Robert Kennedy and His Times (1985)

As I write this, in April 2011, there is actually a brand new miniseries called “The Kennedys” on some obscure cable channel.  From what I’ve seen of it, the ado of finding even an obscure cable channel to air it (supposedly after remaining Kennedys made threats–to whom?) is far juicier than the movie itself.

That’s because it’s 2011 and there really isn’t anything left to find out!  The Kennedy bones have been picked over for a few generations now, and with only Jean left of the famous siblings and Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver the (odd) faces of the family, I think we know pretty much all there is to know.

However, that was not always the case and the American Miniseries movement certainly wanted to share all it could with TV viewers.  In the 80s, the Kennedys were still the personifications of so many dreams.  Rose was still alive, Teddy was still a very important member of the Senate and Her Highness Jackie O was still making headlines.  John John was growing up and becoming a man.  Caroline was getting married.  William Kennedy Smith would be in the news.  The Kennedys mattered and we didn’t know all the dirt on them yet.  Sure, there were whispers of affairs, but there was a certain amount of respect still paid to them.  However, the pull to film them was ferocious, a cottage industry or subset genre of its own.  They were colorful, active, scandalous, questionable, and, most importantly, the closest thing the United States had to royalty.  British miniseries have put on film nearly every royal going back to names no one can pronounce and sure, we’ve filmed the lives of various famous people, but they don’t hold fascination the way the name KENNEDY does. 

But, while everyone has them on the brain, I’ll jump on the bandwagon with “Robert Kennedy and His Times,” a tad less obvious than a few of other versions that will be discussed later.  Let’s also note that this miniseries is based on the book by Arthur Schlesinger, a eminently respectable historian and power player among the Kennedys.  It gets the facts pretty much right, though it has an awfully obvious desire to paint Bobby Kennedy as close to living sainthood as possible.

Boston, 1946.  Bobby Kennedy (the much-adored and much-missed Brad Davis) has come to the campaign headquarters of his brother to help out.  He doesn’t take off his coat before being introduced to Ethel Skakel (Veronica Cartwright, in casting waaaaaaaay too kind of our dear Ethel).  The two are sent to canvass the 11th District together.  Bobby confesses to Ethel that he’s not sure what he wants to do, but maybe journalism.  A dockworker tells Bobby that there isn’t an Irishman in good standing “who wouldn’t vote for the son of lovely Rosie Fitzgerald.”  Bobby tells Ethel a little Kennedy history, that his grandfather Honey Fitz was Mayor of Boston and his mother was “something of a celebrity.”  This sort of detail would get written out in later years as Joe Kennedy put his star in front of everyone else’s. 

Bobby (Brad seems to have based his accent more on Jackie’s cousin Edie Beale than Bobby Kennedy) doesn’t want to get married until he’s well into his 30s, but Ethel, who is only 18, says she’ll wait for “however long it takes” and then races him back to headquarters.  Watching her sprint like that must have meant love for one of the infamous athletic Kennedy offspring.  Jackie never sprinted, of that we’re sure.  Peter Lawford never sprinted. 

When Bobby goes to see his brother, John (Cliff DeYoung, a miniseries regular) is on the phone with a woman seducing her into plans.  That’s okay, it’s only 1946, he’s not married yet.  It’s off to lunch with Papa Joe (Jack Warden).  Bobby, only in law school, is supporting Civil Rights, somewhat to the dismay of his father and brother.

Now it’s 1948.  Matchmaker Jean (Dorothy Fielding) has brought Ethel along for Christmas and Bobby looks at her like she’s a beauty queen in a sea of lepers as he hangs the star on the tree.  It’s hard to believe there was EVER a moment as goony as this, especially between those two!  Ethel willingly joins a Kennedy clan football game, frolics by the pool with gusto, all the while making Bobby fall madly in love with her.  I believe the football game, perhaps, but the rest?  Between those two?  Bobby and Ethel making out under palm trees?  Those two? 

