Walter A. Morris, the retired vice president and general counsel of Con Edison of New York in a recent essay revisited history and concluded that his previous assessment of Robert F. Kennedy, former U. S. attorney general, brother of John F. Kennedy and one of his closest advisers, was faulty.
"I had always thought of Bobby as being angry, opinionated, narrow-minded and ready to pick a fight. What changed my views?" he writes.
Morris than describes how he learned about Bobby Kennedy's role relating to the Cuban Missiles Crisis while reading Robert A. Caro's monumental biography, "The Passage of Power," about the life of Lyndon B. Johnson.
During one of those very tense moments of deliberations about how to respond to the Soviet challenge, the possibility of a nuclear attack on Soviet missile sites in Cuba was lurking in the background, Morris writes, "Bobby Kennedy slipped a note to the president that said, "Now I know how Tojo must have felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor."
By all indications, Morris came to believe, that Bobby Kennedy's influence on the president in great measure persuaded him to feel, "We have to deal with this awful threat, but there had to be another way to do so."
The way was found by imposing a naval blockade around Cuba, and negotiating with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, through back channels. Morris notes that Bobby Kennedy played again a crucial role. He assured Soviet Ambassador to the U. S. Anatoly Dobrynin, orally, that if the Soviet removed its missiles from Cuba, in due course, the U.S would remove its nuclear Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
Bobby Kennedy played another critical role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was his advice to the president, regarding a reply to two separate letters sent by Khrushchev. His first letter was conciliatory, the second belligerent. Bobby, a lawyer by training, advised the president to ignore the Soviet leader's second letter and answer only the conciliatory one. Twenty-four hours later, the Cuban Missile Crisis was over.
I had also mixed feelings about Bobby Kennedy. I considered him quite a ruthless politician. An episode changed my mind.
In the winter of 1965, Ted Cave, the local garbage collector in Lake Placid, came to our place to pick up the trash. Usually jovial, Ted was dejected. I asked him, why? He recounted his painful experience that occurred a while ago.
He had helped an elderly woman to cross the icy Main Street, by holding her arm. The woman thanked Cave, than suddenly recognized him. "I didn't realize you are the garbage man," she said indignantly, "I wouldn't have let you to touch me."
Cave was deeply hurt. "I am used to insults like that. I am snubbed even in my own church. Whenever my name comes up to be elected an usher, I am always blackballed."
A short while later, I learned, Sen. Robert Kennedy and his family are in town, on a skiing vacation. I wrote a letter to him, describing Ted Cave's plight.
Kennedy picked up the phone and called Cave. They talked for 30 minutes. It changed Cave. He gained a new perspective on his place in society. Their conversation became the talk of the town. Subsequently Ted was elected an usher at his church.
Some people in town thought that Kennedy's call to Cave had been motivated by political expediency. When Frank Mankiewitcz, once Bobby Kennedy's closest adviser was reminded of the episode, he said: "The story is true. There could hardly have been a motive of political expediency for talking to Ted Cave for 30 minutes."
In due course, I received a letter from Sen. Kennedy, thanking me for bringing Cave's plight to his attention. The letter is now part of the Special Collection at the Swem Library of the College of William & Mary.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.