Since Brexit I have often felt close to tears observing politics on both sides of the Atlantic – the alternative is hysterical laughter and stunned disbelief. But never more so then when watching Netflix’s latest documentary – ‘Bobby Kennedy for President’, directed by Dawn Porter. In 1968 when Kennedy ran for president the US was divided by race, income and attitudes to war, not unlike the situation in 2016 – however instead of turning to an even more divisive figure, Americans had the option of a politician who preached peace and unity.
Kennedy was born to privilege, he learned his politics as a crusader against communism and trade union corruption and as a campaign manager who made enemies to ensure his brother’s election. But he was a man who learned from experience – from family tragedies, from travel and meeting people and experiencing their lives. He was a man who was changed by life – by supporting the migrant farm workers of California, the poor whites of Appalachia and the blacks who experienced continued prejudice and economic disadvantage. Travelling abroad he realised why the young of the majority world were attracted by communism, when the alternative was dictators supported by the US.
For many he was the last hope of bringing Americans together – a hope that ended in his assassination in the Ambassador Hotel on the night of the California primary. He was no saint and this documentary is no hagiography. 1968 was a long time ago – the young campaigners are now old and still fighting the same battles for equality – but it is not only the black and white footage that reminds one of the half century that has past.
Politics was dominated by white men – to an even greater degree than today – with the exception of the children’s rights campaigner Marian Wright and the Mexican-American activist Dolores Huerta, the women are wives or secretaries, not policy makers. People constantly smoke and the poor are painfully thin, not obese from cheap fast-food.
Politicians no longer quote Aeschylus they communicate in illiterate tweets; they do not ask the privileged to contribute their fair share to society and they do not work to unite the electorate. In 2016 the ‘middle class’, in reality the working poor of America, bought the lie that their problems were caused by the other – immigrants, blacks, Moslems, feminists – anyone who was not like you or your family. They voted to make American Great Again – but a country cannot be great when its children live in poverty, without decent schools or healthcare – this was a truth that Kennedy knew in his heart and worked to fulfil.