The two are married while still in school, and everyone is thrilled.  Okay, I’ll buy that.  The Skakels were a nice respectable family (only one killer in the clan, but that’s far in the future) and Ethel did fit in with the Kennedys.  I don’t think anyone started collecting dossiers on potential spouses until names like Bouvier and Lawford started appearing.  Ethel dances at her wedding with Joe, with John and of course with Teddy (“North and South” heartthrob James Read). 

Off on a “Congressional fact finding mission,” John takes Bobby and sister Pat (Mimi Kennedy, unrelated, or else she wouldn’t be here).  On the plane ride, John wants Bobby to handle the “details.”  To Bobby, that means actually helping with the fact finding, having “prepared files on all the places we’re going.”  Oops, John meant carrying the luggage and making reservations.  And here we have a pivotal moment.  Instead of John being the hero, as he has been since his untimely death, it’s Bobby who is the family brains, and we’re allowed to celebrate that.  “Do you resent carrying my bags?” John asks, in a moment that seems to approach something interesting.  Unfortunately, it evaporates when Bobby jokes, “I promised Mother I would carry your bags so you wouldn’t strain your back.”  Damn, no sibling rivalry here.

Nehru (Gokul) is impressed that JFK is the first American Congressman to visit, and at his own expense no less.  A little historical foreshadowing comes when Nehru pronounces “the poor stupid French fighting a hopeless war” in reference to their next stop in Saigon.  This leads to talk on the fear of Communism and Nehru makes some very good arguments (and wouldn’t live to see his own country’s wild flirtation with the USSR in a few decades).  Bobby seems almost pro-Communist in Saigon when he reads the reactions of the people, who want the French gone and would vote for Ho Chi Minh if given the chance. 

There are hints that not all the Kennedys are saints.  When Bobby learns that Ethel is having a second child, he quips to John about his lack of marital status, “is there any girl left on the Eastern seaboard you haven’t dated?”  See, in 1985, that might have been a bit juicy.  In 2010, the word “dated” would start with an F and end with a D.  “The only girl I like says she only wants to marry a Senator from Massachusetts,” John says.  “But Henry Cabot Lodge is already married,” Bobby chirps innocently.  “Then I’ll just have to beat him,” John retorts and the dynasty is born.  In fact, John and Bobby discuss Joe Sr.’s ambitions and Bobby lovingly notes, “Dad would have made a great President.”  Yup, right up there with Harding and Nixon in the honest politician department. 

If you can stomach the scene where John thanks his family for helping him win the Senate election in 1952, you have an iron stomach.  He literally thanks all of his siblings present, his mother (who doesn’t do anything but smile), Bobby and Dad with jokes, Ethel and pretty much everyone but the football sitting outside somewhere.  The only honest line, some might say, is when he thanks his father: “The Republicans say you bought me this election, so I suppose I ought to thank you for that.”  Oh, and as an afterthought, he has another announcement.  “I know what that is,” Rose (Beatrice Straight) is finally allowed to say and he says he and Jackie (Juanin Clay, as unpleasant looking a Jackie as can be, especially in a film with a radiant Ethel) are getting married. 

The ever astute Joe Sr. has set Bobby up as counsel to Joe McCarthy (or, to be more specific, counsel to the Democrats on his committee).  Just so we are are clear, Bobby has objections to both McCarthy’s politics and his rabble-rousing, but he takes the job anyway.  With that said, we can watch knowing that Bobby was totally innocent of anything during McCarthy’s idiotic Red Scare.  I said we could watch knowing that.  Just don’t commit it to memory, because Bobby Kennedy certainly helped the crazy drunken Senator plenty in those years.  To hammer it in that Bobby was an angel, he gives McCarthy (a wonderful Harris Yulin) and Roy Cohn (Joe Pantoliano) more of his famous fact sheets that disprove a lot of what McCarthy was saying, but they ignore it.  Still not ready to absolve Bobby of any sin here?  This line ought to take care of that: McCarthy says to Roy “call the FBI and see if they have anything on our young Mr. Kennedy.”  What could they possibly have?  He’s halfway to heaven according to this movie! 

