When they first met at Harvard in 1946, young Bobby Kennedy and Kenny O’Donnell could not have imagined where their lives would take them. Teammates on both the football and debate teams, they formed a partnership that would sustain them through the years, from Robert Kennedy’s tenure as attorney general to O’Donnell’s years as John F. Kennedy’s chief of staff. Together they lived, worked, and struggled through some of the most pivotal moments of the twentieth century, including the assassination of JFK in Dallas. Their harmonious relationship was cut short only by Bobby’s own tragic death.
With full access to the Kennedy family archives, Helen O’Donnell brings an inspiring personal and political alliance to life. With A Common Good, she amply fulfills the promise she made to her late father to honor and preserve his memories of Robert F. Kennedy for future generations.
Kirkus Reviews hails A Common Good as “a moving and intimate study of a unique friendship but also of the time and place, now long ago, in which this friendship formed and blossomed.” O’Donnell “set out to write ‘a good book about two good men.’ In this she has succeeded.”
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About the Author
A writer and producer, O’Donnell has written for publications including Town & Country, Cape Cod Magazine,and the Wrap. She also narrated the BBC Radio 4 program “JFK, Bobby and Dad,” which includes interviews by famed journalist Sander Vanocur of NBC and Christopher Kennedy Lawford.
She began her career working for the late senator Edward M. Kennedy before leaving for his Labor and Human Resources Committee as an assistant to Walter Sheridan, a longtime aide to Robert F. Kennedy, close friend to Kenneth O’Donnell, and head of the “get-Hoffa squad” during the John Kennedy administration. The experience served to further pique her interest in the topic of her father, the Kennedys, Marilyn Monroe, and the Rat Pack.
Recently, O’Donnell was featured in a KTLA documentary on Thirteen Days, a film about the Cuban Missile Crisis starring Kevin Costner as Kenny O’Donnell. She is currently writing a new book entitled The Washington Rat Pack about Frank Sinatra, Jack Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and the heyday of the Rat Pack. She is also developing a film by the same name, one of several forthcoming works to be co-produced by her production company, Helen O’Donnell Media, of which she is CEO. O’Donnell also serves as president of the Kenneth P. O’Donnell Political Leadership Foundation, based in Burbank, California.
Read an Excerpt
A Common Good
The Friendship of Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O'Donnell
By Helen O'Donnell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Helen O'Donnell
All rights reserved.
THE PLAYING FIELDS OF HARVARD
The best thing that ever happened to Harvard was World War II.
—PROFESSOR GEORGE GOETHALS
On a September day in 1946, in the locker room at Harvard's Dillon Field House, a war hero named Kenneth O'Donnell came face-to-face with a young man he had never seen before. He was struck immediately by the man's intense blue eyes and his tousled mop of hair. "I'm Bob Kennedy," the young man said. Kenny thrust his hand out and was surprised by the strength of his grip. He could not imagine how that introduction would change his life or that he was beginning a friendship that would span time and transcend death.
Kenny O'Donnell, son of football coaching legend Cleo O'Donnell, had returned from Europe a genuine war hero. His father had been furious when, in the days following Pearl Harbor, Kenny had taken early enlistment in the air force at age seventeen. Even though Kenny was eager to get in the fight and ready to get out of the family house, his father strongly objected to Kenny's signing up under the legal age and doing so without even so much as a "by-your-leave" from his father beforehand. Even before he enlisted, he hadn't planned to go to Harvard, where his older brother, named Cleo for their father, had captained the school football team before leaving to fight in the Pacific. "Clee," or "Sonny," had always been the star, his father's favorite, and the two brothers were fierce rivals. Clee, Kenny knew, had it tougher in some respects, bearing as he did his father's name and the accompanying burden of having to live up to his father's achievements. Kenny was the second son, the third child, and "his mother's favorite," as his younger sister Justine would recall years later. "But nobody knew exactly why," Justine said, smiling. "After all, we were much nicer than he was."
