. Some think it was Paul Newman who also, I think, got cold feet at the last minute.
Or maybe it was someone from the Cuban exile community
LL: You report that Bobby called his closest associate in the Cuban exile community, Enrique “Harry” Ruiz Williams after JFK was killed. Did he accuse him of being involved?
DB: Another important call he makes, and that’s what created the drama of this as Bobby is trying to piece together. He called Harry Ruiz Williams who was his closest ally in the Cuban exile communities and said “One of your guys did it.”
LL: Because of the Bay of Pigs?
DB: Well, yes. The Cuban exiles were very upset with the Kennedys because of the Bay of Pigs. They thought they’d been stabbed in the back. But why did Bobby say this to Harry Ruiz Williams? What did he mean? What I suspect is that he knew the name “Oswald” by then and the CIA and the FBI were already trying to link Oswald to the communists as a pro-Castro agent and so forth. But Bobby rejected that immediately. What he’s thinking at that point is that Oswald was one of Harry’s guys. And when he says to Harry, “One of your guys did it,” he’s essentially saying, “It’s one of our guys.”
LL: Because there had been death threats when JFK traveled to Florida in 1963. From Cuban exiles.
DG: Absolutely. Bobby was fully aware of that. In fact, he had been meeting secretly with informers in the Cuban exile world. I met with one, a man named Angelo Murgado, a Bay of Pigs veteran, who warned Bobby that there was dangerous talk about the president in these circles. They even tracked Oswald to New Orleans, these informants for Bobby, and they reported back to Bobby that this strange gringo, Oswald, was up to something, and they didn’t know exactly what. But he seemed odd to them.
LL: So they didn’t reject the idea that Oswald had been one of the shooters. They just hadn’t been sure whether he was the only shooter?
DT: That’s right. I think that Bobby thought that Oswald was involved in some way in the plot but that he had an intelligence role of some sort. But that he wasn’t the complete story.
LL: Then also, as I understand it, the Democrats decided not to have Miami as the site of the ’64 Democratic convention because they feared for JFK’s life.
The beleaguered presidency
DT: That’s right. Again, the Kennedy presidency is a beleaguered presidency. That’s what my book details in a way no other biography or history has.
LL: We remember it as a kind of Camelot, a happy time, and then came the assassination…
DT: It was more Rome on the Potomac than it was Camelot. It was full of dark intrigue, violent forces at work. You talk about Bobby wanting to get a film version made of his book on organized crime – Jack Kennedy also knew the power of Hollywood and he felt so beleaguered that during his presidency he goes to liberal friends in Hollywood and says “Make a film version of “Seven Days in May,” the political best seller about a military coup that nearly topples an American president, because he was so concerned about the mutinous feelings within the military.
LL: Well, their father had actually made films in Hollywood and had a relationship with Gloria Swanson…
DT: [laughing]… That’s right! They knew the power of Hollywood and they knew the glamour of Hollywood. But I think he went to Frankenheimer and Kirk Douglas and others who did make that film because he was genuinely concerned about how disgruntled his own military was.
Castro and Che
LL: So what about the administration’s relationship with Cuba? You say that they were anti-Castro but didn’t believe Castro had anything to do with this. Why wouldn’t they think he might not have been behind this whole thing?
DT: Well, for one reason, they were talking peace with Castro secretly. They were using an ABC newswoman, Lisa Howard – a very glamorous woman, ahead of her time, before Barbara Walters – who was actually one of the first people to interview Castro for ABC and became Castro’s mistress. She was shuttling back and forth between New York and Washington along with a UN diplomat named William Atwood. Both of them established this channel for the Kennedys in which they were starting to broach the subject of peace.
LL: Now – we’ve heard a lot about how Nixon went outside of the normal processes of Washington to get things done. You say the Kennedys did as well. They went outside the bureaucratic channels in an attempt to control the government.