Bobby is a veritable hero at the Senate hearings, the only intelligent person there, especially up against doofus Roy Cohn with the infamous Annie Lee Moss (Dorothy Butts) episode, in which Bobby certainly made a lasting enemy of Roy.  A heated moment in the Senate chamber where they actually brawl is so insanely comical because I don’t think Roy Cohn every threw a punch in his life (but his gorgeous young aide protects him).

We move to 1956 really quickly so we can gloss over the Communist hearings and get to Jimmy Hoffa and the Unions, which is very rah-rah because even history can’t sugar coat their illegal funfests in the 50s.  Only Joe Sr. is upset because he feels it will cost John a Presidential election.  Don’t worry, Joe doesn’t get to say too much in defense of the unions because Ethel calls Bobby in to put the star on the top of the Christmas tree.  But, still, Bobby heeds his father’s words because he’ll do anything for the family.  He’ll even quit if it will cost John an election, but luckily Ethel is there to cheer him on, to tell him he’s fighting for what he believes in and that it’s really something only Bobby and John can decide, not Joe.  That conversation may have actually happened.  We have no way of knowing, but somehow I think Ethel would be missing a kneecap or two if it did.  But, not to worry, because John supports him, as long as he “gets the facts right.” 

Facts will not be a problem, because Bobby puts together a crack team of surefire reporters on his Labor Committee, including Pierre Salinger (Jeffrey Tambor in a piece of strange casting) and John Seigenthaler (George Grizzard).  John holds the hearings, with Bobby at his side and though Joe doesn’t like it, Bobby gets hundreds of letters of support.  Rose watches the hearings on TV with Joe, but remains silent.  She makes a lot of “oh Joe!” faces at everything her husband says, but that’s about it.  When Jimmy Hoffa (Trey Wilson) takes over as the head of the Teamster’s Union, truck drivers invade the tranquility of Bobby’s estate while he is outside playing with his kids or at night so no one can sleep, assuring eternal enemies are made. In the context of this movie’s hero-worshipping, when you keep Ethel awake at night, you might as well be Judas Iscariot or Adolph Hitler.  However, Bobby does tell Ethel that as long as he’s doing his great public works, there will “always be threats.  There’s no way to avoid it.  We can either learn to live with that or I’ve got to make other choices.”  Ethel would never let him do that, so she hugs him and sighs in agreement. 

There’s no point in dwelling on the actual work Bobby Kennedy really did.  We know he made his point about Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters.  Let’s gallop right along to1960 and Sinatra’s voice singing “High Hopes” as John campaigns for President.  He wins, by the way.

As for making Bobby Attorney General, John confides him him that he’s asked some “very important people about it.  His mother and his sisters (no mention of Teddy).  Well, okay, he mentioned it to J. Edgar Hoover and a few others who were bound to hate the idea and they, naturally, hated the idea, but John tells Bobby, “I need someone I can trust.”  A heartbeat later, Bobby is playing marriage counselor to his brother.  John catches the football at a Hyannis Port game and the family goes wild, except for Jackie, off with her nose in a book.  Bobby explains, “it was a good catch” and Jackie goes over to John and congratulates him, managing to look happy for a half a second. 

We couldn’t avoid him forever.  Looming large in the history of every president going back to Coolidge of the 20th Century until Nixon finally did him in is J. Edgar Hoover (Ned Beatty), of course with Clyde Tolson (Jack Thibeau) in tow.  Now that Bobby is his boss, the FBI Director has no choice but to pay him a visit in his new office.  But he doesn’t have to be happy about it.  “I’ve been here since 1924.  If I’m not mistaken, that’s before you were born,” he says glumly, his point very obvious.  Bobby is not afraid and lists the changes he intends to make, each one causing Hoover greater dismay, but the best is saved for last because Bobby wants a direct line to Hoover’s desk. 