Philip Kenneth O'Donnell was born on March 4, 1924, to Cleophus Albert O'Donnell and Alice Mae Guerin O'Donnell. His father, Kenny said, was "the most literate man I ever knew," with a passion for football, history, government, and politics, all of which he instilled in his second son. Kenny's father was a man of ambitions and determination. He had left the family home in Houlton, Maine, at age nine, taking his younger brother with him. Cleo was unable to stand his father's new wife or his father's drinking. Cleo headed for Massachusetts and ended up in Everett, living with his father's two sisters. Following the route of many of Boston's ambitious Irish, including, some four years later, a young man named Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Cleo attended Boston Latin School. After taking off a few years to work and earn some money, he went on to Holy Cross College in Worcester. At Holy Cross, Cleo quickly distinguished himself as both a scholar and an athlete. Cleo played on the Holy Cross football team nicknamed the "Elevens" and was, in the words of one sportswriter of the time, "one of the greatest ends to ever play the purple." (Purple was the school color of Holy Cross.) Fiercely competitive by nature, Cleo often played his best games against Harvard and Yale, never suspecting that years later he would watch all three of his sons, Cleo, Kenneth, and Warren, play for Harvard. After his marriage on September 16, 1916, to Alice Mae Guerin, a beautiful young woman blessed with milk-white skin, black hair, and green eyes who came from a socially prominent family in Worcester, Cleo would begin a career that would make him one of the nation's most successful coaches, taking him from Everett High School to Purdue, St. Anselm's, and Holy Cross.
Cleo and Alice would have five children in all, a rambunctious brood that would keep Alice busy and Cleo often on the edge as he tried to maintain the discipline and order he felt befitted his children. Their first child was a red-haired beauty named Phyllis; their second, his father's namesake, Cleo Jr., otherwise known as Sonny; and Kenny was third in line. Besides these three, the young couple would go on to have another daughter, Alice Justine, and last, a son named Warren.
Justine remembered family life as something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, their father was a very good provider, even through the Depression. "Somehow," Justine recalled, "there was always food on the table, even in the direst of times." She also recalled that the household was very strictly regulated. For instance, the children had to be seated at the dinner table, dressed in nice dresses for the girls and shirts and ties for the boys, by the time their father pulled into the driveway, which he did at the same time each and every day. Before they sat down, the children would all jostle one another to make sure that they would not be the ones who sat closest to their father during dinner. He made it a regular practice to grill the children over dinner about current events, school subjects, and the like. Those who did not answer correctly or quickly enough earned his strictest disapproval and, for the boys who were unlucky enough to be seated within reach of their father, even a smart slap. Alice, when Cleo was not present, ran a much more relaxed kind of household. Where Cleo was strict and stern, Alice was his opposite, fun loving and indulgent in the occasional vice of smoking.
Justine recalled that the boys, especially Kenny, were her assigned protectors on their way to and from school. She wasn't all that thrilled with their guardianship, because "they always seemed to be in fights of one kind or another." At a time when being Irish in Worcester made them the objects of taunts and insults, the O'Donnell boys soon learned that they had to be as good with their fists as they were with their mouths. "And the boys could really be rebellious when their father was away from home. As soon as it got dark outside, up would go the windows and off they'd go to run the streets of Worcester, no matter what my mother would say to the contrary," Justine remembered.
Sent to fight overseas, nineteen-year-old Kenny exhibited a confidence in the face of prospective danger that was a combination of the fearlessness of youth and an early sign of the coolheadedness that would mark his years in the political arena. Though he was not much of a letter writer, he wrote home regularly to his mother, missives that were clearly designed to allay his mother's fears. It wasn't until many years later that anyone was to know the true extent of the dangers and how near he came to getting killed. Kenneth did not cheat death once, but twice.
He served in the Army Air Force, based in Britain, and was part of the famous Eighth Division that played such a decisive role in the war effort. A first lieutenant, he flew more than thirty bombing missions; as a bombardier often in the lead plane, he would be the first to let the lethal cargo go over Germany. One time, on an early mission, as his plane was flying directly over a target, he simply froze. He couldn't remember which way to turn the lever controlling the bomb. He was forced to guess. Fortunately, he guessed right and the bomb descended to its target. It would not be the last time that he was scared, but it would be the only time that he froze under fire.
