Tuesday, November 28, 2006

She Said it Was the Communists, But We Knew Better

PBS has been cashing in on the renewed interest in the Kennedy family and airing their programming about RFK for the past couple of weeks. Since I'm a sucker for a video presentation of history (I loved when teachers just popped in a video during my public school days) I usually sit down to watch the overwrought images and historians. Last night, American Experience aired their program on RFK.

Let me say this: I am profoundly grateful I didn't have to live through 1968. With the civil rights struggle, Vietnam, the death of Martin Luther King, and RFK it must have been scary stuff. It would be like dealing with what we're seeing now in Iraq, but also having Hillary Clinton or Barak Obamba shot dead, along with a prominent gay rights activist (Lance Bass?). American Experience showed footage of RFK telling a crowd in Indiana that King had been shot, and the screams of anguish from the crowd were frightening. In these days of punditry, it's hard to find people in the public eye who connect so deeply as RFK and Martin Luther King did.

I'm also not sure how I feel about the Kennedy family in general. My family isn't the most liberal of folks, and I'm certain my mother doesn't like the hijinks of the "modern" Kennedys (Pat, D-RI). I don't really enjoy Pat because I think he's a spoiled rich boy who really isn't that smart. But it's fascinating how many borderline mythic figures one family from Massachusetts spawned in American history. I know JFK was a fairly middling president for the short time he held the office. Historians even didn't rank him in the top 100 influential Americans list that was recently published in the Atlantic Monthly. In fact, none of the Kennedys are on the list, which seems a bit odd. While RFK and JFK didn't actually accomplish much in the political arena, they influenced the American psyche deeply, I'd argue. People still debate that JFK was killed by the government and not some random whackjob. We obsess on "Camelot." American Experience went to great lengths to illustrate how RFK connected himself to causes and groups who didn't have much of a voice in Washington, such as migrant laborers and blacks. Robert Kennedy made some great promises in his speeches-- ending the war in Vietnam that had gone to shit (one of the clips the show aired could have easily applied to the civil war in Iraq [we can call it that now, NBC said so] if "Vietnam" were exchanged for "Iraq"), easing poverty and racism in America-- and it's debatable what he could actually accomplished. But since he didn't get the chance to do or not do what he said, he becomes a mythic figure in American life. Americans then got Richard effing Nixon, who certainly didn't help anything and cemented the Kennedys more solidly into the realm of potential saviors of thousands of Americans who died in Vietnam.

I am not Doris Kearns Goodwin, nor was meant to be. I have nothing based in any deep knowledge of politics in 1960s America, but I think it's a bit quick to dismiss either Kennedy from the list of important Americans.

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