Nearing sainthood step by step, Bobby is forced to deal with the Freedom Riders in Alabama, the prickly issue of race relations.  John and Joe Sr. want them quashed as John goes off to Europe, but Bobby has a conscience.  He knows they have every right to ride the bus and as Attorney General, he has to back them.  Joe explodes at him, telling him it could cost his brother the presidency come 1964, but Bobby forges ahead.  The only problem is that no one can find a bus driver willing to make the journey.  He shouts on the phone at the head of a bus company, “you call Mr. Greyhound or whoever” to make sure that bus has a driver!  Seigenthaler is sent to Alabama to follow the bus and all seems quiet and peaceful as they hit Montgomery, until out of the shadows storms an angry mob with every weapon imaginable to beat the riders.  The police watch lazily as the media captures it for all to see.  The Governor of Alabama calls Bobby to tell him that neither he nor the US military guarantee Martin Luther King’s safety as he comes to Montgomery, so Bobby deputizes local marshals. “He has just committed political suicide,” the Governor says with a smile.  Seigenthaler, beaten in the melee, jokes that Bobby “should never run for office in Alabama,” but that he did the right thing.  That can’t be denied. 

Then comes Vietnam.  Technically, as Attorney General, Bobby’s role in any decisions should have been fairly minimal, but the movie takes great pleasure in mocking the Kennedy administration’s glossy version of events there, sending troops as “observers.”  Everyone thinks the French bungled it and aren’t the same as the US Army but John…oh no!  Ethel comes barrelling over to the brothers walking through the woods to tell them Joe Sr. has just had a stroke (poor Ethel hasn’t had a whole lot to do lately, other than look bored at one of Jackie’s classical music receptions or fix Bobby’s blankets as he tries to sleep for ten minutes).  With Joe paralyzed, Rose finally gets a chance to speak!  “There are so many things he wanted to say, advice he wanted to give,” she tells the clan, “he held himself in check,” her point being that Joe Sr. has been remaining mum to let his sons run the country.  The movie has shown otherwise, but then again, having her first real lines of the movie must be terrible pressure for Rose. 

With the South still ducking Civil Rights laws, the Kennedy brothers are in for some rough times.  While Bobby and John exercise, Pierre regales them with the latest Washington jokes (“If John, Bobby and Teddy Kennedy were in a sinking ship, who would be saved?  The nation.”), and John tries to think furiously of something he’s done well.  The Peace Corps?  Yeah, that works, for about four people.  Physical fitness?  “You’ve got the jock vote,” Pierre quips.  Because Bobby is played by sexy Brad Davis, we even get a shirtless scene here as he and his brother head into the steam room. 

Next up is the Cuban Missile Crisis.  A war room full of politicians and generals disagree on what to do, but Bobby comes up with the idea to talk to the Soviet Ambassador himself since their kids play together, and that should pretty much solve it.  The only problem is that no one is allowed to discuss this potential nuclear nightmare, and Bobby can’t even tell Ethel.  He can’t take the pressure, so as they are shopping in a discount store for clothing (we get it, he’s a man of the people), he cracks and tells Ethel.  She does well with secrets, so I think we’re okay.  The meeting with Dobrynin (Walter Gotell) does not go so well and it looks like war.  At the very last moment, the Soviets call off their ships, so Bobby can go home to Ethel jumping up and down giggling “it’s over!” like she just found the exact right curtains. 

Hoffa is still a priority, but Civil Rights remains Bobby’s main concern.  Hell, he even has the support of Lyndon Johnson (G.D. Spradling), who has taken over Rose Kennedy’s role as the eternal observer, with almost no lines, though Lyndon is far more realistic about how to get things done.  However, the Kennedy brothers do agree with Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and even pull aside a Civil Rights activist aside, outside of course, to warn him that Hoover is tapping everything he can to discredit them. 

According to this movie, it is the Kennedy brothers, with Salinger, who planned the seismic historical March that August of 1963.  Bobby wants to make sure there are white faces in the crowd, “your average looking people,” not just students and John wants his celebrity friends to get involved.  John and Bobby, with their wives, watch King’s speech on TV.  Ethel, of course, is enraptured, and Jackie, of course, looks bored.  For that matter, John looks like he’s falling asleep.  Remember, this is the St. Robert and St. Ethel Story, so it’s Ethel’s bodice heaving in delight and Bobby bug-eyed at every work King speaks.  During the “let freedom ring” portion of the speech, Bobby couldn’t be more thrilled and John even cracks a fake smile. 