Kenny quickly developed friendships with several of the pilots he flew with, and he became lifelong friends with one of them, Ken Kavanaugh, or Kav as he was called, who was himself a football star who had played for Louisiana State in a legendary game against Holy Cross College in 1940. Kav would later play for the Chicago Bears and then the New York Giants; one of his teammates was the "Gentle Giant," Roosevelt Grier, whose life would, years later, intersect with Kenny O'Donnell's own, in the midst of tragedy.
During the final push that would end the war, it was with Kav at the helm that Kenny received a citation from no less a person than the famed British field marshal Montgomery, after he and Kav dropped a steel "calling card" in the middle of a bridge to the German retreat. As Kav remembers it, the United States Army was hesitant to give O'Donnell a citation, citing the crew's failure to take out the entire bridge. Monty had no such hesitation; the bombs had damaged the bridge beyond repair, and he made sure O'Donnell got the citation. What Kav recalled the most about the incident was how little O'Donnell cared about getting the recognition. "He simply shrugged his shoulders and said, 'No big deal, as long as I get outa here in one piece—that's all I care about.' When he did receive the citation from Monty, he just stuck it in his sack and never mentioned it again. Stuff like that really didn't seem to matter to him too much. It was really kind of refreshing."
Kav came out of the war without a scratch, but Kenny was not so lucky. At Christmas 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, when the German field marshal Albert Kesselring was certain that he had the Allies cornered and could turn the tide of the war, the AAF was called upon to thwart the determined German drive. Kenny's B-17 was on a bombing mission when the plane was hit and began a plunge into the Rhineland. Six members of the crew were able to parachute out, but Kenny, who had been wounded by gunfire, was forced to go down with the plane. With two other members of the crew, he rode the plane right into its crash landing, which luckily turned out to be on Belgian soil. The plane had been turning to return to Britain when it was hit, which was good, but it had crashed right between German and Allied lines. Climbing out of the wreckage into no-man's-land, Ken could see the Germans approaching and knew he had to run for his life. Remembering his father's football advice on how to run, and with his mind firmly set on a mental picture of his mother, he dashed for the Allied lines. Despite a severe wound to his leg—shrapnel that would never be totally removed—Kenny made it. He collapsed bleeding into the arms of an American soldier on a reconnaissance mission.
The Americans sent him directly to an army hospital in Belgium, where he was to stay for the next six months while his leg healed. At the end of the six months he was able to return to Britain and to his beloved B-17. On one of his first runs back, his plane was shot down again, but this time he was a little luckier. He was able to parachute to safety and run quickly to the American lines.
In one of his last trips over Germany, as the plane was traveling at some 26,000 feet, with oxygen masks the only way to breathe, Kenny was forced to climb down into the bay and manhandle a bomb that had become stuck in the bay instead of dropping on its target. He knew he had no choice; if they couldn't force the bomb out, the plane would blow to pieces. In order to free the bomb, Kenny was forced to jump up and down and dislodge it. He opened the bay door, but the bomb stayed stuck. He had no choice but to crawl into the bomb rack to kick the deadly device loose. As he gave the bomb a final kick and dislodged it, suddenly black spots appeared before his eyes and he felt lightheaded. The oxygen hose had parted from his mask.
Keeping his head, Kenny inched his way back to his place and managed to reconnect the hose to the mask. Life-giving air pumped its way back into his lungs, and slowly he felt the sickening fear in his stomach loosen its grip. He looked up and gave the crew a thumbs-up. They had all watched terrified, unable to help.
Having flown this fifteenth mission with his regular crew, Kenny was stunned to receive orders switching him to another crew for what would be his sixteenth mission. He and his regular crew joked about the bomb incident and made plans to go out for a beer upon everyone's safe return from the next foray. The men waved goodbye to each other, climbed into their planes, and took off. Kenny would never see his regular crew again. They were shot down over Germany. There were no survivors. He was not fated to be on that plane, but the sadness of losing his whole crew brought home to him the real horror of war. He understood all too well what it meant to send young men to fight and to die. Some twenty years later, in 1962, that fear would manifest itself in his complete and total opposition to the growing American presence in Vietnam.
