Biography of Robert Kennedy, US Attorney General, Presidential Candidate

President Kennedy's brother was running for president when assassinated

photo of US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy
Robert F. Kennedy in his office at the Justice Department, 1964.

Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images

Robert Kennedy was the attorney general of the United States in the administration of his older brother, President John F. Kennedy, and later served as a U.S. senator from New York. He became a candidate for the presidency in 1968, with opposition to the war in Vietnam as his central issue.

Kennedy’s vibrant campaign energized young voters, but the great sense of optimism he represented ended in tragedy when he was mortally wounded immediately after declaring victory in the California primary. Kennedy's death not only served to mark 1968 as a shocking and violent year, it changed the course of American politics for years to follow.

Fast Facts: Robert F. Kennedy

  • Known For: Attorney General of the U.S. during administration of his brother, John F. Kennedy; Senator from New York; presidential candidate in 1968
  • Born: November 20, 1925 in Brookline, Massachusetts
  • Died: June 6, 1968 in Los Angeles, California, victim of assassination
  • Spouse: Ethel Skakel Kennedy (b.1928), married June 17, 1950
  • Children: Kathleen, Joseph, Robert Jr., David, Courtney, Michael, Kerry, Christopher, Max, Douglas, Rory

Early Life

Robert Francis Kennedy was born November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts. His father, Joseph Kennedy, was a banker and his mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, was the daughter of the former mayor of Boston, John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald. Robert was the seventh child in the family, and the third son.

Growing up in the increasingly wealthy Kennedy family, Robert lived a very privileged life as a child. When his father was named the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938, the Kennedy children were featured in news stories and even movie newsreels depicting their travels to London.

As a teenager, Robert Kennedy attended Milton Academy, a prestigious prep school in a Boston suburb, and Harvard College. His education was interrupted when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after his oldest brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., was killed in action in World War II. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the Navy, but saw no action. He returned to college following the war's end, graduating from Harvard in 1948.

Kennedy entered law school at the University of Virginia, from which he graduated in the class of 1951.

While in law school he dated Ethel Skakel, whom he had met while helping to manage his brother's congressional campaign. They were married on June 17, 1950. They would eventually have 11 children. Their family life, at a Virginia estate known as Hickory Hill, would become a focus of fascination for the public, as celebrities from the world of show business and sports would visit for parties which often involved touch football games.

photograph of Robert and John Kennedy
Robert Kennedy (left) and John Kennedy in a Senate hearing room.  Bettmann/Getty Images

Washington Career

Kennedy joined the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice in 1951. In 1952, his older brother, Congressman John F. Kennedy, successfully ran for the U.S. Senate. Robert Kennedy then resigned from the Justice Department. He was hired as a staff attorney for the U.S. Senate committee run by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Kennedy worked for McCarthy's committee for five months. He resigned in the summer of 1953, after becoming disgusted with McCarthy's tactics.

Following his interlude working with McCarthy, Kennedy moved to a staff job as an attorney working for the Democratic minority in the U.S. Senate. After the Democrats took the majority in the Senate in the elections of 1954, he became the chief counsel for the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Kennedy convinced Senator John McClellan, who chaired the Investigations subcommittee, to form a select committee on labor racketeering. The new committee became known in the press as the Rackets Committee, as it specialized in investigating organized crime infiltration in labor unions. Senator John F. Kennedy served on the committee. With Robert as chief counsel often asking the questions of witnesses in lively hearings, the Kennedy brothers became familiar figures in the news.

photo of Jimmy Hoffa gesturing to Robert Kennedy
Jimmy Hoffa gesturing to Robert Kennedy at a Senate hearing.  Bettmann/Getty Images

Kennedy vs. Jimmy Hoffa

At the Rackets Committee, Robert Kennedy focused on investigations of the Teamsters Union, which represented the nation's truck drivers. The union's president, Dave Beck, was widely assumed to be corrupt. When Beck was replaced by Jimmy Hoffa, who was rumored to be deeply associated with organized crime, Robert Kennedy began to target Hoffa.

Hoffa had grown up poor and had a well-deserved reputation as a tough guy in the Teamsters Union. He and Robert Kennedy could not have been more different, and when they squared off in a televised hearing in the summer of 1957, they became stars in a real-life drama. Hoffa, making wisecracks in a gravelly voice, was defiant in the face of Kennedy's pointed questioning. To anyone watching it seemed obvious that the two men despised each other. To Kennedy, Hoffa was a thug. To Hoffa, Kennedy was a "spoiled brat."

photo of Robert Kennedy in his Justice Department office
Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department, 1964. Bettmann/Getty Images 

Attorney General

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, his brother Robert served as his campaign manager. After Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon, he began to select his cabinet, and there was talk of picking Robert Kennedy to be the nation's attorney general.

