Sunday, November 26, 2006

Tears For the Once and Future King

Saturday night I saw Emilio Estevez’s movie “Bobby” at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema. The movie timed with Robert Kennedy’s 81st birthday on November 20th has focused attention on his life, values and the times he lived. Also one can’t help but compare the turbulence RFK tried to heal with our lives today.

The movie itself is effective because the focus is not on Kennedy specifically. Instead it captures the sensibilities of numerous intersecting characters at the Ambassador Hotel that fateful day. Hence the movie provides viewers with a snapshot of our country at that time and closes with a sentimental montage of RFK footage. I was teary eyed along with the other patrons.

Afterwards I pondered why I was moved. Robert Kennedy died a year before I was born. True, I read a great deal about him, saw numerous documentaries and intellectually understood his historical impact.

Nonetheless I’m a member of Generation X and wasn’t alive to process the Civil Rights struggles or the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and RFK. The Vietnam War ended when I was an infant and nobody in my family died in the jungles of South East Asia. The Beatles had far more of an impact on my life personally than Robert Kennedy.

Yet I was always drawn to him. After the movie I realized what fascinated me about Kennedy was his personal evolution and life journey. Robert Kennedy is enshrined in the pantheon of martyrdom. But the man is far more compelling than the legend.

Imagine you’re born into the Kennedy family. Your father is powerful, ambitious and wealthy. Irish immigrants and Catholics were stigmatized in America but Joe Kennedy was a self-made man. He served FDR as America’s ambassador to England during the Nazi Era. He made many enemies and was later discredited as a defeatist and isolationist.

Yet Joe Kennedy still managed to influence events and pushed his eldest surviving son to the White House. Your eldest brother, Joe Kennedy Jr. died in World War Two and he was the sibling your clan had the highest expectations for. So instead the torch is passed to your brother John and he becomes President. Think about that. It’s established that you’re supposed to do big things.

Hence it is the quest for power and recognition that drives you in your formative years. Naturally you become somewhat ruthless and detached. If it serves you to perform work for Joe McCarthy you do it. And you become your brother’s enforcer as he achieves the pinnacle of power.

You’re rich and successful. Big brother makes you his Attorney General. Everybody knows you’re second in command at the White House. The President’s number one confidant and most influential advisor. You play an indispensable role during the Cuban Missile Crisis and go after Jimmy Hoffa. You also play a key role in helping your brother make history regarding Civil Rights.

Might you become a little bit arrogant at that point? Perhaps you start to feel invulnerable and hubris sets in. Along the way you make mistakes and abuse power. You’re involved in assassination plots against Castro and covering up your brother’s indiscretions.

But you’ve gotten away with it. Your brother has accomplished some important things and it’s easy to rationalize you’re using power for a higher purpose. You’re making enemies but you have the ultimate shield: your brother is President and his political standing is strong.

And then it’s gone. Your brother defined your identity. In death he becomes a mythic icon. You no longer enjoy his protective shield and the burdens of expectations are thrust upon you. You are the new crown prince of Camelot and obliged to fill the role. Insecurity and vulnerability are not an option.

Some might become more detached or live in denial. You go through a period of grief and paralysis. The nation lost a President but you lost your brother and intimate collaborator. Crowds cheer for him through you. You’ve become the symbolic conduit to a ghost. Talk about a mid-life crisis? Where is my place you wonder?

Your brother’s widow turns you onto the classic literature of ancient Greece and a spark is lit. Slowly you climb your way back and with a softened perspective. Vulnerability becomes your strength. You’re not just ruthless Bobby anymore. There is more to power than its own sake.

The Senate becomes a platform and access point to explore the underside of American life: poverty, struggle and famine. You’re transformed into the tribune of the underclass and embrace the role. The role suits you. All that combative energy you used against big brother’s enemies and organized crime is focused on the cause of peace, justice and dignity for all human kind.

The Presidency beckons. Those who reside in Camelot yearn for the restoration of the throne to its proper place. Part of you is seduced by the expectations of dynasty. You are human after all. Mostly you feel the burning hopes of those who see you as the vessel of their dreams. When people reach out to touch you it’s not solely for your brother anymore. You’ve become a human kaleidoscope: Americans of all kinds view their desire to become whole through you.

