An Appreciation of RFK in ‘Memoir’
Adoring crowds treated Robert F. Kennedy like a rock star during his brief presidential crusade in 1968--chasing his motorcade, grasping so desperately at his arms they were cut and sore after a day of campaigning.
That was before Watergate, before tracking polls, before a weary disappointment in politics set in that can be traced partly to the night Kennedy lay dying with a bullet in his head.
Could it be 30 years ago?
Watching the Discovery Channel’s three-hour documentary on Kennedy, which premieres Sunday, it feels like a much more distant time in public life.
Real passion for politics, and a politician who bares his soul to the public seem out of place today. So Jack Newfield, Kennedy biographer and the film’s co-producer, set out to evoke that spirit as well as tell the Kennedy story.
“This film was intended as the antidote to ‘Primary Colors,’ which was about the cynicism of politics,” Newfield said. “I hope this is about the idealism of politics.”
Kennedy visited migrant workers in California and spent time among the poor in Brooklyn’s tough Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood. Not only did he feel their pain, he convinced them he was their best hope to do something about it. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, one of the film’s three narrators, called it “sensual politics.”
The documentary starts slowly, detailing Kennedy’s upbringing in a competitive family. One anecdote, about how Kennedy’s father didn’t consider a ski trip successful unless his boys had some sort of injury, takes on an eerie resonance with the death of RFK’s son, Michael, on the ski slopes last New Year’s Eve.
It follows Kennedy’s career as a Senate aide and attorney general in his brother’s administration. He attacked organized crime figures and labor corruption.
The film’s impact deepens when it describes Kennedy’s growth as a man and politician after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Robert Kennedy, who frequently climbed a fence at Arlington National Cemetery to pray by his brother’s grave, became much more reflective and unafraid to let the public see his doubts.
The New York senator agonized over the Vietnam War, eventually opposing it and admitting to mistakes in JFK’s administration. Initially he was slow to back the civil rights struggle--as attorney general, he authorized a wiretap of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.--before becoming a strong supporter.
He acknowledged waiting too long to run for president, jumping into the race only after Eugene McCarthy proved that dissatisfaction with the Johnson administration could be tapped.
“In order to evaluate the current crop of politicians, you need to know how good a politician can be,” Newfield said. “You can’t measure David Mamet until you read Shakespeare. You can’t judge Bernie Williams unless you saw Willie Mays.
“I think [Kennedy] was just a politician, but he was as good as a politician can get, in terms of getting more open, more thoughtful and more independent as he got close to the presidency, rather than more cynical and more cautious and more programmed, as most politicians do as they acquire more power.”
Newfield speaks with some of Kennedy’s children, who read notes their father wrote to them on historic occasions such as the desegregation of the University of Alabama and the day JFK was buried. They’re like treasured time capsules to the recipients.
Newfield said he was surprised when historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told him that in a late-night conversation, Kennedy revealed he was convinced that organized crime murdered his brother.
In one poignant moment, former Sen. George McGovern talks of how vulnerable, even small, Kennedy appeared physically the last time he saw him, standing on an airport tarmac.
Remembering the moment, McGovern’s eyes glisten and his voice cracks. He waves off the camera, explaining he must be getting tired.
Newfield’s documentary is a fine, if somewhat unbalanced, primer for people unfamiliar with Kennedy or the notion that politics can touch people’s lives so deeply. The documentary’s tone is largely reverential. And although Newfield insists Kennedy’s mistakes are not covered up, critics don’t get much time on camera.
For that, Newfield makes no apologies.
“I think the film is basically an appreciation, telling people to take a second look at this guy,” he said. “He was special. The lost potential was gigantic.”
* “Robert Kennedy: A Memoir” airs at 8 p.m. and again at midnight Sunday on the Discovery Channel.