DT: Absolutely. The Kennedys were determined to get control of every arm of their government and they failed. But they were willing to go outside the normal bureaucratic channels which they felt were clogged and too conservative. An example in 1961. There’s a caucus of Latin American financial ministers in Uruguay. Che Guevara, of course the revolutionary, charismatic figure from Cuba, is at that conference and he begins to stalk Richard Goodwin, the White House aide and speechwriter who’s young and liberal himself. He sees Goodwin as an example of this new fresh young Kennedy spirit. He finds him at a party in Montevideo one night. They sit down and they talk all night about how Cuba and the US can put the Bay of Pigs and their storied hostilities behind them and have peace. When this leaks out back in Washington, of course the conservatives go crazy. But Jack Kennedy takes it all in stride. He was willing to do things that were out of the ordinary like that because he did know that the system was clogged and couldn’t be moved forward unless you did something dramatic like that.
Bobby gives up the investigation
LL: So Bobby starts doing his own personal investigation into the assassination of his brother. And then he stops?
DT: Yes. He has a burst of energy in the days and weeks after the assassination. He even sends a friend, a close friend of the family, William Walton, to Moscow – a week after the assassination – to tell them, “We know you weren’t behind the murder of my brother – it was a domestic political conspiracy.” That’s a remarkable thing for the Attorney General of the US to do, sending a secret message to our archenemy at the height of the Cold War.
LL: It also suggests he’d come to a conclusion about it. I would have thought that he would have just run up against a bunch of dead ends and realized that he wasn’t going to be able to find the answer – at least immediately.
DT: Bobby couldn’t help himself. He was on fire to get at the truth in those initial days after the assassination. But then, as you say, as time went on he realized he couldn’t solve the crime because he didn’t have the power of the federal government behind him. He did then sink into deep despair. He becomes a hollow man. He starts wearing his brother’s old bomber jacket and he shrinks inside of it because he’s losing so much weight. He’s in such terrible pain… That goes on for weeks and months. Even when he runs for the Senate in 1964, he almost loses because he’s stumbling through the campaign, lost in a fog of grief. Finally a friend comes to him – one of his toughest political aides, Paul Corbin – and says, “God damn it, Bobby, get a hold of yourself! You’re alive. Your brother is dead. Be Bobby Kennedy!” And he finally comes to life enough to win that campaign. But even after that, he suffered the rest of his life. But he finally begins to see to revive his brother’s legacy – to complete his brother’s mission – is to run for president himself.
LL: But he never talks about the conspiracy or what he had discovered in his investigations.
DT: Well, he does finally, actually, at a very curious moment. There’s a rally on campus out in southern California during this campaign where I was a volunteer. I wasn’t there that day, but I’ve heard a radio broadcast from there – it was the spring of 1968 at San Fernando State College – where students begin to heckle him. They say, “We want to know who killed your brother. When will you open the archives?” Meaning, when will the files, the Warren Report files, be opened. When will people see the evidence? And Bobby says in a kind of irritable voice, “Your manners overwhelm me!” But he always had a very interesting relationship with students. He knew that Gene McCarthy, his Democratic opponent, had won them over before he could get in the race. He was very anxious to speak honestly with students. We remember the “credibility gap” in that period when young people didn’t believe their government because of the war, because of Johnson, and so on. So it was very important for Bobby to speak honestly to young people. He’s finally pushed, that day, to be honest to a point. What he does is a very interesting tightrope walk. He again endorses the Warren Report. He says, “I believe the Warren Report.” “But,” he then goes on to say, “I will open the archives.” And the students cheered. So basically he’s signaling at that point without opening up a media firestorm by denouncing the Warren Report that “I will look at the case when I get to the White House.”
LL: You tell an amazing story about how he was hanging around Jackie’s town house hoping to be able to engage some Secret Service men to accompany him. Where was he going?
DT: This to me is very poignant. He’s Attorney General still at that point. But he can’t get his own FBI protection or Secret Service protection because Hoover hates him. So he has to go to his sister-in-law’s Secret Service guys and say, “Can you help me out here?” He was going to Dulles Airport where he met Jimmy Hoffa, his archenemy. I believe he was trying to see if Jimmy Hoffa knew anything about the assassination.
Section titles added by transcriber.