Though it only lasted 80 days, Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign inspired libraries of print and video coverage too vast to be reliably inventoried. As we approach the 50th anniversary of his assassination during the early hours of June 5, one day after he won the California primary, can we possibly learn anything new?
The four-part Netflix documentary, Bobby Kennedy for President, by filmmaker Dawn Porter, offers much that is. At four-plus hours, it’s more than a chronicle of a short, legendary, ill-starred campaign. The series tracks the halting then fierce federal battle to secure black Americans’ civil rights, helmed by Kennedy himself as attorney general, under his brother, President John F. Kennedy. We watch Robert Kennedy move from reluctant civil-rights promoter to passionate advocate, as Southern violence claims “Negro” martyrs, forcing Kennedy to grasp the moral issues at stake, not merely the political risks and rewards. After his brother’s death, a devastated Bobby immerses himself in the causes of black people as well as Chicano farmworkers, American Indians, Appalachian whites, the victims of poverty in a nation of wealth. This broken man of wealth ultimately found solace among the (broken and unbroken) poor. It could all feel like cliché, in a lesser work, but the images in these four-plus hours make it new again. And of course, for a generation and a half, it will be new.
With its release on April 27, Bobby Kennedy for President lands between the 50th anniversaries of the assassinations of Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It forces our attention to all that was lost on those two tragic spring evenings in 1968. Screeners for the documentary happened to land on my virtual desk at the same time as David Margolick’s new book, The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and I consumed both compulsively. Together, they explain why we hold tight to Kennedy’s brief presidential campaign: it fought to unite “voters of color,” in current parlance, with the New Deal Democratic base of working-class whites the party has since lost.
Kennedy tried to assemble a “rainbow coalition” 16 years before Jesse Jackson did; he reached for the Obama coalition when our first black president was not quite 7 years old. Scholars are still examining Kennedy’s brief campaign for clues about how Democrats might heal the divide between people of color and working-class whites in the age of Trump. Writing in The New York Times on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s campaign launch on March 16, historian Richard Kahlenberg credited him with pioneering “a liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism” that should inspire Democrats in 2018 and beyond. Upon close examination, I’d argue that Kennedy attempted, but didn’t quite accomplish, either of those goals. His effort still merits attention nonetheless—because at least he tried.
Taken together, Bobby Kennedy for President and The Promise and the Dream help us understand the wary relationship between Kennedy and King; theirs was not an easy affinity. It sheds light on why the two are intertwined in history, interred together as martyrs to a year of backlash that shattered the country as well as the Democratic Party. Each needed the other to accomplish his goals. Neither of these projects deals with the likelihood that King, had he lived, would have endorsed Kennedy. In fact, in a previously unpublished portion of an interview conducted shortly after Kennedy’s death, Stanley Levison, a close aide to King, told author Jean Stein (the mother of Nation publisher and editor Katrina vanden Heuvel) that MLK had planned to back RFK:
After Bobby Kennedy entered the primaries, I asked Martin how he felt about McCarthy or Kennedy. And he said that while be hadn’t publicly decided to take any stand yet, his mind was made up. He had decided that he would support Bobby Kennedy because he felt that while there was great similarity between the objectives of McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, he was impressed by Bobby Kennedy’s ability to pull behind him a sufficient section of the electorate to win it. But, more than anything, that he was impressed by Bobby Kennedy’s ability to grow; he had noted the extraordinary growth of a statesman. And he felt that if he’d come that far, with the greater responsibility he could become one of the outstanding presidents and really be the kind of man the country needed. No question, if he had lived, he would have supported Bobby Kennedy.
Of course, we can’t know for sure. King never endorsed candidates, though something might have changed his mind. When we lost both men, we lost the answers to those kinds of questions. We also lost some of the messy, necessary truth of their relationship: the herky-jerky way in which Kennedy came to civil-rights consciousness; King’s frequent frustration with the entitled scion’s diffidence when urgent action was called for. The honest lessons about their struggles found in the documentary and in the book serve us better than the hagiography promoted elsewhere.
