Monday, November 27, 2006


He never had the chance to fulfill his own possibilities, which is why his memory haunts so many of us now. -- Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., from the foward of his biography of Robert F. Kennedy, "Robert Kennedy and His Times."

If anyone who is reading this blog plans to go see a movie over this holiday season, I would highly encourage you to go see Bobby.

Bobby depicts life in the Ambassador Hotel on the day that Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated there. The movie itself does not primarily follow the story of Bobby Kennedy that day, rather it focuses upon a series of fictional characters who were in the hotel that day. In so doing, it depicts the time and the feeling of the last moments of the 1968 Kennedy Campaign, and the first moments of America afterwards.

This is a time of America that I know less about than most others. And I don't know that I've ever spent time thinking about how significant a moment the assassination of Bobby Kennedy was in American history. Of course, I'd always lumped his death into the trifecta of 60's assassinations, along with his brother John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But I have always felt those others were more "important." This movie made me re-think that.

To be fair, this movie is not a work of history - but fiction. The characters the film follows through the day are creations used to tell a broader story. But that story is significant, and this movie is a useful tool to tell it. The movie is unashamedly emotional - even before the assassination scene. It is unapologetically "pro-Kennedy" - when Kennedy is seen in the film it is in old news footage and his spoken word through various speeches. When the film is not using 60's footage, often the characters speak of "Bobby" in reverent and idealistic tones. These aspects are used to capture a feeling of a moment in time, a moment in American history that I was captivated by.

When Bobby Kennedy died, so did American optimism. I had never comprehended that before. It was a moment of utter change in the history of our nation - never since have we as a nation had a sense that something was coming that was better, that was more, that was deeper. That we are on the verge of the next American evolution. America doesn't feel these things anymore. Historian Michael Beschloss has said that you can almost date the death of liberalism in this country to the events of mid-1968. I think you can date the end of American optimism to the same date.

We used to feel such optimism.

America had Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Marshall that gave us a united, free, representative government. Such as the world had never seen before.

America had Lincoln, who decided to keep his still-new nation united, and to free men and women held in the bondage of slavery.

America had Teddy Roosevelt who busted trusts and represented a new progressivism.

America had Franklin Roosevelt who told us all we had to fear was fear itself, led us through the most difficult economic trial our nation has faced, and through one of the most difficult international conflict the world has faced.

Then America had John Kennedy - for a very short time - who was showing us to ask not what our country can do for us, but rather what we can do for our country. But he was taken. We had Martin Luther King, Jr. - also for a very short time - who showed that character, integrity, and non-violence can lead to fundamental social change. Then he was taken.

And we could have had Bobby Kennedy, who was intently focused upon our inequities - racial inequities, financial inequities, etc. And, finally, Bobby was taken too.

That ended it. American optimism. It hasn't been the same since them. Since then we've had the power-hunger of Nixon, the trickle-down excess of Reagan, and the neoconservatism of the second Bush.

Within 30 minutes of this film's opening, I realized that was the story - the death of American optimism that accompanied the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Such a thought had never occurred to me before, but it certainly struck me while watching this film.

That's why - even though the film overtly pulls emotional strings, and is no work of history - Bobby is absolutely worth seeing. Because it gives a glipse of how important a day that was in American history - through the impressions delivered by these characters.

My wife and I watched this film in Memphis, TN. After being so touched by the film, we drove by the Lorraine Hotel - the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It just seemed to make sense. These senseless deaths - more than senseless, history-changing - took so much from what America could have been. At least it seems that way. It is a foolish conceit to ask "what might have been" questions about history. Whatever I perceive as "might have been" wasn't - and isn't. The question we should ask is not "what might have been." The questions each of us should ask is - Are we continuing the legacy? Are we standing for the same things these men stood for? Are we resisting inequity - promoting equality. Resisting violence - promoting peace? Are these the things we stand for?

We have to be willing to commit to create the things we wish had been. We - collectively - have to return optimism to America again. Sure, it takes great leaders to do that - but it also takes everyday people refusing to accept leaders who don't.

America is still full of possibilities. It's our responsibility to fulfill them.

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