My wife was away a few days, and I was doing the bachelor thing where you eat supper in front of the television. Usually I’ll do that with sports, but sports have gone viral, so I researched online for possible Netflix worthies.
I stumbled on a documentary with the odd name of Bobby Kennedy for President. Maybe it was the present tense (even though there’s no verb in the title) vibe, as if Bobby were still running 52 years later, that struck me.
As he was born in 1925, Bobby would be long gone by now anyway. Still, people who get gunned down at age 43 stay 43 forever. Watching video makes them appear alive and viable again.
The biopic comes in four parts. The first was mostly “Bad Bobby,” or the sharp-elbowed, go-for-the-jugular guy who served as calmer brother Jack’s attorney general. Bobby made lots of enemies in those years, none more durable than Lyndon B. Johnson, the man who would succeed his slain brother.
It’s Part 2 that got to me. No, that’s not the assassination part (which is Part 3), it’s the story of Bobby’s transformation after his brother was murdered. The video clips, many of them new to me, showed a change that was as much physical as psychological.
His face. It was as if it struggled to smile. His eyes. It was as if they were always brimming with tears. The impact on the viewer is a stark realization that this man never quite shed the shock of November 22, 1963. It was as if the period of mourning had opened into the bottomless years of forever.
And though the Part 2 reels show RFK running as a carpetbagger for U.S. Senator of New York, he seems to travel wherever there is trouble in the U.S. Not just to the riot-torn streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, but to the striking migrant workers in California and the poverty stricken towns of Appalachia and Mississippi.
Yes, he was still driven politically, but more than one person comments on him as an amazing father: how he often brings his kids on trips, takes time out of his schedule to go home to be with his kids, or stays in contact by phone with his kids.
In one telling clip, he’s on the telephone with his assistant who is in Alabama during a tense time, tasked with confronting Gov. George Wallace who is physically blocking the doors into the University of Alabama so blacks cannot enter.
One of Kennedy’s daughters, looking around 4 or 5 years old, walks up to Bobby’s desk, so he actually stops the conversation and asks his assistant to say hi to Kerry (I think it was), then hands the phone so his daughter can make small talk. Watching him smile at her as she speaks was a small moment that spoke volumes to who he was as a man and how important family was to him.
When visiting regular folks and down and out folks, Bobby displayed more of the same. He connected especially with the poor and with children. He asked them questions because he wanted to learn if he was going to be able to help with legislation in the Senate. He admitted his mistakes. He could be funny and self-effacing. And he never promised miracles or claimed he was perfect, he just promised to do his best.
People who predicted he would simply use the New York seat to campaign for president were proven wrong. He turned out to be a bust-your-ass-for-the-people Senator.
I’ve seen my share of Kennedy clips over the years, but this documentary was a treasure trove, and it struck me how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The divisions between white and black, rich and poor, haves and have nots. All there in 1968. All here in 2020.
But, man. Seeing a guy running for president who actually demonstrates empathy and intelligence. It was so damn refreshing. It brought me hope — only it was a hopeless hope (look again at the cruel title).
This drive to help people, to understand them, to do something for the common good — that alone brought tears to the eyes, far before the Ambassador Hotel scene in L.A. on the night of his California Primary victory.
I had to think about it to get it: The sadness that overwhelmed me was as much for my country as for Bobby K. “My God,” I said to myself, “what we have lost and how far we have fallen.”
John Lewis, the civil rights leader and U.S. Representative from Georgia, is prominent among the interviewed. He breaks down when discussing Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy dying within a few months of each other. He’s weeping so bad he can barely finish his thought for the tape — this decades upon decades later.
And me, I couldn’t finish my meal. But, hey. One good thing about being a bachelor is you can cry a little if you want because there’s no one there to see it. Not that I counted on any of this when tuning into Bobby Kennedy for President, but this is what I got, anticipated or not.
I could blame all this emotion on the pandemic, sure, but I know better. It was something far worse.