It turns out that Ronald Reagan really despised RFK.
At least, that’s according to Thomas C. Reed, who managed and directed Reagan’s California gubernatorial bids — and his 1968 presidential nomination drive.
In his new book, The Reagan Enigma, Reed, also a former Secretary of the Air Force, recalls the series of events that fueled the rivalry. Reagan, he notes, was hauled before Kennedy’s grand jury in February of 1962, where prosecutors alleged the future president had used his perch as head of the Screen Actor’s Guild to cut a special deal for his talent agency, MCA. The suggestion was that he might have personally benefited from a corrupt deal.
A week later, Kennedy’s Justice Department “subpoenaed Reagan’s tax returns for 1952-1955.”
And a few months after that, Kennedy tried to get him fired from General Electric Theater. Or, at least, that’s what Reagan believed. “Dad told us he had just lost his job with GE,” Reed recalls Reagan son Michael Reagan telling him. “He said [GE President] Ralph Cordiner had called him earlier to report that he [Cordiner] had been contacted by Bobby Kennedy, who had said: ‘If you want government contracts, get Reagan off the air.”
This is also consistent with what Reagan’s daughter, Maureen, wrote in her memoirs: “I’ve always suspected, and I’m sure Dad agrees with me on this one, that Bobby Kennedy had a hand in all this. I think the Kennedy Administration saw in Dad’s remarks a backhanded slur against their way of doing things.”
“Getting even with Kennedy was on his agenda,” Reed told me during a recent discussion.
And, indeed, he did.
The two appeared together in a televised debate in 1967 on the subject of the Vietnam War, and The Gipper, most agree, cleaned his clock. Newsweek declared the “political rookie Reagan who left old campaigner Kennedy blinking when the session ended.”
After the debate ended, RFK reportedly scolded an aide: “Don’t ever put me on stage with that sonofabitch again.”
Reed also suggests that Reagan’s presidential campaign, one year after the debate, in 1968 was primarily motivated by a desire to get even with Kennedy. “It really accounts for why Reagan, who was sort of casual about whether he was going to run for president in ’68, came alive,” Reed tells me. “In March of ’68, Johnson is out, Kennedy is in, and Reagan puts the throttle full forward,” Reed continues. “And he is now a real candidate, going hammers and tongs….”
But then when Kennedy is assassinated in June, and “Reagan sort of lays back and goes through the motions, but he is changed,” Reed says. “Bobby Kennedy was the supreme villain in Ronald Reagan’s life.”
* * *
You can listen to my full conversation with Thomas C. Reed here.