Rose is back, and she has perhaps the most unfortunate line of the entire movie.  After Bobby has helped Joe with some exercises, John and Jackie and the kids arrive and Rose coos about the best tonic for Joe is the family. “You’ll see when you all come for Thanksgiving,” she says.  It’s 1963.  It’s during this trip that the fated Dallas trip is first mentioned because everyone knows potential Republican Barry Goldwater will win the South, but they can win Texas if John “fixes Texas with a little person politicking.”  As Jackie packs suitcases for all weather (they really just aren’t nice to her at all here), John and Bobby make plans for an upcoming football game.  We’re positively crawling to November 22 and laying on the brotherly hugs and feelings and trust with an iron hand. 

Bobby’s birthday celebration is a big shindig with more food than imaginable (with Ethel careful to note that it’s all her cook Ruby who does it, with even a “this is a great, Rube” line in there to show her dedication to Civil Rights).  Bobby’s daughter gets him to make a paper airplane, the press toasts him in between discussions of John’s trip and then Ethel gets up to make a toast, a very curious one.  “To the President of the United States,” she says.  Well, John isn’t even there and it’s Bobby’s birthday, so other than to once again delay the inevitable, why?

“Big friendly crowds in Dallas and San Antonio,” Bobby’s secretary notes as Bobby heads home for some lunch with colleagues.  A workman runs over with the news and Hoover calls at the same time.  Bobby freezes in panic.

Actual news footage is used for the elaborate funeral because one can’t improve on that.  Bobby lights his own eternal flame at home with Washington in the distance.  Hell, even the Teamster Building flies the flag at half mast, at least until Hoffa gets there and orders it raised.  “The only thing this means to me is Bobby Kennedy is just another lawyer now,” snarls the great Hoffa.  Wow, talk about your villains!  Hoover gloats just as hungrily, ripping out the direct line Bobby had put to his desk and undoing all of Bobby’s rules.  Johnson moves into the White House with desperate alacrity.  Of course, the consummate politician, Johnson tells Bobby, “I need you more than he ever did,” but Bobby is too upset that Johnson has moved in so quickly.  Johnson blames others and notes again how much “I need your support.  How much the country needs it,” leaving Bobby alone in the Oval Office to finish the packing.  However, there is a quizzical look on his face, one that says, “hmmmmm, this might not be such a bad place to work.” 

“You’re the head of the family now,” Rose tells Bobby.  “It’s up to you now to lead us forward,” she says, clutching her rosary, having given this speech no doubt to John after Joe Jr. died.  And no doubt again in a few year for the third time.  He may never get the chance because Johnson and Hoover have a scene right out of a comic book where the villains plot against the hero, though these two don’t actually cackle. 

Johnson uses a minor infraction from the Cubans to pit Bobby against the rest of his team, but still Bobby doesn’t quit.  However, after Hoffa is convicted, Bobby says, “I’m tired of chasing people.”  Ethel notes that New Hampshire wants Bobby to run as Vice President in the 1964 election, but Bobby makes a joke about running for Senator, though he knows he’s known as “Ruthless Robert” and not the great smiling glad handler that his brother was. 

Trying to duck Johnson, who violently detests Bobby, Bobby encounters another crisis when Teddy is in a plane crash and very seriously injured.  Since he’s running for Senator, while he recuperates, Rose is handling speeches for Teddy.  “You better get well quick or she’ll steal your Senate seat,” Bobby jokes to Teddy.  Not this Rose, who can’t string together four words.  “If my parents had stopped after having four children, they wouldn’t have any now,” Bobby remarks.  That is completely untrue!  Joe Jr., Kathleen and John are dead, but Rosemary lived for decades in an institution.  Wow, this is revisionist history of the absolute worst kind! 

