Monday when we got home from the beach, my copy of RFK, Jr. was waiting for me on the doorstep. The book was one of seven that I’d ordered from Edward R Hamilton. At night, I was wound up from being on the road and read the first 80 pages (through Chapter Eight) before I went to bed.
Oppenheimer comes out with guns blazing, so you know what you’re going to get right from the start. On page 1, Oppenheimer writes that RFK, Jr. “… became the end, rather than the fulfillment of the [Kennedy] dream.” Still firing away, on page 2 Oppenheimer refers to JFK, Jr. as RFK, Jr.’s “far more handsome first cousin.”
So far, RFK, Jr is like a book-length version of the National Enquirer. Much as you might want to think to think that you’re better than the Enquirer’s salacious headlines, you know you’re going to read them the next time you’re at the grocery store. Likewise, the pages turn quite easily in RFK, Jr. However, I did think that the book lost some momentum around page 60 or 70, as Oppenheimer got bogged down in the details of RFK’s drug-addled days in prep school.
Are You Smarter Than Uncle Ted?
Since the book’s main payoff is in its salacious details, I’ll include some of the greatest hits from the first 80 pages –
Oppenheimer states that RFK, Jr has long spent his life worried that he’s not very smart, writing “He never believed that he had, for instance, the brainpower of his father, or his uncle Jack, or even his uncle Ted” (p. 13).
After RFK’s murder, Ethel felt that Jr needed a male role model. So, she turned to Lem Billings, a camp follower of JFK’s. Oppenheimer notes dozens of times that Billings was gay and in love with both JFK and RFK, Jr. He even goes so far as to say that Billings and JFK were sexually involved while they attended prep school together in the 1940s.
The last 50 pages or so dealt with Jr’s time at Millbrook, which Oppenheimer describes as a third- or fourth-rate boarding school for troubled boys from wealthy families. Sent to Millbrook just after his father’s assassination, Jr certainly fit the bill. At Millbrook, by all accounts, Jr was a problem and he never graduated. During this period, he sank deeper into drugs and even petty crimes (that he committed for thrills). In Chapter Eight, Oppenheimer discusses whether Jr started taking drugs intravenously during this time (though Oppenheimer makes no definitive statement one way or the other).
Ethel – Mommy Dearest
If there is a villain in RFK, Jr. it is his mother, Ethel. Oppenheimer describes her as an entitled, absentee mother who physically abuses both RFK, Jr and her staff. Oppenheimer even blames her – in part – for RFK’s murder. He writes that while the Kennedy family was reluctant to have Bobby run in 1968 due to fears that he would be assassinated, Ethel helped push him into the race. Oppenheimer quotes Ethel’s brother, Jim Skakel, as saying “The crowds, the press, the hyper state. It was as bad as cocaine. Ethel likedG the fast lane. You could not debate with her. There was no two-day street” (p. 21).
While RFK Jr tries to diminish the Kennedy family’s Camelot myth, I give Oppenheimer credit for handling the RFK murder in a short, but well-written section that tugged at my heart. Whatever you think of the Kennedy family, you have to feel for Ethel and the eleven children left to mourn RFK.
A Bit Sympathetic
A few years ago, I used to watch CNN’s coverage of the OJ Simpson trial. One of CNN’s “talking heads” was attorney Gerry Spence. One day, Spence commented that a lawyer has to be careful with cross examination, because a jury will begin to feel sympathy for a witness it believes has been attacked too harshly.
Something similar happened to me with RFK, Jr. After 80 pages of slams from Oppenheimer, I started to feel a touch sorry for him. Even though Jr went off the rails, he was a teenager dealing with his father’s murder and with society’s enormous expectations for him. I can’t say that I would have done any better.
So, RFK, Jr is a snarkfest. I worry that the book is slowing down, as Oppenheimer is delving too deeply into RFK, Jr’s interests in animals and drugs. However, I’m not going to lie and say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy those 80 pages. I don’t know how much of it is true, but I wasn’t bored.
So far, I’d give RFK, Jr 8 out of 10.