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The Cold Comfort of the Kennedy Extended Universe

Netflix’s ‘Bobby Kennedy for President’ documentary is the newest addition to the overstuffed canon of Kennedy entertainment, joining this month’s drama ‘Chappaquiddick’ in examining the family’s fading reigning days. These films retrace familiar stories. Can they tell us anything new?

Entertainment Studios/Netflix/Ringer illustration

Like many Americans, I remain a big old sucker for the Kennedys. Camelot narratives combine three grand national obsessions—nostalgia, sexual intrigue, fallen heroes—and, accordingly, the doomed Massachusetts glamour clan has held the country’s attention. No family, no matter how ritzy or pertinent to 20th-century sociopolitical history, needs thousands of books, movies, miniseries, and documentaries devoted to their brief stint in power. Yet Kennedy Expanded Universe content still keeps getting made, legacies ground into legends in re-telling.

There are more than 100 books about Robert F. Kennedy, including cable pundit Chris Matthew’s 2017 biography Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit. Dawn Porter’s new Netflix documentary, Bobby Kennedy for President, adds to the RFK canon this week, nearly 50 years after the presidential candidate’s death at a Los Angeles hotel in June 1968. The attention will not end with Bobby Kennedy for President, as Chris Pine will play RFK in an upcoming Hulu television series. While not quite as famous as his older brother, Robert F. Kennedy has gained a special, saintly perch in American political history as a progressive leader cut down too soon. While modern reassessments of JFK often linger on his scandals, RFK has maintained a far squeakier image in his afterlife. A recent exhibition, The Train: RFK’s Last Journey, shows photographs from the train carrying his body along the East Coast to his funeral; its images show ordinary people mourning their hero en masse.

Bobby Kennedy for President examines how Bobby went from the second-banana Kennedy to the second Kennedy martyr, outlining his political evolution, brief presidential campaign, and death.

The four-part miniseries does not tell viewers anything new about Robert F. Kennedy. There are no previously untold revelations, nor does it delve much into his personal life. It does, however, convincingly trace RFK’s political evolution from a ruthless, Joseph McCarthy–assisting pragmatist to a ruthless, Cesar Chavez–assisting idealist. Relying on interviews with labor rights icon Dolores Huerta, Rep. John Lewis, and Kennedy aide Paul Schrade—who was struck by bullets during RFK’s assassination—the documentary illustrates how Bobby moved enthusiastically towards the left after John F. Kennedy’s death. As a New York senator, Bobby emerged as a leading white figure in the Civil Rights movement despite his history of anti-communist fervor and an unimpressive run as attorney general during his brother’s presidency. Critics (of whom few are presented in the documentary) argued that Kennedy’s new role as a crusader was real-politicking at its slipperiest; Bobby Kennedy for President attempts to rebuke that line of thinking by highlighting interviewees testifying to Kennedy’s sincerity alongside images of Bobby flanked by black and Mexican American supporters.

Despite the jagged edges and a tone bordering on the hagiographic, Bobby Kennedy for President offers a succinct look at a process which seems rare if not critically endangered in American politics: an already-powerful, middle-aged politician who appears to be genuinely changing his ideological allegiance through speaking with citizens. The moral centerpiece of the documentary shows footage of RFK’s reaction to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. two months before his own death. Kennedy was scheduled to speak to a largely black crowd in Indianapolis, and he delivered the news while spontaneously quoting the Greek poet Aeschylus. The video, grainy and shaky, is obviously from a bygone era—but watching it in 2018, watching a politician speak respectfully and recite poetry seems especially idyllic.