Bobby Kennedy for President depicts the brothers as heroes—but flawed heroes, each was growing into wisdom and maybe even integrity just before his murder. It shows them standing alone against generals, intelligence agency leaders, and Lyndon Johnson to avoid nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it suggests that both men, but especially Bobby, knew that there was no military answer to the Vietnam crisis and wanted a peaceful solution. The documentary entirely avoids conspiracy theories about JFK’s murder, which preoccupied his brother, since almost all of them involved his own battles, whether with Fidel Castro, organized crime or American intelligence agencies. (That makes Porter’s decision to explore alternative theories about RFK’s murder even more debatable, but I’ll discuss that later.) On one issue, though, it captures Kennedy’s flaws as well as accomplishments with depth and complexity: civil rights.
At the start, Bobby Kennedy approached the issue with one priority: doing what was best for his brother’s political career. He might have kept more distance from the movement but for the fact that in 1960, Democrats still had to compete with Republicans for black votes (it would be the last time the GOP put up a serious fight for them). Campaigning in Harlem, the film reminds us, Richard Nixon’s running mate, the former Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (Jack beat him in 1952), committed a Nixon administration to putting a “qualified Negro” in the cabinet. Baseball legend Jackie Robinson thought Kennedy a phony on race and had endorsed Nixon. The brothers needed to find a Robinson foil. They turned to artist and activist Harry Belafonte, then approaching the peak of his entertainment-industry power, and won him over (he and Bobby would later become friends). Belafonte cut an ad that featured Jack Kennedy making a pitch to Belafonte on his civil rights credibility. It closes with the iconic entertainer saying to the camera: “I’m voting for the Senator. How about you?”
But those smooth operations weren’t enough to woo civil rights leaders that November. Just a few weeks before the election, King was arrested trying to integrate an Atlanta department store, and Georgia authorities used a prior infraction to send him to work on a chain gang. The crisis reached the Kennedy campaign. Advisor Harris Wofford floated the idea that Jack might call Coretta Scott King to offer sympathy; the candidate quickly did so. When Bobby heard about it, he went ballistic. “You can close down your civil rights division, you’ve probably lost us the election,” Wofford recalls him saying. But then Bobby himself called the presiding Georgia judge and got him to release King—an early example of the facile “Bad Bobby/Good Bobby” dichotomy that would dog him in life and death. The brothers’ maneuvering might have swung the black vote to the Massachusetts Democrat, who won by a narrow margin.
Then, although Bobby himself called it “nepotism,” he agreed to become his brother’s attorney general. The film doesn’t prettify Kennedy’s authoritarian tendencies. A family friend quotes Jack on the topic: “I love my brother Bobby, but he’s a cop at heart. If he didn’t have someone to arrest he’d arrest [his mother] Rose.” In the 1950s, after a short stay as counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy—he would later say he quickly soured on the senator’s cruel and reckless anticommunism, but many liberals still held it against him—Bobby moved to the McClellan committee, investigating ties between the organized crime and labor unions. As attorney general, he was quicker to go after mobbed-up unions than Southern racists, and he unleashed the power of wiretapping and federal investigative powers nationwide—including, eventually, against King and civil rights movement leaders. He enjoyed being the nation’s top cop; later, in his presidential campaign, he matched Nixon’s appeals to “law and order” on issues of urban rioting and antiwar protesting, which sometimes made his liberal staffers uneasy.
As attorney general, Kennedy avoided big public moves on race for as long as he could. But when black and white students traveled down South to test the newly drawn laws promoting integration in interstate commerce as part of the 1961 Freedom Rides, his hand was forced. Southern states weren’t abiding by those laws, far from it, and the Freedom Riders were determined to make the federal government make them. It was the attorney general’s first big civil rights test, and he tried to dodge it. “I don’t see what the so-called Freedom Riders are accomplishing. I question their wisdom,” he said as the rides began. He urged the riders to press their case in the courts (he wasn’t far from NAACP Legal Defense Fund head, and later Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall in that advice). But then in Anniston, Alabama, Southern racists set upon a bus of Freedom Riders, including Rep. John Lewis, who would eventually become a Kennedy friend, and sent them to the hospital. When King rushed to Montgomery to assist the riders and their local supporters, local racists surrounded their church and threatened to burn it down.
From the church basement, King called Kennedy and said “if you don’t do something, people will be killed.” Kennedy sent in federal marshals to ensure there would be protection. “The city is now under martial law, and the troops are on their way in to Montgomery,” King told the jubilant crowd. For the first time, the top cop had publicly sided with civil rights protesters. It wouldn’t be the last. Kennedy defended the action as necessary to preserve “law and order.”