Johnson and Hoover have a chili lunch at the White House, where Johnson is upset that “every time I turn on the TV, I see something about Bobby Kennedy.”  Johnson needs Hoover on his side, and despite hating him, tells him he’ll make him FBI Director “for life,” with the unstated quid pro quo that Hoover will help him against Bobby.  Johnson hated both men, but picked what he thought was the lesser of two evils.  Johnson then summons Bobby to the White House with a “together we can make it a better world” speech and to tell him that he will not be putting him on the ticket for Vice President.  He tells him he won’t use anyone in his cabinet, and Bobby goes on TV to make a cheeky comment about cabinet members being unable to run, which just pisses off Johnson even more.  Johnson’s most hysterical scene is one where he calls the wife of one of his staffers to tell her that the staffer’s shirts are not clean, offering laundry tips.  The reason he does this is to avoid having to hear Bobby’s speech at the 1964 Democratic Convention, but the applause goes on so long, that even with the conversation, he still has to hear the speech. 

Bobby packs his carpetbag and heads to New York to run for a Senate seat.  “Aren’t you just using New York as a jumping off point for a presidential run?” a reporter asks, but Bobby sounds convincing saying he wants to be “a good Senator” rather than retire “on my father’s money.”  He relies heavily on his brother’s ghost, but when he gives a speech in Brooklyn praising his opponent’s voting record during the Kennedy Administration, this staff is furious.  “Damn it Bob, be yourself.  You’re real, your brother’s dead,” Andy McLaughlin (Pat Corley) tells him.  His opponent buys network television time to debate Bobby, who has refused to do so, but when the opponent makes a statement Bobby doesn’t like, Bobby rushes to the TV station and agrees to debate, with music accompanying him that was last heard when John Wayne was galloping to save a damsel or a town or whatever.  His opponent’s team is horrified because they know Bobby would win a debate, so they ask, “what is the senator won’t debate you.”  “Then I’ll debate the empty chair!”  Oh, for the love of Pete!  His opponent darts out the building and just when you think the scene can’t get any more bizarre, Ethel walks in, with all of the cameras on her, dripping faux innocence saying, “I’m here to watch the debate, with my husband.”

Teddy is there in the Senate to help Bobby learn the ropes and not prattle on in committee, going against cigarettes and pesticides.  He’s still not happy.  “It’s all talk, just debating and haranguing.  I just have the feeling I’m not getting very much accomplished,” he tells Ethel in bed, soon before she gives birth to their 89th child.  “I guess this destroys my position on birth control,” Bobby jokes with his family, especially Rose, who is obviously in favor of large families (and gets a line saying so). 

With trouble in Santo Domingo that receives military support from Johnson, Bobby decides to make a South American tour, which infuriates Johnson.  Though he can’t stop him, he can try to keep him in line.  “If he so much as breaks wind down there, it better sound like praise for this administration!” Johnson thunders and then has his staff at the State Department do a less-than-satisfactory briefing on all matters South American that might arise.  So, Bobby decides to do the trip his own way, ignoring what the State Department has set up for him and making his own itinerary.  St. Bobby speaks about poverty in Peru to huge crowds, though supportive and antagonistic.  In Chile, he’s warned not to speak because there may be hostility and violence.  In fact, they do throw food at him in a display of anti-American sentiment, but Bobby yells over the fighting crowd that someone should come debate him.  He then runs into the melee in the stands, with horrified State Department employees having to physically pull him off and throw him in a car.  He then gives Seigenthaler and Ethel a speech about why South America hates the US government so much.  There is no cause this man won’t champion!

However, he is the Senator from New York, so following his radically anti-Johnson time in South America, he does the same for his state, starting in Brooklyn and moving around New York.  At least this doesn’t go against the Johnson Administration.  Meeting migrant workers upstate, he’s chased off property where people are paid only $1 an hour by a man threatening to shoot him.  Yes, we’re getting there, I’m afraid.

The issue of Vietnam further divides Bobby and Johnson.  Bobby does all he can to avoid furthering the war, even going to France and talking to DeGaulle and finding out the North Vietnamese are open to peace talks, which the Johnson Administration had steadfastly denied because it believed it was winning the war.  “You will be dead politically,” Johnson tells Bobby when that news is leaked, explaining to Bobby what being anti-war means.  Johnson reminds him that it was his brother who sent the troops to Vietnam and Bobby admits “I was wrong” to support it.  On the day Bobby is to make an anti-war speech, Ethel is bitten by one of the kids’ (a very young River Phoenix) pet ferret, but manages to land a zinger, saying, “if these are the only scars the Kennedys get by the end of the day, we’ll be lucky!”

