Superheroes are having a good decade. The X-Men had a nice run, and Spider-Man, too. Batman and Superman rebooted themselves as younger, more conflicted personalities, and even the more cultish figures -- Hulk and the Fantastic Four, to name a handful--had (and have) respectable big-budget movies. In 2008, then, it's easy to cast Robert F. Kennedy as a legend and a myth, a heartthrob and a heartbreaker; he's Achilles conquering Troy, Aeneas weeping in the Fields of Mourning. RFK today is the potential that Sirhan B. Sirhan gunned down at the Ambassador, the idea of a promise that was about to be fulfilled. Kennedy's legacy to my generation is his mythology, his superheroic ideal of a politician we now simply call "Bobby."
Robert Kennedy was one of the great trash talkers of the sixties, a fact often overlooked today because of the aura of humility and gentility that envelops him in the twenty-first century. But the man had an acid tongue. "How do you tell if Lyndon is lying?" he once asked rhetorically. "If he wiggles his ears, that doesn't mean he's lying. If he raises his eyebrows, that doesn't mean he's lying. But when he moves his lips, he's lying." Naturally, President Johnson was fair game for any manner of insult during his presidency, possibly because he referred to just about everyone in Washington as a son of a bitch at some point, but no one really seemed to do it as artfully as Robert Kennedy.
Kennedy, though, has been beatified by the American left, sanctified into a classical hero tragically cut down in his prime. In the sphere in which we place Bobby, trash talking can be forgiven. Take the famous Life photograph of the brothers Kennedy snapped by Hank Walker in Los Angeles in 1960. Shrouded in shadow, backs crooked in intense concentration, JFK and RFK nobly make their glorious plans for their decade. Both are slumped towards darkness at the bottom of the frame while brilliant light radiates from their heads. The image is an ikon of sorts, awe-inspiring and gorgeously presented; the shine provides a real aura to them, a religious-like dignity.
With the benefit of history, of course, one can claim that JFK was probably leaning forward because his bad back hurt like hell, that RFK was only there because he was, indeed, JFK's brother. Mythologizing, though, as Roland Barthes writes, removes something from its temporal place in history, removes it from the confines of history altogether. Robert F. Kennedy may have been a nepotistic choice for campaign manager and attorney general, but the mythical Bobby was playing his fated role as fiercely loyal younger brother, the reluctant Achilles waiting for his heroic moment at Troy.
We have this image in mind when we read flights of fancy like historian Nigel Hamilton's An Alternate History, a timeline featured on The New York Times op-ed page for the fortieth anniversary of JFK's assassination in 2003. In it, John Kennedy serves two full terms as president and pulls American advisers out of Vietnam in 1965. RFK takes over as president in 1969 after Lyndon Johnson dies of a heart attack and brings in Martin Luther King Jr. as veep. RFK ends up serving non-consecutive terms, between '69 and '73, and after eight years of Ronald Reagan, between 1981 and 1985.
In the Kennedy-centric timeline, there's no President Nixon; Iran/Contra brings down a Republican administration in 1990; O.J. is convicted of murder; universal health care becomes the law of the land; and Osama bin Laden is executed by military tribunal in Sudan in 1998. It's difficult--and naively hopeful--to imagine all this stemming solely from a different path taken in Dealey Plaza, but that is the power of myth, and of the Bobby myth in particular. Vice President King? It's a daring dream, and something not, I imagine, often speculated when old folks let themselves wonder about Adlai Stevenson and the fifties that might have been. We'll forever see Bobby as a dreamer, and we'll always let his lapsed dreams become our own.
Myths are meant to be paced and framed heroically. A 2004 American Experience documentary on Robert Kennedy opens with Shakespeare in NFL Films-style "frozen tundra of Lambeau Field" manufactured poignancy. The narrator sets the scene as RFK addresses the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City just nine months after Dallas:
Narrator: The pandemonium went on for 22 long minutes. As the crowd grew quiet, he bared his grief, enshrining his brother in words from Romeo and Juliet:
Robert Kennedy: "When I think of President Kennedy, I think of what Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet...
"When he shall die,Take him and cut him out in little stars,/And he shall make the face of heaven so fine/ That all the world will be in love with night,/And pay no worship to the garish sun."
Narrator: When he was finished speaking, he left the hall, sat on a fire escape, and wept.
It's beautiful drama, something you just can't make up. But a viewer, of course, gets the whole thing--the 22 minutes of applause, the heart-breaking speech, the weeping on the fire escape--condensed into ninety seconds of footage, which is the abridgement due a hero. Heroes are allowed to have their lives condensed to prescient strings of pivotal moments, be it the gloss now applied to Michael Jordan's minor league baseball career or the amnesia clouding Ronald Reagan's naming of names for the Hollywood blacklist in 1947.
Robert Kennedy, though, was a bruising politician, and so tough and effective that he could joke about his sometimes questionable tactics. "People say I am ruthless," he said. "I am not ruthless. And if I find the man who is calling me ruthless, I shall destroy him." You've seen this scene before, in which the face smiles while the finger is drawn silently across the throat. No one really buys the smile, and the speaker becomes all the more intimidating to his enemies. Robert Kennedy could, after all, be as much of a son of a bitch as Johnson if he felt it politically necessary. But today we frame Kennedy's motivation as idealism, his politicking as proselytizing.
My generation will continue to search for Bobby for the foreseeable future. Speaking at the commemoration of RFK's 80th birthday in 2005, Sen. Barack Obama described Robert Kennedy as one of those "who believe that this isn't the way it was supposed to be -- that things should be different in America...who believe that while evil and suffering will always exist, this is a country that has been fueled by small miracles and boundless dreams -- a place where we're not afraid to face down the greatest challenges in pursuit of the greater good; a place where, against all odds, we overcome." Obama himself has been compared to Kennedy; time will tell if he lives up to the promise of what New York magazine once identified as the "Black RFK." For everyone dreaming of alternate history, I hope so. But legends are legendary, and myths are mythical. There will only be one Bobby.