Emilio Estevez’s movie, “Bobby,” introduces the martyrdom of Robert Kennedy to another generation of Americans, but it was Robert’s reaction to his brother’s death that is really most instructive to the young.
Robert Kennedy was dining at home on Nov. 22, 1963, when J. Edgar Hoover called. “I have news for you,” Hoover began coldly. “The president’s been shot.” Kennedy turned away from his lunch companions, his hand to his mouth and his face twisted in pain.
In the ensuing months, he was devoured by grief. One of his biographers, Evan Thomas, writes: “He literally shrank, until he appeared wasted and gaunt. His clothes no longer fit, especially his brother’s old clothes — an old blue topcoat, a tuxedo, a leather bomber jacket with the presidential seal — which he insisted on wearing and which hung on his narrowing frame.”
But during March 1964, he visited Bunny Mellon’s estate in Antigua, and spent the vacation in his room, reading a book Jackie Kennedy had given him, “The Greek Way,” by Edith Hamilton.
“The Greek Way” contains essays on the great figures of Athenian history and literature, and Kennedy found a worldview that helped him explain and recover from the tragedy that had befallen him. “When the world is storm-driven and the bad that happens and the worse that threatens are so urgent as to shut out everything else from view,” Hamilton writes, “then we need to know all the strong fortresses of the spirit which men have built through the ages.”
Classical scholars often scorn Hamilton because she wrote in a breathless “all the glory that was Greece” mode, but her book changed Robert Kennedy’s life. He carried his beaten, underlined and annotated copy around with him for years, pulling it from his pocket, reading sections aloud to audiences in what Thomas calls “a flat, unrhythmic voice with a mournful edge.”
Kennedy found in the Greeks a sensibility similar to his own — heroic and battle-scarred but also mystical. He shared the awful sense of foreboding that pervades the work of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and that distinctly Greek awareness of the invisible patterns that connect events to one another, how the arrogance men and women show at one moment will twist back and bring agony later on.
Hamilton is at her best describing the tragic sensibility, the strange mixture of doom and exaltation that marks Greek drama. It was based on the conviction that good grows out of bad, virtue out of hardship, and that wisdom is born in suffering. Kennedy memorized a passage from Aeschylus, which Hamilton quotes twice in her book:
“God, whose law it is that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
Kennedy, recovering from his brother’s murder, found in the ancient Greeks a civilization that was eager to look death in the face, but which seemed to draw strength from what it found there. The Greeks seemed more convinced of the dignity and significance of life the more they brooded on the pain and precariousness of it.
Kennedy underlined a passage of Hamilton’s book in which she summarizes the rippled nature of Greek optimism: “Life for him was an adventure, perilous indeed, but men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life. And, at the worst, there is that in us which can turn defeat into victory.” If they were doctors of the spirit, the Greeks’ specialty was to take grief and turn it into resolution.
The story of Kennedy’s grief is the story of a man stepping out of his time and fetching from the past a sturdier ethic. He developed a bit of that quality, which greater leaders like Churchill possessed in abundance, of seeming to step from another age. Kennedy became a figure in the 1960s, but was never really of the ’60s. He promoted many liberal policies but was never a member of a team since he drew strength from somewhere else.
And the lesson, of course, is about the need to step outside your own immediate experience into the past, to learn about the problems that never change, and bring back some of that inheritance. The leaders who founded the country were steeped in the classics, Kennedy found them in crisis, and today’s students are lucky if they stumble on them by happenstance.