That move nurtured Kennedy’s friendship with Belafonte, who would become something of a guide through the “Negro” community. Kennedy quickly faced another test—one that he failed. The writer James Baldwin had asked Belafonte to help him gather a group of black people—writers, actors, activists—to meet with the attorney general to have a frank exchange of ideas about civil rights. The group included Baldwin and Belafonte, along with Lena Horne, Lorraine Hansberry, King’s lawyer Clarence Jones and a young Freedom Rider named Jerome Smith, who’d been beaten nearly to death in Alabama. After a meal and some pleasantries at his Central Park South apartment, Kennedy “turned the conversation to the war in Vietnam, and what role were black people expected to play to defend this nation,” Belafonte recalls. It did not go well.
“I want out of here, I want nothing to do with this,” Jerome Smith told Kennedy, insisting he would never fight for this country. “Bobby got very angry, he thought it was unpatriotic. It shook him to the core,” Belafonte recalls in the film.
Margolick’s book has even more details about the disastrous meeting: The prominent black writers and entertainers in the room were electrified by “the young Negro,” as Baldwin put it, because Jerome Smith expressed “the primeval memory of suffering, of being a Negro,” in the words of Lena Horne. Kennedy would later attack his guests as ungrateful elitists, except for Smith. “They don’t live in Harlem,” he noted, rather cattily. “They’re all married to white people” (which wasn’t true). Still, neither side could afford the luxury of long-term alienation.
That was clear early in 1963, when Kennedy traveled to Alabama to confront Governor George Wallace, who had notoriously blocked school integration by standing in a schoolhouse door. Wallace wasn’t charmed by the mop-topped attorney general from Massachusetts. “I think integration is bad, and I don’t think it’s good. You really don’t have integration anywhere. You don’t have it in Virginia,” he tweaked Kennedy, who lived in a tony Virginia suburb. He promised him: “I will never voluntarily submit to school integration.” Kennedy returned to Washington to plan for an Alabama desegregation war, ultimately federalizing the Alabama National Guard to escort Vivian Malone and James Hood to the registrar’s office.
John Kennedy finally introduced a civil rights bill that June, which had almost no chance of passing. But in the routine political and moral dance that would frustrate the Kennedys, and later LBJ, the bill wasn’t enough for civil rights leaders; they just pushed harder. Labor and civil rights forces led by King, Lewis, Belafonte, organizer extraordinaire Bayard Rustin and the UAW’s Walter Reuther announced a plan for a March on Washington for Jobs and Justice in August 1963. Bobby Kennedy for President ducks the wrangle over the march, but Margolick chronicles it in detail, outlining the brothers’ concern about the potential for violence and white backlash. It still slays me, and Margolick too, how much official Washington—including the Kennedys, and many liberals—expected lawlessness, even violence on that day, and were ultimately impressed by “Negroes” comporting themselves with dignity.
The Kennedys eventually acquiesced to the march and helped with logistics. King, Lewis, Belafonte and others were invited to the White House with JFK, RFK and Lyndon Johnson, where Margolick notes John Kennedy took a long, private walk with King to tell him that he was under surveillance (which would later be revealed to be wiretaps authorized by Bobby). Only Bobby and LBJ would go outside for a Rose Garden photo with the civil rights leaders, producing a rare picture of RFK with King.
The film then pivots from black and white footage of the historic March, to vivid color–it looks like home movies–of John and Robert Kennedy taking Marine One to Hyannisport for a late summer vacation with their families in 1963. In these color-soaked images we see the president and his brother swimming and boating and playing with their kids. Summer turns to fall. We watch the two men leave their families and fly back to Washington. The next scene features mourners in Dallas and elsewhere hearing the news of John Kennedy’s assassination. Bobby’s leadership has just begun.
Shrunken Bobby, haunted Bobby, wounded Bobby; we see a miserable survivor, still attorney general, watching as a man he hates enact his brother’s civil rights legislation—and much more, at least partly thanks to the hangover of grief and goodwill after the late president’s death. After LBJ signed his brother’s civil rights act, he hands Kennedy some pens; Bobby looks both catatonic and contemptuous. We then hear audio of him telling his friends that Johnson is an “animal.” He stays in the cabinet, but his heart isn’t in it. He travels abroad to adoring crowds. Johnson fears he’ll challenge him for president, but Kennedy doesn’t consider it (though he apparently hoped for a time to be offered the vice presidential slot). We see Kennedy basking in minutes of a standing ovation at the Atlantic City convention–it went on for 22 minutes–and we understand Johnson’s fear. He runs for New York senator though he lives in Virginia–and against all odds, he wins.