Kenny O'Donnell would win the Distinguished Service Cross with four Oak Leaf Clusters, the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, and no fewer than six citations, including the one from Montgomery. He never wore any of his medals and never told anyone of his heroics. Cleo and Alice never even knew that their son was wounded or was in a hospital. Ken made sure that they were never informed; his positive, ostentatiously unworried letters continued to arrive home in Worcester. It was only after the local press began to write about the new 1948 Harvard football captain from Worcester as a genuine war hero that his family finally understood the extent of his valor. Despite all these honors, journalist Fletcher Knebel said that the war gave Kenny "a distaste for glory grabbers, the fakers and the phonies."
A young lieutenant in the navy, who was nearly killed when the Japanese sank his boat, who survived a broken back and malaria and would never fully recover his health, shared O'Donnell's reticence. John F. Kennedy also understood Kenny's sense of loss. Among the men who didn't come back from the war would be Jack Kennedy's older brother, Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., killed on one of his last flying missions over Europe. That death would devastate his father and force Jack Kennedy into a political role he would never have envisioned otherwise. It was this shared experience in hell and understanding of the evil that war really is that would bond Jack Kennedy and Kenny O'Donnell later in life, helping them understand, along with Robert Kennedy, what was really at stake during the Cuban Missile Crisis and in Vietnam.
With his black eyes, chiseled features, and the coal black hair still cut into the crew cut he would maintain until President John Kennedy asked him to grow it out because he "looked too young to be in the White House," Kenny O'Donnell was a powerful presence on the post-war campus of Harvard, both at the Varsity Club where he lived and on the football field. A tremendously gifted athlete, Kenny quickly won a spot on the Harvard football team. With so many soldiers not yet returned from the war, the 1945 season would consist of mostly informal, non-league games. However, 1946 was a different matter; it would be Harvard's first regular season since the war. Although his start on the team began with a tense and uncomfortable meeting with Coach Dick Harlow, whose coaching technique Kenny did not find appealing, he was not deterred. He and his brother had both survived the war and were relaxing into the promise of the postwar world that lay open before them.
The years 1945 and 1946 brought tremendous changes for Harvard and for young men like O'Donnell. "The War had changed the University as much as it had the country," says historian Richard Norton Smith in his book The Harvard Century. Like most of America, Harvard had been reluctant to get involved in a foreign war; up until the last minute, the university elite had hoped that the British alone would somehow take care of Hitler. Under the leadership of President James Bryant Conant, Harvard was slowly brought around along with the rest of the nation and, by the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, may have been more prepared for the war than many realized. A close adviser to President Roosevelt and a scientist by training, Conant was influential in the war effort, first by supporting the British with such programs as the Lend-Lease Act and later by working on the atomic bomb.
Excerpted from A Common Good by Helen O'Donnell. Copyright © 1998 Helen O'Donnell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Author's Note
- INTRODUCTION: A DAUGHTER'S STORY
- 1. THE PLAYING FIELDS OF HARVARD
- 2. THE HARVARD IRREGULARS
- 3. BEGINNING THE MARCH: THE 1946 CAMPAIGN
- 4. "GOD'S PLAN…OF ASSETS AND BLESSINGS"
- 5. THE 1952 SENATE CAMPAIGN
- 6. OF JOSEPH MCCARTHY AND "A CORD OF WOOD"
- 7. TRIAL RUN: 1956 AND THE RUN FOR THE VICE PRESIDENCY
- 8. THE RACKETS COMMITTEE
- 9. "HARDEST OF ALL"--THE 1958 SENATE CAMPAIGN
- 10. STARTING THE RACE
- 11. FROM WEST VIRGINIA TO LOS ANGELES
- 12. THE 1960 CONVENTION
- 13. CINCINNATI AND CHICAGO, 1960
- 14. TOWARD VICTORY
- 15. "THE BOBBY PROBLEM"
- 16. THE WHITE HOUSE
- 17. MR. ATTORNEY GENERAL
- 18. DALLAS
- 19. BEGINNING AGAIN, 1964
- 20. THE SENATOR FROM NEW YORK
- 21. PUBLIC MEN
- 22. "RUN, BOBBY, RUN"
- 23. THE FINAL PLAY
- CONCLUSION: "THE SILENCE WAS DEAFENING"
- About the Author