Jack Newfield and Robert Kennedy: A Lunch that Launched a Memoir


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June 5, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 34

Memoir of a Hero Who Died at Five
by Clark Whelton

In February of 1966, Jack Newfield appeared on a tv talk show to discuss his recently published book “A Prophetic Minority.” During the course of the program he offered several observations on Robert Kennedy. Kennedy was O.K. on the Dominican Republic but hadn’t spoken out on Vietnam. Newfield then explained what made Kennedy interesting to him. “He has an existential quality. He can only understand himself in action. He is preoccupied with suffering and despair, yet his character is balanced by a sense of the absurd.”

Robert Kennedy happened to be watching the show, and the next day, at Kennedy’s suggestion, he and Newfield had lunch together.

In spite of a big fight over Kennedy’s record as attorney general — Newfield’s first view of Kennedy was from a picket line at the Justice Department in 1963 — they hit it off personally. Newfield had been thinking about doing a biography for his next book, and the lunch with Kennedy helped him make up his mind. Newfield: “Kennedy was the first national politician I had met who had human reactions. He wasn’t plastic. He wasn’t programmed. He could get angry or be funny and yet always be himself. He was a complicated person with a rich enough character for a whole book.”

Now, 40 months later and a year after the murder of Robert Kennedy put an end to a bitter Presidential campaign that cost Newfield not only the man who was both his friend and hero but also a sizable portion of his own political following, the book, “Robert Kennedy: a Memoir,” has been published (by E.P. Dutton). Newfield and I sat in the back room of the Lion’s Head last week, talking about the book and listening to the city sounds drifting in off Sheridan Square. Newfield explained his mixed feelings about journalism in book form as he sipped his beer. Although “A Propthetic Minority” had sold well, he didn’t like the venal world of assigned reviews and middlemen that made it “almost capricious whether a book is successful or not.” The press gives a writer a direct relationship with his readers without the intermediaries of press agents and reviewers. But the journalists that Newfield admires most — Camus, Orwell, Fanon, Agee, and Mailer — all wrote books and, like Newfield, participated in the events they described.

“What I want to do with my journalism,” Newfield added, “is to have an effect upon people, events, and institutions. The best journalism in the last couple of years has had such an effect. Macdonald’s piece on poverty in the New Yorker, Chomsky’s Vietnam essays in the New York Review of Books, this kind of journalism has really had an impact.”

I asked Newfield why he and Kennedy got along so well together. Kennedy was a rich Irish Catholic with an upper-class education and background, while Newfield…

“I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the only white kid on the block. I went to Boys’ High when it was 90 per cent black. My father died when I was four, and my mother had to work. I wanted to be a sports writer, and even though there was no tuition at Hunter I had to drop out for a year and go to work so I could get enough money to continue going to college. I had no real religious feelings. I’m Jewish…but I stopped believing in God when I was 14 years old.”

“So there you were,” I said, “with a lower-middle-class background…”

“Lower class,” Newfield corrected.

“…lower-class background, and a spokesman for the New Left and SDS-oriented politics, suddenly admitted to the midst of the big cufflink crowd of power and privilege. Didn’t you have any gut reaction to this world and the people who live in it?”

“It was just a professional relationship,” Newfield answered. “I liked him and liked watching him grow. Our lunch in ’66 was just about halfway beetween the time I first saw him in ’63 and the day in ’68 when Tom Hayden and I stood crying over his coffin in St. Patrick’s. He was changing all this time. But it was over a year before he invited me to his house in Virginia, on the weekend of the Pentagon march. Dick Goodwin and Mary McGrory were there, and that’s not quite the moneyed jet set.

“Kennedy knew that I disliked Ted Sorensen and Vanden Heuvel, and Teddy Kennedy. There were two great questions that Bobby had to decide while I knew him: whether to speak about the war and whether to run for President. And those three guys in particular kept telling him not to talk about the war and not to run for President. Bobby knew the bad feeling I had for them and the fact that I did a very negative piece on Sorensen for The Voice in ’66, one of the harshest I ever wrote…

“I never went on a yacht with him…I played football with him, had dinner with him, talked about marijuana and Dylan and introduced him to Hayden and Phil Ochs, but it was always understood that I was never going to work for him, that I had very different politics from his, that I saw my role as an advocacy-participatory journalist, that I never had any skills or desire to be an administrator…

“When the Presidential campaign began…I really began to get a lot of shit. People thought I was being bribed by Kennedy. Newsweek did a story about it, and I kept quiet for a month. Then, about the beginning of May, I felt embattled about this and finally made the decision that I was not going to pull back. I was so convinced that I was right to be for Kennedy and that the liberal establishment, the people I call the boutique guerrillas, were so wrong to be for McCarthy that I was willing to put my entire credibility as a journalist on the line for Kennedy. I began to speak at colleges and debate for Kennedy.

“One of the basic themes of what I’ve written for The Voice in the last five years is the dishonesty and bullshit of orthodox liberalism. And there were the ADA, the New York Post, and the reform Democrats, all supporting McCarthy, and I think they were incredibly wrong. But of all the political decisions I’ve had to make since I’ve been writing for The Voice, this may have been the hardest for me, because I got so embattled and took so much personal abuse. But it’s the one I’m most sure I was right on…”

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