I just finished watching Netflix’ 4-part documentary “Bobby Kennedy for President,” and it is intense. I guess, insofar as I knew about RFK, it was in relation to his brothers– Jack was a staple of every Irish Catholic household in Boston in the 60s and 70s when I was growing up, and Ted was our senator. There’s a story I recall the political analyst Mike Barnicle telling about Ted Kennedy–a Republican hopeful came to see him for advice, and Barnicle told him, “Well, Teddy’s always been a 60/40 proposition around here, so you start out with 40% of the vote.” That cheered the guy, who asked, What do I do next? “Well, you spend $20 million and you get it up to 45%” OK, what then? “Another $20 million in the last week and you’re at 48%.” And how do I nail it down? “Nail it down?” Yeah, how do I beat him? “You can’t beat Teddy Kennedy! His two brothers were assassinated! Do we look like a bunch of fucking ingrates?”
In general, what I knew of Bobby Kennedy was an amalgam of different archetypes: his brother’s ruthless campaign manager and Roy Cohn’s right-hand man in the McCarthy hearings, but also this leftwing savior who broke bread with Cesar Chavez and calmed a potential riot in Indianapolis by citing Aeschylus. He seemed to reside in the same celestial sphere as Germanicus or Bonnie Prince Charlie, figures not of the counterculture but of the contrafactual. There’s a lot of film I’d not seen before in the documentary, where he is not seen through either a demonizing or hagiographical lens, but speaks for himself. When he is introduced to a roaring crowd at the 1964 Democratic convention, he looks down and then up at them in genuine wonder and gratitude. There is sweetness, and also wit. At one rally on the presidential trail, Kennedy quipped that he had received only four votes in a poll of his ten children. “Two votes went to my brother Teddy,” he goes on. “Two went to my sister Pat. The others were re-assessing their position.” The family man is evident throughout, and I was struck by an image of RFK in a gray flannel suit skating with Ethel and his children holding hands– it may be the dearest picture I’ve ever seen of a politician.
The documentary goes off the rails in the fourth part with conspiracy theories, unfortunately–I’m afraid my takeaway is that Sirhan Sirhan is a pitiful nobody, a motiveless malignity not worth the energy expended by the truthers on him. But the extended sequence in the third part from the Ambassador Hotel is almost unbearable, including the interview with the Mexican busboy who put his rosary into the RFK’s dying hand. To see John Lewis, who was there, break down as he says, “I cried all the way from LA to Atlanta” is overwhelming–fifty years later, this great man’s tears still come when he thinks of Kennedy’s death. And I’m not ashamed to say that, watching Lewis weep, I felt permission to weep too. Cut down at his prime, there was so much unrealized promise there–that, had he become President, he would have made mistakes and committed atrocities is likely. But at the podium of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he is all potential without blemish. Many an article about Bobby is called “What If?” It is fifty years on from then, but it does not feel fifty years better. In this age of deep cultural division, with a president almost universally reviled by everyone I know, I wept for RFK, for everything that he had been and everything he might have been.