The speech is roundly condemned by most (even Nixon agrees with Johnson), since it’s still early in the protest movement, but Bobby is undeterred, even as Johnson reminds anyone in earshot, “I told that boy it would be political suicide.”  However, the tide slowly turns.  Even Martin Luther King publicly states he thinks Johnson should not run in 1968.  The anti-war movement gains strong momentum and Johnson tells Hoover, “I will not go down as the President who fiddled while Washington burned!” 

This all gives Bobby the opportunity to run for President himself.  So, up to Hyannis Port we trudge, where all Kennedy decisions are made.  There is first a goofy slide show where Rose coos over pictures of her sons (but not daughters) and Joe Sr. seems to get emotional.  Then Rose tells Ethel that when Bobby was young, “he used to play with his sisters so much, my mother thought he would turn out to be a sissy.  She would be so proud of him now.”  But, of course it’s up to Bobby and Teddy, and of course whatever Joe Sr. can manage to add.  Teddy tells him to go for it, but Bobby says, “I’ll have no support from politicians,” but his team urges him to announce his candidacy and run against the incumbent Johnson.  Bobby does have a point, though the sentence containing it is more of that crawling to the inevitable that happened back in November 1963.  He asks them what happens if he’s at the California primary and Johnson makes a bold decision one way or the other to affect the outcome.  He had to pick California of all states for this wondering moment?  Bobby decides not to run.  Eugene McCarthy and the folk singers will have to rebel against Vietnam themselves.

It’s left to Ethel to do the pushing, as always.  She calls him the “Hamlet of Hickory Hills” because of his indecision about a presidential run.  Despite what happened to John, Ethel believes he is the only man who can unite everyone.  Her source is The Village Voice.  Bobby does the only thing a man who needs to make a heavy decision can do: he saddles one of the horses and goes on a wild ride through the countryside.  “I’m going to do it,” he informs Ethel upon return.  “I’ve got to do it.”  Cue the entire orchestra at its most powerful. 

The biggest problem, as Bobby sees it, is Hubert Humphrey, who is surging in the polls.  So, Teddy is sent to get him on board as a Kennedy supporter, but that doesn’t really work.  “It’s a fantasy.  At the convention, they’ll chew him up and spit him up in the aisles,” a staffer says.  The Chicago convention certainly would be one hell of a brawl, but that’s still months away.  What is most important in announcing the Kennedy candidacy is a hair cut, though I can’t say I noticed the pre and post difference.  Predictably, Johnson is not pleased to hear during Bobby’s speech that “the President divides us” and rattles off another of his dreams, morals, stories, whatever, to Lady Bird (Danna Hansen, who has only a line or two, and not in this scene, where her she’s only shown from the neck down).  “The thing I feared most since the first day of my Presidency has happened.  Robert F. Kennedy has announced his intention to reclaim the throne because of the memory of his lost brother and the American people, swayed by the magic of that memory, have come to him rejoicing, dancing in the streets.  I am so tired,” Johnson says, paving the way for a massive change in American politics that took decades to untangle.  He will not run in 1968. 

Bobby is flabbergasted by the news, not hearing of it until he lands at an airport where massive crowds are chanting for him.  Equally loud are the chanting 106 children who scream for Rose when she arrives to visit.  She hasn’t been paid that much attention since 1919 or so, and Bobby has a discussion with her.  Her best advice?  “Go with your heart.”  Not much of a politician, this Rose, but sentimental and loving.  “Don’t try to be a traditional politician,” she says, and though she has misgivings, she says that “ever since childhood, you could never be deflected from doing what you thought you should do.”  That’s also not really helpful, but what is helpful?  Her advice that he get a haircut.  Another one?  Is this an in-joke I’m not getting?

In April, Martin Luther King is assassinated.  Bobby insists on speaking to a mostly black audience standing in the rain, a crowd that has not heard the news.  The crowd of extra is a pretty lame one, but then again, they are on a rain set.  By all accounts, Bobby’s passion for Civil Rights was genuine and he was truly devastated by this turn of events.  He urges the crowd to “replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has run across our land with an effort to understand.  With compassion, with love,” the introduction a thrilling speech about racial harmony that Brad Davis delivers exceedingly well. 

