Book Review: The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy by David Halberstam

I’ve been wanting to read this book for years, but I’ve never been able to find it at a price I could afford.  It’s the only Halberstam book I know of that’s out of print.  I’m not really sure why.  It’s a very good book, albeit a short one.  It’s far shorter than any other Halberstam book, most of which are doorstoppers.  I found a used copy on Amazon for a reasonable price and snapped it up.  It turned out to be a small Bantam paperback originally priced at 95 cents, the first paper edition.

Normally Halberstam, in his classic works of modern history, goes to the roots of things by giving complex backgrounds of every major character and situation.  He does not do so in this book.  “The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy” starts in 1967 when Kennedy is contemplating whether or not to run for the presidency in 1968.  He had originally planned to wait until 1972, but circumstances forced his hand.  The book follows his entry into the primary race against Eugene McCarthy and against first Johnson and afterwards then-vice president Hubert Humphrey when Johnson, his political career shattered by the ongoing war in Vietnam, withdrew.

Uncharacteristically, Halberstam minimizes the background in this book.  Instead, he gives just enough explanation to make the situation comprehensible as Kennedy moves from Indiana to Nebraska to Oregon to California on the primary trail.  He does, however, work in Kennedy’s evolution as a politician and a moral man from being campaign manager in the 1960 presidential race and then Attorney General for his brother John, his reaction to John Kennedy’s assassination, his running for and gaining a senate seat in New York, and his decision that due to the quagmire in Vietnam and the deterioration and chaos in American cities he could not put off his presidential run until 1972.  He jumped into the race late but quickly picked up momentum.  He was astonishingly popular among the blacks and the Mexican immigrants but had mixed success among liberals in his own party.  He had a setback in Oregon and a solid victory in California that put him back into a strong position.

On the eve of victory in California, though, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in a hotel kitchen by a Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan.  Interestingly, although Halberstam alludes to the assassination in his narrative, he stops the book just short of describing it, just as Kennedy was going downstairs to celebrate his victory in the primary.  The book is cut short so abruptly, the reader fully aware of what is about to happen, that it is more shocking than if Halberstam had gone on to describe Kennedy’s death in gory detail.  The impression is that Kennedy was just coming into his own as a moral force, with a very good chance of assuming the presidency and setting the nation in a different direction, and suddenly that time line was snuffed out, forever eliminated by the bullets of a madman.  The ending brings the title into stark relief.  Kennedy’s odyssey was truly unfinished.  One can only wonder what would have happened if he had lived, had been elected president with his strong commitment to the poor of the nation and to ending the war in Vietnam.  As it is, the country got Richard Nixon, law and order, heavy bombing of North Vietnam, and further extension of the war into Cambodia and Laos.

Typically Halberstam remains aloof from his material, but in this book he frequently alludes to himself in the first person, as he accompanied Kennedy as a reporter for much of the campaign.  It renewed my wish, alas to remain forever unrequited, that Halberstam had written an autobiography.  He was one of the most well-traveled, knowledgeable, and erudite reporters in recent American history, and his story would have made fascinating reading.

Reading books such as this helps me see my own place in history more clearly.  I remember hearing about Robert Kennedy’s assassination, although I don’t remember the exact moment the way I remember hearing about when his brother President John F. Kennedy got killed.  I remember sitting in a classroom and the school principal came in and told us that the president had been shot.  It was a shocking revelation even though I was too young to appreciate its real significance.  Anyway, young as I was, naive as I was when Robert Kennedy was killed, I felt the storms of history swirling around me.  I didn’t understand all the forces that were at work, but they shaped me, they shaped my decisions, they inevitably influenced the formation of my thoughts and opinions.  So now, as I seek out and read worthy books like this one on the history of the 1960s and 1970s, the Vietnam War, race relations, riots in the ghettos, the hippy era and the antiwar movement, I assemble pieces of what influenced my growth and the growth of the nation and the world around me.  It’s part of the lifelong voyage of self-discovery.  It’s an illuminative process that is never-ending, that attains nuance and depth as it progresses.

I recommend this book.  It’s a great little classic of modern history and God knows why it has gone out of print.  It’s one of Halberstam’s early works.  Sometimes these things are tied up in ridiculous contract fine print that once signed and agreed to cannot be undone. If you can find a copy at a reasonable price, go ahead and pick it up.  It’s a worthwhile read.

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