It’s tough to believe now, but Kennedy began as a terrible candidate, a shy public speaker who did not entirely enjoy crowds. “He was the saddest face I’ve ever seen in my life,” recalls William Arnone, a high school-aged volunteer who became a top aide. Kennedy had also made a lot of liberal enemies. Some Jewish voters didn’t like him because of his father’s apparent anti-Semitism and his own vindictive anti-communism. Although African-American voters became his most loyal base, it wasn’t easy at first for many black leaders, who remembered Kennedy for authorizing FBI wiretaps of King and other civil rights leaders and for lagging behind on enforcing civil rights. Kennedy himself believed that New York Times editors and other fancy liberals didn’t like him, according to Frank Mankiewicz, at least partly because “anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of intellectuals.” And yet, though it’s tough to admit, both the liberal and conservative sides of my Irish Catholic family loved Jack but hated Bobby. My liberal father and conservative grandmother agreed on nothing except that he was a “phony;” my father supported Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and thought Kennedy’s late entry to the race the epitome of entitlement.
Still, Kennedy ultimately pulled together in New York the coalition that he’d try to assemble nationally four years later, and he won. He took office just before Selma’s Bloody Sunday, which pushed Johnson to embrace a Voting Rights Act he had earlier tried to block; it passed five months later. Five days after that, Watts exploded—and the door to racial equality that RFK and his brother helped open began to close. Senator Robert F. Kennedy at once defied the backlash, and tried to ride it.
Here the film, to its detriment, departs from a strictly chronological narrative structure. The documentary jumps ahead to Kennedy’s involvement with Cesar Chavez in 1966 and references his early work on urban poverty that same year. But then it leaps back to the Watts riots in August 1965, and then ahead to the Detroit, Newark and Boston riots in 1967. We lose our bearings about Kennedy’s evolving response to the problems of race, poverty and urban unrest. The film then cuts back to Stokely Carmichael, a leading proponent of black nationalism and a critic of King’s doctrine of non-violence, telling a black crowd in 1966: “The real problem with violence is that we have never been violent—we have been too nonviolent!” Then we jump ahead to armed Black Panthers marching on the California State Capitol in May 1967.
I harp on the film’s switchbacks in time and place here only because I wanted to better understand the evolution of Kennedy’s thinking in these three crucial years. Margolick does a better job at chronology, and he finds Kennedy a constant work in progress, often contradicting himself. The author suggests that Kennedy appears to evolve so far at least partly because he devolves, too. As far back as the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, Margolick finds Kennedy practicing what we today disdain as “both siderism.” Kennedy told reporters that yes, the famous photo of a young black man menaced by a snarling German Shepherd police dog, showcased everywhere in the North, was terrible. But circulating in the South, Kennedy observed, were photos that told a different story, including one of a black man menacing a white cop and his dog with a knife and bottle. Kennedy declared the “Negroes” of Birmingham ignorant of what they were protesting, and quotes his friend, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley as saying “all the Negroes are mad for no reason at all” and “they all want to fight, you can’t have a moderate Negro anymore.”
Even once his conscience was awakened as New York senator, “he didn’t like the culture of dependency” welfare created, aide William Arnone recalls. “Welfare destroys the individual, and it destroys his [sic] family,” Kennedy pronounced, as he was introducing his Bedford Stuyvesant Development Corporation (which still exists) to promote public-private partnerships on jobs, small businesses and housing. “The situation is actually getting worse, despite our federal programs,” he said in 1966, sounding a little bit like Ronald Reagan.
But Kennedy’s commitment to the problem of poverty in a nation of plenty cannot be questioned. The film tracks him to Delano, California, where he bonds with Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and striking farmworkers; the former top cop battles local cops, who arrest strikers merely because they might break the law. He suggests they “use the lunch hour to read the Constitution.” A young Marian Wright (she later marries Kennedy aide Peter Edelman and founds the Children’s Defense Fund) takes him to the Mississippi Delta, where he’s devastated by the poverty of young black children and finds their suffering isn’t being reduced by Johnson’s Great Society programs; many parents don’t even know about them.