The decision was naturally controversial, as it sparked charges of nepotism. But the new president felt strongly that he needed his brother, who had become his most trusted adviser, in the government.

As attorney general of the U.S., Robert Kennedy continued his feud with Jimmy Hoffa. A team of federal prosecutors became widely known as the "Get Hoffa Squad," and the Teamster boss was investigated by federal grand juries. Hoffa was eventually convicted and served a term in federal prison.

Robert Kennedy was also focused on organized crime figures, and at one point advised President Kennedy not to deal with Frank Sinatra because of the singer's friendships with mobsters. Such events became fodder for later conspiracy theories that the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers were connected to organized crime.

As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction in the early 1960s, Kennedy, as attorney general, was often monitoring developments and at times sending federal agents to maintain order or enforce laws. A serious complication developed as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who hated Martin Luther King, wanted to tap King's phones and plant listening devices in his hotel rooms. Hoover was convinced that King was a communist and a enemy of the United States. Kennedy eventually acquiesced and gave approval to the wiretaps.

Senator From New York

Following his brother's violent death in November 1963, Robert Kennedy went into a period of mourning and sadness. He was still the nation's attorney general, but his heart wasn't in the job, and he was not happy working with the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson.

In the summer of 1964, Kennedy began to seriously think of running for a U.S. Senate seat in New York. The Kennedy family had lived in New York for a time during his childhood, so Kennedy had some link to the state. Yet he was portrayed by his opponent, the Republican incumbent Kenneth Keating, as a "carpetbagger," meaning someone who came into a state just to win an election.

Kennedy won the election in November 1964, and took office as a senator in early 1965. As the brother of the recently assassinated president, and someone who had been in the national news a decade, he immediately had a high profile on Capitol Hill.

Kennedy took his new job seriously, spending time studying local issues, visiting rural parts of New York State, and advocating for impoverished neighborhoods in New York City. He also traveled overseas, and put a focus on issues of poverty around the globe.

One issue would begin to dominate Kennedy's time in the Senate: the escalating and increasingly costly war in Vietnam. Though American involvement in Vietnam had been a feature of his brother's presidency, Kennedy came to believe the war was unwinnable and the loss of American lives needed to end.

photo of Robert Kennedy campaigning in Detroit
Robert Kennedy campaigning in Detroit in 1968. Andrew Sacks/Getty Images 

The Anti-War Candidate

Another Democratic senator, Eugene McCarthy, had entered the race against President Johnson and nearly beat him in the New Hampshire primary. Kennedy sensed that challenging Johnson was not an impossible quest, and within a week he entered the race.

Kennedy's campaign immediately took off. He began attracting large crowds at campaign stops in states holding primaries. His campaign style was energetic, as he would plunge into crowds, shaking hands.

Two weeks after Kennedy's entry into the 1968 race, President Johnson shocked the nation announcing that he would not run again. Kennedy began to seem like the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, especially after strong showings in primaries in Indiana and Nebraska. After losing the primary in Oregon, he came back strong and won the California primary on June 4, 1968.

Death

After celebrating his victory in a Los Angeles hotel ballroom, Kennedy was shot at close range in the hotel's kitchen in the early hours of June 5, 1968. He was taken to a hospital, where he died of a head wound on June 6, 1968.

Crowds watching funeral train of Robert F. Kennedy
Crowds lined railroad tracks as Robert Kennedy's body returned to Washington. Bettmann/Getty Images

After a funeral mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, Kennedy's body was taken to Washington, D.C., by train on Saturday, June 8, 1968. In a scene reminiscent of the funeral train of Abraham Lincoln, mourners lined the railroad tracks between New York and Washington. He was buried that evening in Arlington National Cemetery, a short distance from President Kennedy's grave.

His killing, coming two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and less than five years after President Kennedy’s murder, became one of the most memorable events of the 1960s. Robert Kennedy's assassination cast a pall over the election campaign. There was a feeling among many that he would have won the presidency in 1968, and the modern history of the United States would have been quite different.

Kennedy's younger brother, Edward "Ted" Kennedy kept the family's political tradition going, serving in the U.S. Senate until his death in 2009. Children and grandchildren of Robert Kennedy have also served in political office, including Joe Kennedy III, who represents a Massachusetts district in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Sources:

  • Edelman, Peter. "Kennedy, Robert Francis." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s, edited by William L. O'Neill and Kenneth T. Jackson, vol. 1, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003, pp. 532-537.
  • "Robert Francis Kennedy." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 8, Gale, 2004, pp. 508-509.
  • Tye, Larry. Bobby Kennedy: the Making of a Liberal Icon. Random House, 2016.