Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Gives an Insider’s Glimpse of History

CCB MEDIA PHOTO Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to a sold-out crowd in Hyannis as a benefit for the JFK Hyannis Museum.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to a sold-out crowd in Hyannis as a benefit for the JFK Hyannis Museum.

HYANNIS – Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said he never talks about his family in public. His grandmother Rose Kennedy used to always say, “Never talk about yourself. Talk about your issue.”

That and other life lessons learned growing up in America’s most famous family were part of a two-hour lecture last night, “An Evening With Robert F. Kennedy Jr.” to benefit the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum. The lecture was meant as a companion piece to the museum’s exhibit, “Jack & Bobby: Brothers First,” about the relationship of Kennedy’s father with his uncle, JFK.

The talk was given to a sold-out audience at the Cape Codder Resort and Spa in Hyannis. Among the close to 300 people in the crowd was Kennedy’s mother, Ethel Kennedy, who appeared to listen closely to dozens of family stories. Some of the most amusing anecdotes involved Ethel Kennedy herself—for example, her urging her young children to push the secret red button that would call FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover to her husband’s office when he was US Attorney General.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the third of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children.

His stories went back to his great grandfather, the gregarious politician John Francis “Honey Fitz,” Fitzgerald, whose outrageous escapades used to irritate his son-in-law Joe Kennedy to no end, according to family lore.

Kennedy offered a number of colorful anecdotes about life at the compound in Hyannisport—just a bunch of houses, he noted, not a fortress with gun ports and towers as some might imagine.

CCB MEDIA PHOTO Ethel Kennedy and her daughter-in-law Victoria Kennedy, wife of her son Max, at a talk by her son Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Ethel Kennedy and her daughter-in-law Victoria Kennedy, wife of her son Max, at a talk by her son Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

While most adults were afraid of Grandpa Joe Kennedy, he was always kind to the grandchildren, Kennedy noted. He would often take them on morning horseback rides through his farm property in Osterville. But he did demand punctuality—of everyone.

Kennedy told the story of his uncle Jack Kennedy taking a beach walk with his aunt Jean and the two were late for lunch.

Joe Kennedy stood outside the house and demanded they get to the house for the meal.

“Doesn’t he know I’m President?” Jack Kennedy asked.

Grandmother Rose, like the other adults in the lives of the 29 grandchildren, was constantly quizzing the children on current events, American and Irish history, Greek and Latin word origins and poetry. She would take long walks with the grandchildren around Hyannisport with newspaper articles clipped to her clothing that she would quiz them on during the walk.

She was extremely frugal, Kennedy said, walking across the compound to Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s house to tell them to turn off a light at night, for example, or nibbling a quarter of her favorite treat, a Peppermint Pattie, then carefully folding up the rest to save for another time.

The children were raised “communally” at the compound, Robert Kennedy Jr. said, having dinner one night a week at each of the aunts and uncles homes. They were given lessons in all manner of sports by an Olympic athlete, which included being taught to sail a boat solo from Hyannisport to Nantucket, spend the night and return.

CCB MEDIA PHOTO After a talk by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., members of the sold-out crowd ask questions.

After a talk by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., members of the sold-out crowd ask questions.

But Kennedy seemed most at ease talking about politics. From giving details of his father’s complicated relationship with Lyndon Johnson and his feud with J. Edgar Hoover to Jack Kennedy’s philosophy on foreign policy, Kennedy offered a wide range of memories and insights into the inner workings of the top echelons of power in the 1960s.

An environmental activist and attorney, Kennedy linked issues from 50 years ago to battles still being fought today on issues of foreign affairs, corporate power and social equality.

He told the story of speaking at the 2004 Democratic Convention on environmental issues and meeting a first term senator from Illinois who also spoke. He gave that senator, Barack Obama, a ride back to Martha’s Vineyard on Larry David’s private plane and chatted with him on the flight.

When Bobby Kennedy Jr. found out that Obama’s father was from Kenya, he wanted to know whether he knew of Kennedy family friend Tom Mboya who organized the so-called “Kennedy Airlift,” a project to educate Kenyan children that was paid for by JFK. Turns out Obama’s father was the first Kenyan student to be educated in the United States through the program, which afforded him the opportunity to meet Obama’s mother.

“Tom Mboya is the reason I’m in this country,” Obama is said to have responded.

From the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam to Civil Rights, Kennedy said his famous father and uncle gave he and his siblings a first hand glimpse of history.

After Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called in 600 guards to protect James Meredith, the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi, he wrote a letter to his son about what was happening, with the words, “I hope that when you go to college that these struggles are over.”

Knowledge of history, understanding of current events, and an insistence on the family’s obligation in each generation to help the country, and especially those less fortunate, in years to come were always the focus.

“We were all involved and they made an effort to make us understand that what they were doing was important, that they were trying to bend American history along a moral trajectory. . . . They wanted us to be part of that in the future,” he said of his father and his uncle. “They were constantly inculcating us with that value. That we had an obligation to be of service.”

Speak Your Mind

737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
Contact Us | Advertise Terms of Use 
Employment and EEO | Privacy