It’s followed by an unfortunate scene aboard Bobby’s train with a grating sing-a-long as his candidacy hurls ahead.  That is followed by an even worse scene where Bobby goes to Nebraska to speak to dairy farmers and bash Nixon before another sing-a-long.  Is this Bobby Kennedy’s campaign or Grover Cleveland’s?  Ethel is pregnant again.  Is she sure?  “I don’t need to see a doctor.  I’ve been right 10 times!” she tells Bobby.  Take that, Pat Nixon!  Fearing that he and McCarthy are too close on the issues, he decides to get a “shorter haircut.”  Enough with the damn hair!

Let’s chalk up the campaign stop scene where he gives a speech about gun control laws to just a bad idea and move on.

The campaign hits some snags when McCarthy wins primaries, but “we won’t lose California,” Bobby tells his team.  In May, he goes there to plan, splitting up the duties to make sure the state is covered.  “If I died in Oregon, let’s make Los Angeles my resurrection city,” he announces to applause from volunteers.  This is the same kind of schmaltz we had to get through leading up to November 22, 1963. 

In June of 1968, Bobby is working San Francisco singing in Chinese at a rally.  Geez, we’re really just fluffing time, aren’t we?  But, the point is made.  Bobby is very popular.  There’s a scare when some firecrackers go off, but Bobby is soon again shaking hands.  Since Bobby is ahead by only four points in the polls, he insists on covering all of California in two days, or rather “one day.  Use the other day to set it all up.”  He needs to win big at the convention.  He wants pregnant Ethel to stay behind, but a look on her face says, “do I look like wilting flower Jackie or that lush Joan?  I’m going!” 

On June 4, Bobby wakes up in Malibu to the sounds of his kids playing outside.  He and Ethel joke about picking names for the baby due in December and then he helps the kids make sandcastles.  Teddy and Joan (Wendy LaMastra) show up and reveal some returns from other states before it’s off to the Ambassador Hotel for a speech celebrating his victory in California.  Everyone is in high spirits.  And then it’s back to a crawl.  There is an elevator ride that goes on for about 45 minutes, a silent elevator ride, no less.  The speech is a big success, but after five hours, is a bit cruel.  Luckily, Brad rushes through the speech at top speed, though stopping to thank everyone from Rosie Grier to Freckles the dog and then finally Ethel.  “It’s on to Chicago and let’s win there…”

Very famous last words, unfortunately and sadly.

The decision is made to go through the kitchen and it’s there Sirhan Sirhan is waiting with a loaded gun in the minutes after midnight.  The movie makes a tasteful choice not to show it, instead playing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” as his funeral train chugs through the country.  A still shot of the movie’s RFK is shown as a great speech is read by the star. 

So, this is clean collectible Kennedy culture.  This is Robert Kennedy, the crusader for Civil Rights and for the common man.  This is Robert Kennedy, father of many children, brother of many siblings, son to adoring parents, model for an entire nation.  If you want Robert Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe or Robert Kennedy and Ari Onassis or any of the more scandalous tales, true or false, there are plenty of other places to find them.  “Robert Kennedy and His Times” is so squeaky clean you can see your reflection of it, and that’s a good thing, because you’ll be wearing a halo and wings, like this hero.

At the center of the movie are Brad Davis and Veronica Cartwright.  Davis did not have many roles left before his early death, and this is a great one for him.  There’s a lot to bite into, especially since all he really has to do is bask in the glow of the script, which is worshipful.  However, he does infuse the one-dimensional saint character with good humor.  Cartwright has the harder job since Ethel was far less of a public figure, and never any one’s favorite.  The script reduces her to the loving wife who always smiles broadly and shows support no matter how bad the odds.  She tries, as she always does, but there just isn’t much here to work with, no fault of her own.

And the Kennedy mystique lives on.  There had already been a few Kennedy miniseries before this one and they are still making them!  The family fascinates forever.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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