This portrait of Robert Kennedy humanizes the politician and his flaws
What I like about Jack Holmes's one-man play RFK: A Portrait of Robert Kennedy is that although it is in some ways hagiographic, it also humanizes its subject, showing his vulnerabilities and flaws. The Kennedys are generally seen through a haze of nostalgia: Jack as the charismatic leader who presided over Camelot with his beautiful wife, Jackie, and would have accomplished who knows what had he lived, and Robert, handsome, idealistic, well-read and physically courageous, who had just won the California primary in his race for the presidency when Sirhan Sirhan shot him down in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Tellingly, RFK had stopped to shake hands with a busboy.
Yet there were always criticisms of him, too. He was ruthless in managing his brother's presidential campaign, obsessive in his pursuit of organized crime as attorney general. His relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. was testy, and he'd had the great civil rights leader's phone tapped. He and Jack either encouraged the CIA's assassination attempts on Fidel Castro or turned a blind eye to them. Some observers questioned the sincerity of his interest in social justice, pointing out that it had come late. And supporters of anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in his apparently quixotic run against Lyndon Johnson in 1967 pointed out that it was only after McCarthy's unexpectedly strong showing in New Hampshire that RFK announced — with the full weight of his family's wealth and name behind him. Asked about the amount of money the family was spending on his behalf, mother Rose Kennedy responded, "It's our money and we're free to spend it any way we please."
RFK reveals the contradictions in the heart and soul of this complicated man. It shows an anguished Bobby Kennedy pondering his future after his brother's death. It makes no secret of his (entirely reciprocated) loathing for Lyndon Johnson, and hints at the complexity of his feelings for Jack — the brother he served devotedly, envied and identified with, and whose presidency, as a single slip of the tongue makes clear, he thought of as in some sense his own.
And if his idealism came late, RFK shows that it also ran deep. Heard in a contemporary context, Kennedy's words astonish. When did an American politician last speak of the plight of coal miners and agonize about poverty? Our current, supposedly liberal, president expresses pride in his willingness and ability to kill those he designates as enemies; minimizes the civilian casualties of drone attacks; and brutally silences those who reveal war crimes. But we hear Kennedy condemning the U.S. bombing of Vietnam and empathizing with the suffering on the ground: "For the people of Vietnam, the last three years have meant little but horror. Their tiny land has been devastated by a weight of bombs and shells greater than Nazi Germany knew in the Second World War.... We have dropped twelve tons of bombs for every square mile in North and South Vietnam. Whole provinces have been substantially destroyed. More than two million South Vietnamese are now homeless refugees.... Imagine the impact in our own country if an equivalent number — over 25 million Americans — were wandering homeless or interned in refugee camps, and millions more refugees were being created as New York and Chicago, Washington and Boston, were being destroyed by a war raging in their streets." Imagine the glee with which contemporary conservatives would pounce on a statement like this. Yes, the tenor of Kennedy's times was different — but so was the man himself.
In James O'Hagan Murphy, director Terry Dodd has found the perfect actor to play RFK. Murphy is always an interesting presence on stage. He tends to give the impression of holding something back, something ambiguous and slightly shaded. So he's able to suggest all of RFK's contradictions, soul searchings, internal arguments. You see the man's steely spine and his vulnerabilities, the rages and the tenderness — as when he describes meeting an inner-city child whose face was half eaten away by rats. There are spasms of petty vanity, but there is also greatness of soul. And Murphy's evocation of Robert Kennedy's deep, raw grief as he stands over his murdered brother's coffin will stay with me for a long time.
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