You can’t really say there has been a time when America has forgotten about the Kennedys. Since 1946, when John F. Kennedy was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the sum total of the time there hasn’t been a Kennedy of some description holding an elected, federal office in the United States is two years and one month. The two years came earlier this decade, between Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick stepping back from being the representative of Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district in 2011 and Robert Kennedy’s grandson Joe III becoming the representative for Massachusetts’s 4th in 2013. The one month was the stretch between John resigning his Senate post and being sworn in as president.
Still, the fortunes of any dynasty will wax and wane, and in the first part of 2018, a full light seems to be falling on the Kennedy name once again. At the end of January, Joe III was chosen to give the Democratic response to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address – an attempt by Democratic leaders to present a shiny, new face wrapped in dusted-off political packaging. Earlier this spring, the film Chappaquiddick took a melodramatic look at the 1969 incident wherein Senator Ted Kennedy crashed his car off a bridge on the Massachusetts island, killing political staffer Mary Jo Kopechne. And, now, closing in on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, Netflix dives deep into the political life of Robert F. Kennedy – paragon of younger brotherhood, attorney-general and fleeting great white presidential hope – with the documentary series Bobby Kennedy for President.
At a shade over four hours, Bobby Kennedy for President is reasonably extensive, adding depth and focus to the outline of the original 1960s Kennedy myth: a family of charismatic, privileged, high-minded, ultimately doomed boys who just wanted to serve the American people.
“The Kennedys are our American royalty, but there’s a reason behind that mythology,” series director Dawn Porter says, explaining some of her motivation for the series. “There’s an enduring political legacy and commitment to public service that so many members of that family have had.”
That’s hard to deny, with about 80 years of nearly uninterrupted service under their collective belts, though it also tends to overlook that presidents and congresspeople are not quite the same as bureaucrats: their offices are instruments of power, not just service. Forgetting that, intentionally or not, can have dire consequences for a public.
We can see it most plainly less in the Kennedy myth than in the enduring metaphor: There is a sense that the Kennedys represent an America that could have been, a more progressive, tolerant place, a place that actually strove to live up to its ideals – all men created equal, American dream, force for good, etc. Contrasted in practical and popular conception against Richard Nixon – who lost to John, ran the polar opposite of Bobby’s campaign, and had Ted on his enemies list – it is particularly tempting, in an America plainly shaped by his divisive, paranoid, autocratic style, to imagine what might have been. We conveniently forget that people who hold power in America, including the Kennedys, have always looked more like each other than the fantasies of all those people who have never got a sniff of it.
To its credit, Bobby Kennedy for President does not entirely gloss over this fact: It does make reference to his reputation as a political bruiser, painting him as something of a shrewd operator who nevertheless seemed to genuinely find a social conscience – genuinely attempting to help the poor, and befriending both labour and civil-rights leaders – by the time he served in the Senate and began his presidential campaign. But the most telling omission might come from its treatment of his his first federal job, working as assistant council on Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt committee. Kennedy did eventually resign out of discomfort with the committee’s tactics, but the documentary makes no mention of the fact that he got the job in the first place because of his father’s longstanding friendship with McCarthy.
The Kennedy patriarch is almost entirely absent from Robert’s story, in fact, despite his outsize influence on the lives of all his sons. Joseph P. Kennedy was one of American history’s great political operators and opportunists. His résumé is extensive, but there are some profound highlights. His immense wealth – he was at one point among the top 15 wealthiest men in America – was at least partially a result of insider-trading practices in the 1920s, which he then helped ban when he was made SEC chairman in the 1930s. His facility with securing the Catholic vote for Democrats made him ambassador to Britain in the late 1930s, a position he held until he made public his thoughts that the country was past hope, and that the United States should consider dealing with Hitler to preserve itself. Maybe most telling, he was also a fan of Nixon, and purportedly confessed to him, in the midst of the 1960 presidential campaign, that he would be okay no matter who won.
In this respect, Chappaquiddick may be the ultimately more accurate glimpse at what being a Kennedy truly meant. It portrays a Ted Kennedy whose first words after leaving a woman to drown in a car are “I’m not going to be president.” It also features a Joseph P. Kennedy who, left nearly mute and physically debilitated by stroke, is still shrewd enough to coax his son into a cover-up, and then literally slap him into submission when his moral quandaries get in the way.
The film also ends with an epigraph hailing the career Ted did go on to have, notably referring to him as a reliably forceful liberal voice, the “Lion of the Senate.” The message there seems to echo the one found in Bobby Kennedy for President: that change is possible, that good work can sprout even from the dirtiest of political machinations. In an America that has been forced to confront its self-image in the last two years, though, this Kennedy story can seem as hollow as America’s other myths. It may be time for the country to think less about who, precisely, is in control, and more about what kind of people even have a shot at power in the first place.