You attract citizens ready to follow the banner of segregationist George Wallace and followers of Martin Luther King. Older people who crave order and inspired youth envision their salvation through your candidacy. Migrant workers, Native Americans and the poor believe you’re the one who understands their need for respect and dignity.

And there is the horrible war. The country is losing faith and wants an honorable exit. Civil unrest intensifies as America’s social fabric unravels. Your soul mate Martin Luther King is gunned down like your brother. A crowd is engulfed by grief and ready to erupt in violence. You remind them that you lost too and want no more senseless killing.

All this is happening and to millions you’re the singular figure that can heal, soothe and deliver peace. How can others feel despair or hopeless when you’re quoting George Bernard Shaw:

“Some look at things that are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”
And you’re taken from us and all that promise is left unfulfilled. Killed senselessly just like your brother and Martin Luther King.

So I watched a movie named after someone I never knew who died before I was born. And walked away in tears.
My thanks to Maryscott O'Connor for frontpaging the above topic in My Left Wing. Click Here to review comments from that community. Also my thanks to SusanG. for including me in Daily Kos's diary rescue (Click Here). Interesting comments can be reviewed in cross postings of this topic at The Forvm (Click Here) and Progressive Historians (Click Here).


Aaron said...

I went and saw the movie this weekend as well. I wrote my own review for the film on my blog just not as extensive as you. I also left in tears for a man I never knew. Quite an inspiring person.

Jamey Hecht said...

For the only Hip-Hop tribute to RFK and an accompanying photomontage, see:

Bill said...

Thanks for your post, Rob. I was moved by the film as well.

At age eleven I awoke in the middle of the night to find my father in tears in my parents bedroom, listening to the radio. "Bobby Kennedy's been killed," he said.

I didn't know what it meant, but as the summer went on, we watched the police beat young people in Chicago at the Democratic Convention. A mean season opened on dissent in the country and our cities went up in flames. Richard Nixon became our next President in the bombing of North Vietnam increased as he 'Vietnamized' the war there.

Bobby had offered the last alternative vision of the sixties. His speeches during his last year alive were a great course in American thought and courage. He offered real change for a country that had soured on an imperial war and on the divisions it brought to the country.

We'd do well today to study what Bobby had to say in 1968.

thepoetryman said...

Wonderful review my friend. Thank you. I will see the movie soon.


Bob Higgins said...

It was late spring of 1968 and a friend and I were returning from an extended backpacking trip in Northern California's Trinity Alps. Wild country, that area at the time, wild and rugged and beautiful and serene.

Early one morning two weeks earlier we had parked my old Chevy truck at a trail head off a logging road 15 miles from the main highway and struck out on foot to do a 60 mile circuit through mountainous terrain, still partially covered, in shady areas and North facing slopes with a blanket of winter's snow.

For two weeks we trudged up mountains and ridges, sometimes above timber line and descended through deeply forested valleys and during the entire time saw no other human being. Apart from the nearly overwhelming beauty we passed through hour by hour I will never forget the stillness, the almost complete silence unbroken except by the sounds of the earth itself, the wind, the rain, the murmuring of the forest itself, and the occasional sounds of scurrying wildlife.

Near solitude and almost total quiet for two weeks seemed to lift years of human social frenzy from my mind and off my shoulders, school, work, the bustle of human existence, and screeching madness of the war dissolved during those days the loudest sounds were the sounds of our own voices and laughter in our movements through the woods.

Returning to the trail head and stowing our gear I inserted the key in the ignition and started the truck. For a moment I thought that something was seriously wrong, I couldn't remember ever hearing an engine that loud and I nearly turned it off but after a moment I put the truck in gear and started for the highway, a drive on a graveled mountain road which took the better part of an hour.

When we reached the main highway I turned right and accelerated the old truck to its natural cruising speed of about 50 or so and I remember to this day the terror of flying down the highway at that relatively enormous speed, surrounded by all that noise. It took a few miles to become accustomed myself to that impossible pace and as I calmed down I reached for the radio which was tuned, by default, to a San Francisco rock station.

After a tune or two an announcer cut in with a news broadcast, Bobby Kennedy had been shot and killed, assassinated, in Los Angeles.

Our stillness and serenity was shattered forever. Welcome back to the world.

Bob Higgins
Worldwide Sawdust

Anonymous said...

Wonderful website. I have added it to my toolbar. Touching and sad and beautiful peice on Bobby.
Thank you,