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February 07, 2003

Book delves into political life of RFK

Featuring details from never-before-seen documents, history professor Joseph Polermo's new book In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy begins with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and traces Robert F. Kennedy's political career from his 1964 election to the Senate through his presidential campaign, and ends with his assassination in 1968.

It is both a political biography and a story about the social struggles of the 1960s. Palermo casts Kennedy center stage, shaped by the times and shaping the agenda of the progressive, peace-minded wing of the Democratic Party.

"Robert Kennedy was a Democrat who could express liberal, progressive ideals as few politicians can do today," Palermo says.

Palermo spent years poring over every Kennedy speech from 1965 on. He also went through letters between Kennedy and supporters of the most influential political players of the time - Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Benjamin Spock, Eugene McCarthy. The book includes extensive excerpts of both.

Contrary to the generally accepted view that Kennedy turned from hawk to dove simply to run for president, Palermo found that he opposed escalation in Vietnam early on. Kennedy gave strong speeches opposing the increase in troops in 1965, far ahead of most politicians. And he said sending U.S. troops to Vietnam in the first place - a decision he participated in - had been a mistake.

In the end, Palermo says, the book is also about the start of a decline in the Democratic Party. The party ended the 1960s deeply divided over war and race. And three promising leaders who might have brought it together and inspired future leaders - John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. - had all been assassinated.

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