Friday, October 26, 2012


I don't feel like I have much in common with the Kennedys besides being Irish (-American) Catholic and some shared beliefs about how government can help those in need of help. But over the years I have come to admire Robert F. Kennedy more than I did as a kid or a young man.

I saw him once, when I was a freshman at a Catholic college I got kicked out of and he came to give an impromptu talk (on a table in the dining room) when his brother was running for president. I remember references to the Teamsters and their leader Jimmy Hoffa who he obviously despised (I had a brother who was a cop then but had started out as a Teamster driving trucks for Ballantine beer).

And years later when his brother was gone and he himself was running for president I was running for sheriff of Johnson County Iowa (where I had finally returned to college after four years in the service and other adventures) on The Peace and Freedom ticket and supporting Eldridge Cleaver for the top elected office in the land.

But the way RFK responded to the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the way all the third parties and anti-Democratic anti-war activists including me helped get Nixon elected which led to hundreds of thousands more people dying (including people I knew) in Viet Nam and Laos and Cambodia, began my rethinking of Robert F. Kennedy.

Now, after all these years, he's one of my heroes. Just his ability to change his perspective and what he was advocating for, the genuine compassion and understanding he displayed in that speech to a mostly African-American crowd the night King was shot (saying he understood if you were black and were angry because a white man had shot King, but added that his own brother had been shot and killed also by a white man) and other speeches and comments in interviews make it clear he had become humble and spiritually deeper than he had seemed to be before his brother's assassination.

And now HBO has been showing a documentary on RFK's widow, Ethel, directed by their daughter Rory, the youngest of eleven, and its glimpses of RFK brought tears to my eyes toward the end, as well as Ethel's unique combination of confidence and humility. She reminded me of a lot of the women in my clan when I was younger, loyal to their husbands and families, strong and always silent about their own struggles and suffering, as well as their own achievements and contributions, but staunchly and sometimes crazily themselves too.

You may be put off, like I initially was, by the wealthy now grown kids of RFK and Ethel Skaskel referring to "mummy" in that oddly unique Kennedy accent (from some). But before long, if you can open yourself to letting the documentary show you who this woman Ethel Kennedy is and was, left with eleven children to raise after her beloved husband was shot down just when he was becoming what I now believe could have been the deepest president we've had since Lincoln...

Okay, you may be thinking, Lally's getting carried away again, but this is what the documentary evoked, and that was just the snippets that focused on RFK. Ethel herself comes across as a competitive, dynamic, compassionate self-effacing original. In photos and sometimes on film she's always had an almost stunned expression, as though snapped just as she was trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

But after watching this film I see it now as more of an expression of openness to the moment, except when compliments are heading her way. Otherwise she seems simply alert to whatever she's experiencing with the caveat that if it isn't interesting enough, she'll do something to make it so.

Man wouldn't you love to see a documentary on Mary Todd Lincoln or Abigail Adams with original footage of their younger years and interviews and all that film can do? Well ETHEL, the documentary, made me think how lucky we are to be able to preserve historic moments, whether communal or personal, in so many ways these days. I'm really glad I watched it.

1 comment:

JIm said...
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