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    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000

    ROBERT KENNEDY: His Life, by Evan Thomas (Simon & Schuster, $24)

    Enough time has passed for us to revisit the Kennedy story without being seduced by hero worship or getting lost in private agendas. This new story of Robert F. Kennedy's life is simply brilliant -- clear, unvarnished and even-handed. Evan Thomas, an assistant managing editor of Newsweek, is the first RFK biographer since Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to have use of Kennedy's private papers.

    Bobby Kennedy was martyrized after his 1968 assassination. He was frozen in our memory forever as a liberal idealist, the bearer of his slain brother's torch and the best hope of ending the war in Vietnam. He had reached out to the poor and the young. Yet as Thomas wonderfully documents, this "good Bobby" was a work in progress, the evolution of a hard-bitten, manipulative and arrogant young man who had ordered wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr. as part of a devil's bargain with J. Edgar Hoover, and who even had worked briefly for Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Communist-hunting committee.

    Robert Kennedy was the third son and seventh child of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was overshadowed in childhood by the "golden trio" of his three oldest siblings, Joe Jr., Jack and Kathleen. He was his mother's pet and somewhat of a brat in his prep-school and collegiate days, quick to brawl (especially when his father's honor was impugned).

    Desperate to please the family, schooled in politics by a wily Irish grandfather, RFK ran Jack's 1952 Senate campaign. After a brief stint with McCarthy's committee, as a Senate lawyer he pursued ties between organized labor and organized crime. He helped Jack get elected president in 1960, and Joe Sr. pressed JFK into making his brother attorney general -- a stroke of nepotism probably impossible today.

    RFK's reign under his brother was marked by back-channel, secret contacts with the parties to each crisis, which sometimes helped (as in integration showdowns in the South) and sometimes muddied the waters (as in the Cuban missile showdown with the Soviets). He was at his finest in advising his brother during the missile crisis, yet the same brain cooked up plots with the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro.

    He was devastated by his brother's murder, but held the family together and never left Jackie Kennedy's side. He resented and despised Lyndon Johnson, who in turn nurtured a deep (and not entirely unjustified) paranoia about RFK. Slowly, Kennedy shook off the fog of despair and decided to run for the U.S. Senate in New York (provoking the same accusations of carpetbagger that Hillary Rodham Clinton does today). This set the stage for his entry into the 1968 presidential race.

    Instead of a sanctified martyr, Thomas gives us a flawed, human RFK, which helps us understand all the better why and how he did what he did. More than three decades after the painful loss of Camelot, we begin to cast off myths and see what it was not, which helps us appreciate honestly what it was.

    * * *

    VIRGINIA WOOLF, by Nigel Nicolson (Lipper/Viking, $19.95)

    LEONARDO DA VINCI, by Sherwin B. Nuland (Lipper/Viking, $19.95)

    The Penguin Lives series turns out six new biographies a year of "famous individuals who have shaped our thinking." The latest treatments are of Woolf, written by the son of her intimate friend Vita Sackville-West, and da Vinci, written by a best-selling medical author and Yale professor of surgery. The first is more illuminating than the second.

    Woolf was born in 1882 to an upper-middle-class British family. In youth she was a precocious writer who wrestled with emotional instability. She became part of a famous school of writers, artists and thinkers (including her husband, Leonard Woolf) known collectively as "Bloomsbury." Her brilliant and innovative career ended with her wartime suicide in 1941. Nicolson focuses more on her life's events and personal reminiscences than in-depth evaluation of her work.

    It is difficult to add to the da Vinci legend. Nuland, author of How We Die and How We Live, tries by tackling his subject with boundless admiration and praise but not much more. Besides tracing the highlights of Leonardo's life, he emphasizes his exploration of human anatomy. Yet even in this department he does not go much deeper than reminding us several times that the old genius cut up a bunch of corpses. Admiration and praise are nice but not enough.

    - Howard Troxler is a Times columnist.

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