“It was clear that he’d gone through a transformation. He went back to Washington: ‘You’ve gotta get some food down there!’” Edelman recalled. He finds a mirror of the Delta—hungry kids and dirt-floored shacks—in eastern Kentucky, where both poor and middle-class white people mobbed Kennedy like he was a rock star. A reporter said his visits to the Delta and Appalachia represented Kennedy “redeclaring the War on Poverty LBJ didn’t finish.” Back in Washington, that had to sting.
But was Bobby running for president? That’s all anyone wanted to know. He continued to insist into early 1968 that he was not. He had come to oppose the war in Vietnam, but cautiously. The film captures him acknowledging at one point that Johnson had “inherited” the war from his brother, and that there was no easy answer. Nevertheless, as the antiwar movement rises and more people die on both sides in Vietnam, Kennedy became more critical, and anti-war Democrats seeking an alternative to Johnson believed they’d found their candidate. But when “Dump Johnson” organizer Rep. Allard Lowenstein approaches Kennedy, offering a movement to power a presidential campaign, Kennedy turns him down, and Lowenstein moves on to Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. As Lawrence O’Donnell recounts in Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics, a furious Lowenstein left their final meeting telling Kennedy: “We’re going to do it without you, and that’s too bad. Because you could have become President of the United States.” The moment had passed.
Or so it seemed. Over the last weekend in January, Kennedy again told reporters he wasn’t running, just as the Tet Offensive began. A few nights later, he did it again, this time talking to his friend Belafonte, guest-hosting the Tonight Show for Johnny Carson. But he spoke passionately about the starving children he’d seen across the country, and lamented the fact that Johnson seemed to be cutting poverty programs to pay for the war. Just a few nights after that, King would sit in the same place, next to Belafonte, and likewise question the notion that the nation could have both “guns and butter,” as he announced the launch of his Poor People’s Campaign. Margolick finds it poignant that both King and Kennedy sat down on that iconic sofa with their mutual friend Belafonte, and talked about the same topics, but did so a few nights apart; it’s a metaphor for their frequent near misses, the calculated distance between them, as well as their unbreakable political bond.
Within a few weeks, Kennedy would change his mind about the presidency. You can read dozens of books to figure out exactly when and why, but the film focuses us on Kennedy’s return to Delano, where a fasting Chavez had declared he will end his hunger strike if Kennedy visits. It’s a joyous and moving interlude. Kennedy felt a connection with Chavez he clearly didn’t with King, maybe because of their Catholicism. He mangles Spanish at Chavez’s break-fast. “Is that alright, Cesar? Should I translate that into Spanish?” he asked, grinning widely. Except with his children, Kennedy rarely looked so happy as on that day. At the airport, about to leave, he signs autographs for a crowd of black and brown workers. Then he climbs into a small plane and gives one last look back at the crowd. “Goodbye! Nice to see you!” he says, in that high, reedy voice some of us can still remember, like a polite little boy going home from a visit to a friend’s house. By the time he returned to Washington, he’d told his closest aides he was running for president.
At first, the film makes clear, it seemed RFK had missed his opportunity. McCarthy’s supporters were livid that the entitled Kennedy was trying to big-foot their hero, once McCarthy had proven Johnson’s vulnerability by almost beating him in New Hampshire. “The idealistic youth kind of resent his stepping in after McCarthy put his career on the line,” a young female antiwar activist says. A reporter asks McCarthy backer Paul Newman: “Do you think RFK stepping in is making your job harder, and McCarthy’s job harder?” Newman shot back curtly: “Yes.”
Kennedy announced his candidacy March 16, with a speech that indicted his wealthy nation for the crimes of poverty and racism: “I have seen the inexcusable and ugly deprivation that has caused its children to starve in Mississippi, its black citizens to riot in Watts, young Indians to commit suicide on their reservations because they lacked all hope, and proud families to wait out their lives in empty idleness in eastern Kentucky.” With those remarks, Kennedy made clear his intention to assemble a multiracial, economically populist coalition. Did he? Fifty years later, historians are still debating the matter. To my mind, even after absorbing these two admiring anniversary chronicles, I think the answer is no.
