Friday book: The satyr who became a martyr

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The Independent Culture


O TEMPORA, O mores: or as Bill Clinton would say, "Why wasn't I president 30 years earlier?" The customs of those who occupy high office in America have not greatly changed over the years: infidelity, betrayal and serial philandering seem to be a permanent part of the job description. But the times have. Back then, a Kennedy or a Johnson could sin safe in the knowledge his deeds would be passed over in silence. Today, a few trysts in a corridor off the Oval Office, and 12 months later every last lewd detail is on the Internet, courtesy of a special prosecutor and the US Government printing office.

Which brings me to Bobby Kennedy, the last of three priapic brothers to get the muck-raker's belated treatment. Five years ago, Joe McGinniss did the business on Teddy Kennedy in the perfectly awful The Lost Brother. A few months back, Seymour Hersh dispatched JFK more elegantly in The Dark Side of Camelot. Now it is Bobby's turn. Alas, any hope that David Heymann's opus on the most interesting of the male siblings will earn a place on the shelf of great political lives is dashed before you even open it by the publisher's promise of a book that "will make President Clinton look like a choirboy". And amazingly, even after the revelations of the Starr report, the claim is not unreasonable. RFK: A Candid Biography is not for those suffering from scandal-fatigue.

Bobby Kennedy was eight years younger than the assassinated President to whose service he would devote his life. They were each other's best man. They shared their ambitions, their triumphs and their women. He would be JFK's campaign manager and closest political consigliere. The purpose of his own run for the White House was to pick up the torch of his fallen brother.

As a boy, he was the tough little runt of the litter, so competitive he would throw himself into the sea to learn to swim and keep up with his elder siblings. As a man he was cold, ruthless and utterly loyal to the family - "as driven in politics as he was in bed," a paramour would later remark. But after Jack's death in 1963, a remarkable transformation occurred. Not that Bobby became soft. But he learnt that most others were less fortunate than himself. The doomed 10-week candidacy of 1968 was nothing so much as a crusade for America's oppressed.

Heymann's main concern, sadly, lies elsewhere. For in this prurient and iconoclastic age, what is a Kennedy without his pants down? RFK seems to have been a mite less promiscuous than his elder brother: he did father 11 children by the same woman, to JFK's two. But, if a quarter of the tales recounted here are to be believed, Bobby too made his lecherous old father proud. And back in those days, no one outside the magic inner circle had an inkling.

Some of the claims are breathtaking. Bobby's liaison with Marilyn Monroe is well known. Less well known is his affair with the widowed Jackie Kennedy as well as with a string of other film stars. During the 1968 campaign, an aide allegedly procured him three 15-year-old schoolgirls whom Bobby watched pleasuring each other in his hotel room: "The best present anyone gave me," he is said to have pronounced afterwards. And, plunging even deeper into Sixties sexual liberation, Bobby reputedly had a fling with Rudolf Nureyev. "I saw RFK and Nureyev in a telephone booth," a prima ballerina tells Heymann, "they were kissing passionately."

First prize for carnal virtuosity surely goes to Ellen Rometsch, an East German-born socialite who in 1963 was apparently carrying on simultaneously with the President, the vice-President and the attorney general - an astounding treble that surely deserved better reward than to be sent back to her home country as a security risk by the FBI.

Beneath this pile of rutting bodies, an epic story is trapped. Only at the end does it emerge, as Kennedy marches victorious to his own murder in the kitchen of a Los Angeles Hotel, on the night of 4 June 1968, hours after winning the California primary. Ten days earlier, the French writer Romain Gary was in town, predicting to RFK's aides that, "Your guy will be killed... he's too irresistible a temptation to the American paranoiac personality, too rich, too young, too successful." Bobby Kennedy himself brushed off the warning, pointing out that De Gaulle by then had survived half a dozen attempts to kill him. "Luck," he mused. "You can't make it without that old bitch luck."

But such moments are rare. Thirty years have passed since Bobby Kennedy died, long enough to form a balanced judgement of this complicated, driven man. Yet we receive no coherent assessment of the spiritual transformation of RFK, only chunks of indigestible reportage where the prurient usually drives out the profound, and a torrent of quotes from other people expressing their conflicting opinions of RFK. Bobby Kennedy still awaits his biographer.