“Democrats need a new RFK,” argued Larry Tye, author of Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, in December 2016. The great tonal gulf between RFK’s campaign and the most recent presidential election have made pundits even more nostalgic for Bobby, even though his rise was as much indebted to the status quo as it was to overturning it. (A Time columnist suggested that Elizabeth Warren could have become the next Bobby had she jumped into the 2016 Democratic primary race late.) Kennedy’s approach to coalition building, which relied heavily on courting people of color and lower-class voters, was repeatedly invoked before and after the 2016 election. Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden, during a Q&A that December, said that a kind of “Bobby Kennedy coalition” would be a way forward for Democrats. This same note of contemporary longing permeates Bobby Kennedy for President. It offers a melancholy primer on a chapter of American progressive political history, with an emphasis on the history—watching the film, I wasn’t struck by the need for a new RFK as much as a newfound sense of surprise that we had him at all.

On the other end of the Camelot spectrum is the recent Chappaquiddick, John Curran’s new film about one of the Kennedy family’s most infamous chapters. The dramatized account of Ted Kennedy’s behavior leading up to and following a crash which killed a young woman, is, like 2016’s Jackie, refreshingly grim-mouthed toward the Kennedy fixation on public image. While Jackie showed the effort and artifice necessary to create the idea of idyllic American royalty, Chappaquiddick shows what sort of nastiness follows when men are treated like idols.

The film follows Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), the youngest and only remaining Kennedy son in 1969, during the aftermath of his older brother’s assassination. Following a gathering of former RFK campaigners, Ted accidentally kills Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) by driving his car off a bridge and leaving her trapped underwater. What follows is more Kennedy real-politicking, but the darkest kind. After Ted makes his way back to the beach house to alert his friends what he has done, the first words out of his mouth are “I’m not going to be president.” He lays back and looks at the stars as his friends strip down to their underwear and frantically dive to free Mary Jo. Then, when he calls his father for advice, the old man croaks one word: “Alibi.” The film follows Ted as he fumbles between telling the truth and trying to salvage his career. It’s an appropriately bleak movie that effectively rips the gauze from the Kennedy story by covering one of its darkest chapters in unsparing, procedural detail.

The projects offer visions of American politics that no longer seem plausible. Bobby underwent a remarkable conversion, leaping from the right to the center-left in a startlingly short period. This ideological hopscotch is more or less extinct today; Elizabeth Warren’s mid-’90s switch from Republican to Democrat, and eventual positioning as a progressive figurehead, does bear a glancing similarity, but her evolution took place over a much more prolonged time period. Politicians still regularly change positions on issues, but Kennedy’s transformation stemmed from an altered belief system.

Meanwhile, even in our seemingly consequence-free political climate, it is hard to imagine the Chappaquiddick incident playing out the way it did in 1969. Kennedy’s actions in the days that followed would’ve never been possible in an age of paparazzi and social media. At the time, however, Ted pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a crime and avoided jail time, and he eventually became the fourth-longest serving U.S. senator. Ted was hailed as the “lion of the Senate,” and served in Congress for more than 40 years, until his death in 2009. Chappaquiddick was a blip. Chappaquiddick emphasizes how much it should have been a stain.

Fifty years have passed since the peak of the Kennedy power, and yet these new projects didn’t need an anniversary; Americans have never stopped thinking about and evoking the Kennedys. Likewise, American politicians have never stopped cribbing from the Kennedy playbook. The Clintons and the Bushes, with their belief in ruling families, were indebted to the Kennedy clan. Obama took RFK’s idealism, poetic speechmaking, and coalition-building even further (and even directly quoted Bobby in a 2016 open letter to law enforcement). Even Melania Trump relies on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for first-lady fashion inspiration; although her husband’s administration has little in common with the family of establishment Democrats, she knows that the nostalgic sartorial invocation will not be divisive.

These politicians grasp at pieces of the legacy for the same reason ordinary people continue to tune in to retellings, and the same reason why filmmakers return to these stories: This family that represented the future of American politics is now stuck firmly in the past, an archetype of potential stolen and squandered. Excavating these familiar stories and looking for contemporary relevance is an exercise with diminishing returns, but, in a way, the scraps are still comforting. They allow people a chance to inhabit, at least for the length of a documentary, a world that no longer exists.