Bobby Kennedy for President shows that RFK certainly summoned that coalition on memorable and important occasions. We saw it, to some extent, in the Indiana primary. Tragically, Kennedy’s performance there is best known for the fact that a celebratory rally planned for a black neighborhood of Indianapolis on the night of April 4 turned into an occasion of grief and mourning, as Kennedy had to tell the assembled crowd that King had been assassinated. With only a few scrawled notes (we don’t know if he even used them), Kennedy addressed the crowd from the deep well of his own grief over his brother, whose assassination he never discussed publicly, except to refer stoically to “the events of November 1963.” At the heart of the short speech he stammered slowly:
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
Out of context, it’s a strange jumble: OK, white guy, so what? Your brother wasn’t killed for being a white leader. But Kennedy’s obvious suffering made all of it work, including (or especially) his extemporaneous Aeschylus quote. Because of the power and meaning of that short speech, we remember Kennedy and King as being much closer, personally, than they really were. Of course, two months later, Kennedy’s own assassination would seal their bond in history and in our hearts and memories.
Another image from Indiana sealed Kennedy’s reputation as the man who could unite black and white: On the night before the primary, he toured the streets of Gary in an open convertible with black Mayor Richard Hatcher on one side and Polish American boxer Tony Zale on the other. When Kennedy won, that alliance (Polish and Irish and black, oh my!) became shorthand for what the Irish Catholic politician had achieved. But it was partly illusion. As Kennedy’s advisor and close friend William vanden Heuvel (the father of Nation publisher and editor Katrina vanden Heuvel) later found, though he won Indiana, Kennedy wound up losing 59 of 70 of Gary’s white precincts and won only 30 percent of Indiana’s white vote.
He then did well in white Nebraska, but bombed in white Oregon, suffering the first electoral loss any Kennedy had endured. There is some evidence that in every state he ran in, he did better with working-class whites than the middle class and affluent, who tended to be McCarthy’s base. But the notion that Kennedy, had he lived, would have prevented the racial schism that cleaved his party in 1968 cannot be proven. To the extent that he did, in some places, assemble an unlikely coalition—black voters and George Wallace supporters—he might not have held onto them in a national campaign.
Moreover, the “liberalism without elitism” and “populism without racism” Kahlenberg admires in Kennedy occasionally fell short. In Indiana, for instance, we see him meet a group of white working class guys where one says bluntly, “This rioting, it seems like there’s no law and order anymore.” Kennedy shoots back: “Well, you have to have law and order—that’s what we’ve got to establish, that we won’t tolerate lawlessness.” As Michael Cohen describes in his book, American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division, Kennedy did what he had to do to blunt white fears of rising black power. “I’m the Negro candidate,” he told speechwriter Jeff Greenfield. “I have to tell white people I care about what they care about.” Another time he related to staff: “I’ll talk racial reconciliation for ten minutes, and it’s cold as can be. I’ll talk about [how] we’ve . . . got to enforce the law, and they’ll break loose. Now are we trying to win votes, or are we trying to drop dead here?” Kennedy was not above occasional race-baiting, either: In California’s Orange County, he attacked McCarthy’s support for scattered site low-income housing and suggested to the white crowd that his rival wanted to send poor blacks into tony white suburbs.
Kennedy’s appeal to labor was likewise fractured: his early-career investigations into corrupt unions made him hostile to big labor at a time when it still had enormous power – and the feeling was widely mutual. “We have to write off the unions and the South now and replace them with Negroes, blue-collar whites, and the kids,” he declared in Indiana. “If we can do that, we’ve got a chance to do something.” But the political path to winning over “blue collar whites” while trashing unions was not obvious. Meanwhile, he remained close to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who had become the symbol of Northern racism and reaction. Whether Kennedy could have assembled and maintained a coalition that included Daley and Martin Luther King Jr. (remember, we’re talking counterfactuals here, a fantasy of the past in which King, too, might have lived) is obviously impossible to say. But given everything else we know about 1968, it seems tragically unlikely.
Bobby Kennedy for President begins and ends in California, as it must. As we move toward its tragic climax, we see footage of Kennedy being mauled by loving crowds in Los Angeles and around the state, as a news anchor intones: “The wellsprings of his greatest strength in this state are the minority group members. There are millions of them: Indians, Orientals, more than one million Negroes, one and three quarter million Latins.” Millions of them. John Lewis reminisces about knocking doors with Cesar Chavez. On election night, labor leader and Kennedy friend Paul Schrade remembers, the campaign got calls that the polls had closed early in Watts and in some Latino neighborhoods. There’s a shiver of worry about possible voter suppression before the campaign learns why: every single registered voter had already turned out there. “Which had never happened before in any election,” Schrade says.
