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American Jeremiad

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Future attorney general Robert Kennedy with his son Bobby Jr. outside his Hickory Hill home.  

“There is an ancient struggle between two separate philosophies, warring for control of the American soul. The first was set forth by John Winthrop in 1630, when he made the most important speech in American history, ‘A Model of Christian Charity,’ on the deck of the sloop Arbella, as the Puritans approached the New World. He said this land is being given to us by God not to satisfy carnal opportunities, or expand self-interest, but rather to create a shining city on a hill. This is the American ideal, working together, maintaining a spiritual mission, and creating communities for the future.

“The competing vision of America comes from the conquistador side of the national character and took hold with the gold rush of 1849. That’s when people began to regard the land as the source of private wealth, a place where you can get rich quick—the sort of game where whomever dies with the biggest pile wins.”

This was quite an answer, especially since amid talk of the dualities of Hamiltonian federalism and Jeffersonian democracy, as well as the rapacious freelance ethic of people like Billy the Kid, the names Kennedy and Bush were never mentioned. Not that a court genealogist was needed to tell the crony capitalists of Kennebunkport from the humble burghers of Hyannis. Were the Kennedys truly the Emersonian heirs of the Enlightenment and the Bushes nothing more than the mutant white-shoe offspring of Fred C. Dobbs? If the U.S. was truly a nation verging toward oligarchy, as Kennedy often intimates, weren’t all dynasties, from the Adamses to the Rockefellers, Du Ponts, and Keans, on down to Bobby Bonds, his jacked-up son, and half of Hollywood, worthy of suspicion? Besides, hadn’t both family patriarchs, bootlegger-ambassador Joe Kennedy and senator-banker-violator of the Trading With the Enemy Act Prescott Bush, been more than a tad soft on the Nazis?

These seemed reasonable rejoinders. But what was the point, with Bobby Jr. sitting there with the look on his white-lace-curtain face? Because, at the end of the day, past Camelot, Chappaquiddick, the so-called Curse, not to mention the drinking, dope overdoses, and sheer bad behavior (including his own 1983 heroin bust in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, in Rapid City, South Dakota), he wasn’t a nepotistic run-of-the-mill Taft or Trump—he was a Kennedy, a man with the inalienable right to pepper any sentence with phrases like “my uncle Jack,” “my uncle Teddy,” “my cousin Arnold,” as well as the inevitable topper: “My father.”

For any American of a certain vintage, recollection of where you were when you heard of the Kennedy murders is a shared communal history, not all that unlike the one John Winthrop invoked before his God-enabled Puritans descended from their hill city to wipe out the Indians. For better or worse, it is a legacy that cannot be shaken.

That much was clear at a recent screening of Bobby. Directed by Emilio Estevez, son of Martin Sheen and brother of Charlie, Bobby features fictional vignettes of the lives of central-casting types who just happen to be at the Ambassador Hotel when RFK (who appears only in newsreel footage) is killed, after the 1968 California presidential primary. Estevez, born in 1962, has said this was a “life” project for him, as his father always said RFK’s death signaled the moment “the music died.” Alas, Bobby is no Repo Man. Estevez, present at the screening for a Q&A, compared his film to “one of those Irwin Allen disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure where you meet the people and then 40 minutes in, the boat turns over.” His problem, Estevez said, was “my disaster doesn’t happen until the last ten minutes.”

Kennedy, 14 when his father was shot, has no plans to see Bobby. “It’s too painful, that California stuff,” he said. Nonetheless, “the family” had approved of the project, in part because the Sheens are “a wonderful family too.” Still, what stays with you about Bobby are the hats—the eBay-perfect hats and buttons worn by the actors that say, simply, kennedy. It would be easy to dismiss such product placement as a classic-rock Skinner box to send viewers down the blissful memory hole. However, watching Bobby following the marginal uplift of the Democratic congressional victory produced a less-expected self-manipulation. Seeing those actors, so few of them even alive on June 5, 1968, bearing their Kennedy electoral talismans is enough to make the beleaguered heart leap.

It’s sick how anytime the faintest zephyr of hope rises, against much history (like, for instance, getting into Vietnam), class antagonism, and sheer common sense, the cynic’s mind involuntarily turns to things Kennedy. It is a sucker’s game, but there it is.


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