Reactions in the Media to Robert Kennedy

We know Robert Kennedy today as the man who was assassinated before he had the chance to become elected President in 1968. But who was he before that? What were the issues he was dealing with as his brother, JFK, was elected President?

You might think that President John F. Kennedy’s appointment of Robert Kennedy, his brother and campaign director, to the Attorney-Generalship would be wrought with cries of nepotism, but nepotism is barely touched on as a consideration for the reason why Bobby was appointed. Looking at newspapers, it is considered briefly and then thrown aside in favor of other, more pertinent issues — his age and his lack of experience as a lawyer. What was mostly printed was what looked to be very defensive praise of Bobby, reactions to the apparent majority, which was not in favor of having him in the Administration.

When the President of the United States is elected they have to nominate people to be members their Cabinet, one of those positions is Attorney General. The person appointed can then accept or decline their nomination. The Senate of the United States then has the power to review and then either approve or reject the nominee for the position.

When there were first rumors, in late November of 1960, that Democratic then-President-elect JFK would nominate Robert for Attorney General, he was reported as apprehensive in taking the post. Bobby had a way of getting an answer out of John when nobody else could — he was his best friend. The people most worried he would not accept the nomination were the staffers, purely for the reason that they felt less able to approach JFK when he was in an inaccessible mood, or even when he was fine but they needed to address sensitive problems.

Bobby was nominated at age 35, the youngest Attorney General in quite sometime. He had just been admitted to the American Bar Association 10 years earlier, and had spent none of that time working in a private law firm — he went straight to working for the Government and had worked for the Government ever since. Most Attorney Generals before that time were known for being good lawyers, but Bobby had no experience.

What was mostly quoted in the newspaper was either praise or neutral facts about his experience and age. The most negativity there was on Bobby was in a direct quote of an excerpt from his testimony in front of the Senate panel, and even then it ended in praise. The only person who did not seem wild about Robert Kennedy was Robert Kennedy himself.

Eleanor Roosevelt did a good job of balancing her support and skepticism for Bobby in her column, “My Day”:

I think the storm of protest which has been aroused by the appointment of Robert Kennedy to the Attorney-Generalship is beginning to seem foolish. … It may well be that after careful thought and search the President-elect has decided that the qualities needed to carry through this job are found in his brother. This judgement may be good or bad, but it seems to me that we might wait with a little more calm to find out whether President-elect Kennedy’s objectives are better obtained through the way he has chosen, or whether he should have observed the unwritten tradition that having members of your family in positions of government where they carry real responsibility is dangerous.

She has faith in JFK’s ability to choose an Attorney General and does not think he is someone who would nominate his brother for a Cabinet position lightly. She is suggesting that the public might not trust the leader they just elected.

In Wallace Carroll’s article “Appointing a Relative: Kennedy Designation of Brother Raises First Controversy in Cabinet Choices,” he addresses the apparent lack of enthusiasm from the public as well as politicians by reminding them of the praise for Bobby and reassuring them that the President has made a good choice. He mentions concerns about Bobby’s experience and the sway that the President could have on an office that “harass[es] every citizen, business operation and other institution in [the] country” directly and addresses them:

… no one is charging nepotism in the case of Robert Kennedy. Obviously, he is not in any need of finding a Government job. Moreover, even those who question his appointment to the Justice Department recognize that he has every qualification for high Government office.

Carroll recognizes the nepotism charges that are not mentioned in many other articles. He notes that the Kennedy Administration has done well in reviewing all the possible candidates and defends Bobby on the platform that he would stand on his own — emphasizing the struggle that each brother had in making and then accepting the nomination. He even compares JFK’s struggle to President Wilson’s struggle of deciding whether or not to appoint his brother to a postmastership in Nashville, TN.

However, in an interesting turn of events, U.S. Code, Title 5, Part III, Subpart B, Chapter 31, Subchapter I, § 3110, passed in 1967, prohibits federal officials from appointing an immediate relative to certain positions in the government, including the Cabinet. This law presumably was a congressional response to President JFK’s appointment of Bobby to the Cabinet.

Once Bobby was officially confirmed there was only praise printed. Presumably to get the public hyped for their new Attorney General. What was notable, however, was that not a lot of praise came directly from the ‘mouths’ of reporters — it came directly from quotes various Senators had said during the Senate panel. Republican Senator Dirksen of Illinois was quoted redefining what it meant to be Attorney General in order that it more fit what he believed Bobby’s style of Attorney-Generalship would be:

So I believe the question here is: Shall we at this point depart somewhat from tradition and think of the Attorney General merely as an administrator rather than as a profound and scholarly lawyer?
I do not quarrel with either approach, and I am very frank to say that as an administrator I think you would do a top-flight job.

Dirksen, having been in the Senate for 10 years already, is using his seniority to reassure the people of the faith that he has in Bobby, as well as his qualifications and competency in the legal world where he is currently. It is also interesting to note that the quotes used in articles about the panel, were also in the straight excerpts of the testimony given at the panel — there was only overlap between the two.

The positivity of the reporting on Robert Kennedy’s appointment to Attorney General serves as a foil to the public’s apparent negativity towards the appointment. The reporting is crafted to put him in at least a semi-positive light in order to inform the public of the positives of his nomination rather than the assumed nepotism which is most likely what the people were reacting to. Reporters go as far as to eliminate nepotism from the equation. They use Bobby’s humble reluctance to accept the appointment as a way to make him ‘one of the people.’


“2 Senate Committee Heads Oppose Weaver for Housing Job: Robert Kennedy Faces Senate Grilling.” Washington Post, January 6, 1961, sec. A. Accessed March 25, 2014.

“5 U.S. Code § 3110 — Employment of Relatives; Restrictions.” LII / Legal Information Institute. Accessed March 28, 2014.

“Biography: RFK.” PBS. Accessed March 28, 2014.

Carroll, Wallace. “Appointing a Relative: Kennedy Designation of Brother Raises First Controversy in Cabinet Choices.” New York Times, December 17, 1960. Accessed March 25, 2014.

“Everett McKinley Dirksen: A Featured Biography.” U.S. Senate: Art & History Home. Accessed March 28, 2014.

“Excerpts From the Testimony of Robert Kennedy Before Senate Panel.” New York Times, January 14, 1961. Accessed March 25, 2014.

Kilpatrick, Carroll. “Kennedy May Name His Brother; Surprise on Postmaster Hinted.” Washington Post, December 15, 1960, sec. A. Accessed March 25, 2014.

Lewis, Anthony. “Robert Kennedy Wins Approval of Senate Panel: Attorney General-Designate Backed Unanimously in Praise-Filled Hearing: Youth Is a Major Point: 2 Republicans Also Press Experience Factor but Democrats Fire Back.” New York Times, January 14, 1961. Accessed March 25, 2014.

“Nominations.” U.S. Senate: Art & History Home. Accessed March 28, 2014.

O’Donnell, Helen. “15. “The Bobby Problem” 16. The White House.” In A Common Good: The Friendship of Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O’Donnell. William Morrow. Accessed March 28, 2014.

Roosevelt, Eleanor. “Excerpt, My Day, December 27, 1960.” In Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, edited by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery. Columbia, SC: Model Editions Partnership, 2003. Accessed March 25, 2014. Electronic version based on unpublished letters.

Sokolsky, George E. “These Days….: Policy and Personnel.” Washington Post, January 3, 1961, sec. A. Accessed March 25, 2014.

United States. National Archives and Records Administration. Constitution of the United States. Accessed March 28, 2014.

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