Thursday, October 8, 2009

American Experience: RFK (2004)

I was born in 1969, so I was not on this planet during the life of Robert F. Kennedy. As a result, I have not been terribly familiar with him, and what I have known came to me as history. The PBS series American Experience is one of my favorites. I love documentaries, and they produce some of the best. I was really pleased to come across a documentary they did on the life of Robert Kennedy.

In typical American Experience fashion, the film starts from the beginning of the subject’s life and traces the person’s evolution until his death. The film discusses how close Robert was to his mother, Rose, and how influenced he was by her and her devout Catholicism. He was apparently one of the most religious of his siblings. Robert and the very devout Ethel Skakel married at a rather young age. He was a law student, and Ethel had just finished her undergraduate degree. Almost immediately they began having children and eventually had eleven.

After law school, Robert moved his young family to Washington, D.C. and began his career in government. With regard to his early work for Senator Joe McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the film describes Robert has having a strong moralistic sense and being a product of his times. The primary moral foe at that point in history was atheistic Communism. Robert was apparently very fond of Senator McCarthy and personally convinced of the menace of Communists infiltrating our society. The film also notes the influence of Robert’s strong moralism in his work for the Senate Labor Rackets Committee where he investigated and famously grilled Jimmy Hoffa. The film describes Robert’s moral philosophy as being very black and white in those days; there was good and there was evil, but not necessarily much nuance.

The film next explores the strong bond that grew between Robert and his older brother during John Kennedy’s presidency, and the deep despair of Robert when John was assassinated in 1963. To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the film was its description of Robert’s struggles after his brother’s death to find his own voice. During that period, he initially seemed to lack focus and purpose. In 1964, he was elected to the Senate to represent New York, but the role of senator was apparently ill-suited to his temperament. He was impatient and bored by the slow pace of committee work and the requisite deal-making to effect legislation. He was often absent from the Senate, but seemed to find his voice in trying to understand and improve the plight of the vulnerable in society. The film portrays this as a time of tremendous personal growth for Robert. His faith and morals became more nuanced, and he exhibited great empathy for disempowered, forgotten people. He began to focus more on human rights and anti-poverty efforts. He and Ethel visited South Africa where he publicly challenged apartheid. Robert helped start a redevelopment project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. He aligned himself more with the civil rights movement, and met with Cesar Chavez in California during his hunger strike in support of farm workers. The film portrays the almost desperate hope of many in marginalized communities as Robert finally entered the 1968 presidential race, and the crushing, cruel disappointment after he was assassinated just months after Dr. King. I can only imagine what that double tragedy must have been like amidst the turmoil of Vietnam and the continuing struggles of the civil rights movement.

Matthew 25: 34-45 (Darby Translation)

“Then shall the King say to those on his right hand, Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from [the] world's foundation: for I hungered, and ye gave me to eat; I thirsted, and ye gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was ill, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came to me. Then shall the righteous answer him saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungering, and nourished thee; or thirsting, and gave thee to drink? and when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in; or naked, and clothed thee? and when saw we thee ill, or in prison, and came to thee? And the King answering shall say to them, Verily, I say to you, Inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me. Then shall he say also to those on the left, Go from me, cursed, into eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I hungered, and ye gave me not to eat; I thirsted, and ye gave me not to drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye did not clothe me; ill, and in prison, and ye did not visit me. Then shall they also answer saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungering, or thirsting, or a stranger, or naked, or ill, or in prison, and have not ministered to thee? Then shall he answer them saying, Verily I say to you, Inasmuch as ye have not done it to one of these least, neither have ye done it to me.”

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