Fifty years ago, he was behind in the presidential race. He hadn’t even served a whole term in the Senate, and in Oregon became the first Kennedy ever to lose a primary.
Yet RFK haunts us still.
The new Netflix four-part series, Bobby Kennedy for President brings all of the contradictions and tragedy of Robert Kennedy to light in a way that shows just how much was lost the night he was gunned down after winning his comeback victory in California. Why the story of his life has value to the LGBTQ community is never stated, but becomes starkly clear as the series unfolds.
Director Dawn Porter’s doc is already unusual because it’s unfettered by participation from the Kennedy clan. The many members of his family who could have added context, sentiment and their approval were deliberately not consulted in the hope of creating something more grounded in fact than longing reminiscence. They needn’t have worried. Robert Kennedy acquits himself well enough on his own merits, although his journey from tough guy enforcer to tribune of the underclass is not without well documented missteps and false starts.
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Bobby Kennedy for President latches onto one of the most fascinating acts of reinvention ever seen in public life — or any life, for that matter. This man began his political career as an ally of commie witchhunter Joseph McCarthy, a zealot who’s crusade Kennedy abandoned without ever disavowing McCarthy personally. (As a sidenote, RFK served on that committee with a man he did revile — closeted gay attorney Roy Cohn, mentor to Donald Trump and himself a character depicted as despicable in the AIDS drama Angels in America.)
In focusing on the last decade of his short 42 years, Kennedy is shown as a bare-knuckles investiagtor of the Teamsters union, where he made a lifelong enemy in its president, Jimmy Hoffa. He’s seen as take-no-prisoners manager of his brother’s campaign for president, and a crusading Attorney General under President John F. Kennedy.
But, as the documentary makes plain, he also grew. The man who once signed a Justice Department order to wiretap Dr. Martin Luther King quickly came to understand the plight of black men and women who were denied equal rights because of the color of their skin. Eventually, he and King understood they were fighting the same fight: to end urban riots and rural starvation, to stop the senseless slaughter of people on both sides of the Vietnam conflict, and to reach across the strata of society to try to stitch a fragmenting America back together.
It’s impossible to say whether Robert Kennedy would have become a man of profound compassion had his brother not been murdered. But it does seem to have broken his heart open, and not in a gentle way. By the time he won the California primary on June 4, 1968, his transformation was complete. He was still a long shot to become the nominee, but he had finally emerged from the shadow of his martyred brother. He had blacks and Latinos lined up in droves to vote for him. Having been Attorney General, he could speak with authority to frightened whites about law and order and the need to redress injustice peacefully. As someone who understood depth of suffering, he could relate to the dispossessed who believed the American Dream was not theirs to share.
The Stonewall riots occured a year after RFK was shot moments after his win. But it’s easy to grasp from watching Bobby Kennedy for President that he did not believe that America should be the land of opportunity only for those who could pillage it. Of course, Kennedy’s brother Teddy would go on to champion LGBTQ rights throughout his career, but it’s hard to believe Bobby would have done otherwise. Just as President Kennedy tempered his response to civil rights, RFK was a man of his time.
At the end of the series, we’re left with ruminations leading nowhere about the assassination itself. Meanwhile, the more important questions remain: Where are the leaders of compassion and conviction who don’t shape their views to fit focus groups? Where are the champions of those who still find themselves in America, but not able to share in its bounty? Why would so many choose to put a man in the Oval Office whose ethics seem to be diametrically opposed to someone like Robert Kennedy? Answers to those, as Dylan would say, remain Blowin’ In the Wind.
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Last modified: July 25, 2019