Robert Kennedy’s history is ours to share

I recently saw a preview of a new HBO film, “Ethel” at the Berkshire International Film Festival that chronicled the life of Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, and mother to an extraordinary group of human beings who have made quite a difference in our politics. The film is by Ethel’s youngest daughter, Rory, who was born after her father was slain.

While the film is supposed to be about the life of RFK’s wife, it is certainly about RFK himself and the man’s relationship to his brother, the slain president. It is a travelogue of the events that have shaped so many of our lives, particularly the lives of New Yorkers where Kennedy eventually became our United States senator. It chronicles the most important and influential events of our time. It gives each person who did not live through these events, as I did, the reasons why RFK has been honored to the point that the Triborough Bridge has been renamed in his honor.

To put it mildly, RFK, who critics (at the time) accused of being the third senator from Massachusetts, was complicated. After all, he was the man who once assisted one of the arch villains of all times, Senator Joseph McCarthy in his red baiting campaign that almost destroyed this country. The film says Kennedy came to recognize the error of his ways, an explanation accepted by some of McCarthy’s biggest critics including the late Jack Newfield, one of the great liberal journalists in this country. There are many people, including a lot of New Yorkers who were destroyed by McCarthy, with Kennedy’s assistance, who might not be as charitable.

Kennedy also originally believed in the validity of the Vietnam War. In both cases, McCarthy and Vietnam, he proved himself willing to renounce his own earlier mistaken positions. In our politics, some are allowed to move on and to renounce earlier mistakes, others are not. Kennedy made the cut.

The question, of course, is whether it was pure political pragmatism that caused his renunciation of his earlier positions or genuine understanding that in both cases he had been horribly wrong. In the case of McCarthy and his insane crusade, it is harder to believe RFK’s change of heart. There are an awful lot of newsreels showing Kennedy badgering witnesses alongside of McCarthy and consigning them to lives of poverty and non-personhood.

For me, RFK’s position on Vietnam was much easier to accept. He sure wasn’t alone in that. People tend to believe their president, particularly one who had so many other accomplishments like Medicare and civil rights legislation. RFK was a superb politician who knew which way the wind was blowing, but, of course, that’s better than one who didn’t, or couldn’t, see the error of his ways. Of course, he became the champion of the “get out of Vietnam” campaign after the handwriting was on the wall. Nevertheless, whatever his motivations, he was leading that campaign when it needed a leader. We’ll never know whether he would have reached the presidency. I think he would have. There will always be suspicions about his death. He knew he was in danger. His daughter Kathleen says he asked for more secret service protection and his death led to more protection for subsequent presidential candidates. He knew about his powerful enemies. Two of them, Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover come to mind. Curiously, while Hoover gets the derision he deserves in “Ethel,” Johnson is left largely ignored.

Ethel Kennedy, still very much alive, is the vehicle that allows us to understand who RFK was. We come to know RFK through Ethel and her remarkable children including Kerry, the very beautiful and brilliant mother of our current governor’s children. When I walked out of the theater, after seeing all that footage of Bobby Kennedy and hearing from his loved one’s I had tears in my eyes. After all, his history is ours to share and this film takes you right back to when it was all happening. To me it seems like yesterday.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/6/12

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