We meet Juan Romero, the baby-faced Ambassador Hotel busboy who would cradle Kennedy’s bloody head after he was shot. The 17-year-old had served Kennedy what was probably his last meal, up in his hotel room; the presidential candidate invited him in and shook his hand. “With both hands,” he recalls in the film. “I felt so American. As American as anybody in the room.”
Kennedy had just shaken Romero’s hand again, in the hotel kitchen after his victory speech, when he was shot. And it’s here that Bobby Kennedy for President takes a debatable turn. The film spends half of its final hour on the question of whether 23-year-old Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Bishara Sirhan was the real culprit, or at least whether he acted alone. It cannot answer those questions, so it ends on slightly shaky ground.
The argument for including this messy controversy, in a final hour titled “Justice for Bobby,” is that Kennedy loyalist Paul Schrade has made reopening the case, and securing “justice for Bobby,” his later life’s work. Schrade was the first one hit by a bullet that night; he remembers nothing that happened after. But he’s convinced there’s more to the story. We see him working with Sirhan’s latest attorney, Laurie Dusek, and failing to get authorities to take their arguments seriously. The problems with the case against Sirhan are disturbing, especially when we hear bizarre and ethically questionable audio of defense experts walking a hypnotized Sirhan through his “memory” of committing the crime, as the anxious defendant pants like an animal. But without a counter-theory of who killed Kennedy (one possible culprit mentioned had a gun which held different bullets from the ones that found in the candidate’s body), it feels like a slight cul de sac in this remarkable four-hour journey.
The documentary’s ultimate conclusion is haunting and beautiful. In its closing minutes, Schrade finally meets former Ambassador busboy Juan Romero, who is now 68. Romero has struggled with his memories and his grief; he worked in construction, bouncing back and forth between San Jose and in Los Angeles. He is now retired. Their interaction in the film is so moving I went online to look for more of Romero’s story and learned enough to know he deserves a documentary of his own.
In Schrade’s Los Angeles home, which is a shrine to Kennedy’s memory, the former Kennedy aide moves to show his new friend the iconic photo of him with the dying senator. Carefully.
“I don’t know if you can handle this?” he asks.
“Oh no, I can do it now,” Romero answers. There was a time when he couldn’t, but over the years he has embraced his place in history and Kennedy’s place in his life: “I was gonna wind up in a barrio or a gang or in jail. Bobby showed me that I mattered.”
Indeed he mattered, Schrade tells him. “You could see that something was happening! The way you looked and the way he looked! You were important to Robert Kennedy and you were there when he needed somebody.” If you’re not crying at this point, I cannot help you.
Then the two men walk to the site of the Ambassador Hotel, which thanks to work by Schrade and many others, became the site of Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, a multi-school campus built after decades of political wrangling (which the film, by necessity, skates over). In the only reference to the man who desecrates the office Kennedy aspired to, Schrade tells Romero that Donald Trump once owned the site. “We took it away from him,” he chuckles. In fact, Trump proposed to build the nation’s tallest building there, but he was foiled by the school district and backed out of the project.
Schrade points to a now-iconic mural in the library, which sits roughly where Kennedy gave his victory speech, and then died. It features the candidate and national leaders like Chavez. And Juan Romero. The grown-up busboy, preserved for history, cries again, and so do we.
Fifty years later, we are suffering through another awful time, but so far we are not seeing our leaders gunned down, and that forces us to count our blessings. The great New York journalist and Bobby confidante Pete Hamill explains how it felt: “Jack Kennedy had been killed. Martin King had been killed. Malcolm X had been killed, it was like some kind of shooting gallery instead of a civilization.” John Lewis recalls crying the whole way back as he flew from Los Angeles to Atlanta, wondering “what is happening in America? To lose Martin Luther King Jr and then two months later to lose Bobby Kennedy? It was too much.” He breaks down in tears again.
But John Lewis is still fighting; so are Harry Belafonte, Paul Schrade, Juan Romero, Marian Wright Edelman and Peter Edelman, Pete Hamill and William vanden Heuvel. They gave generously of their time to this project in the hope that by remembering it closely, in detail, with honesty, we’ll win Kennedy’s battle this time. Of course we are still riven by the divisions of race and class that Kennedy tried to heal; learning that he did so imperfectly is, oddly, reassuring. It’s not that there was some magical formula that was lost to us when he and King died 50 years ago; it’s that a very tough battle was joined, yet not won; it’s left to us to keep fighting.