Make Gentle The Life of This World *
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I just taped David Grubin's American Experience Documentary, RFK
. I wanted to watch it because my friend and J-school classmate PJ Tobia
was the production assistant, but didn't clear room to watch it tonight because I epected it to be in the usual, somewhat dull American Experience format: cuts between historian's dry commentary and slowly panned archival footage with a neutral narration. I did catch the beginning and the end, though, and I was right about the format. I was wrong about the dull. An RFK biography doesn't need a spicy format. The man sparkles through regardless.
A couple things struck me. The part I caught near the beginning was about his introduction to the Civil Rights movement as JFK's Attorney General. According to the documentary, the man didn't start out as a Civil Rights champion. He had the same weakly pro-civil rights, "not-right-yet" attitude as most other white northern liberals who had little real connection to black culture. He actually first tried to stop the Freedom Rides because the violence against them was embarrassing JFK's during talks with Khurushchev in Vienna. He sent an aide, John Seigenthaler, to negotiate for state protection from Alabama's Governor Patterson, and was assured of it. The state protection went away when the Bus pulled into Montgomery, and was replaced by a mob. The pictures of the beaten Freedom Riders are dark with black and white gore. Seigenthaler himself was beaten unconcious. Apparently this started the change in Bobby Kennedy, making him a champion of civil rights.
When I tuned in again at the end, the scene was of Bobby Kennedy bringing the sad news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death to a mostly black crowd of supporters in Indianapolis, and delivering his famous impromptu eulogy. It's followed by the amazing, literally colorful footage of his campaign--of thousands of people lining the streets, grabbing his cufflinks, his tie, his shoes, reaching out just to touch him--people of all races, the most amazingly integrated crowds. Even today you don't often see crowds like that. The're thrilled and excited like the crowds who greeted the Beatles. The joy snaps into sadness in a matter of moments, as he walks away from a triumphant victory speech, thanks kitchen workers, and is shot. It's such a quick transition that as you watch the film, even though you know what's going to happen, there isn't time for a sense of foreboding to set in. The horror of it still shocks. But the colors don't disappear from the film, and the rainbow crowds stay on, weeping on the platforms as the train carrying his casket makes its way to Arlington.
In between I caught a small bit about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how RFK started off as an extreme hawk, listened to his fellow cabinet members debate, changed his mind, and became a champion of the moral position: America must not preemptively destroy a small country without making some attempt to find a better solution. The conclusion I culled from all this was that Bobby Kennedy was a man who had an amazing ability to change and grow--and what a beautiful ability that was. Earlier in the evening I flipped past C-SPAN and caught a few moments of Josh Hartnett at a Kerry rally in Des Moines tonight. The actor made a pretty clear point about how badly he wanted a president who could take in new information and change his agenda appropriately. We've gotten to such a situation in this country, that we just want that kind of flexibility on a bare minimum tactical level; we're not asking for someone who can grow, just someone who can react. But it occurs to me that, as in 1968, we stand on a larger threshold. Are we going to be a nation of stubborn stagnation, or are we going to be a nation that can learn and grow? Learning is not the easy choice, but it's the right choice. To quote that famous eulogy for MLK Jr., and Kennedy's own gravestone, the words of Aeschylus:
"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own d- despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
*A line from Kennedy, and the title of a book of quotes
written by or collected by Kennedy in his journal, edited by one of his sons.