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“Bobby” (2006) Written and Directed by Emilio Estevez

Disparate characters working and visiting the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles are connected by witnessing the horrific murder of Senator Robert Kennedy on that fateful day in June 1968. 

This is an absolute gem of a film which weaves multiple stories to address the pertinent issues facing the US during the 1968 election campaign. From the Mexican kitchen hands facing up to blatant racism dished out to them on a day to day basis, via a sham (or is it?) marriage to avoid the horrors of Vietnam to the wronged wife of the manager we are party to an array of issues which continue to haunt America. These are superb stories and the writing from Estevez is deeply insightful and well delivered by an ensemble cast (yes, even Christian Slater).

Politics became horribly polarised and the eventual result saw the creeping tide of cynicism win the day with the elevation of Richard Nixon to the Oval Office. And we all know how well that went.

There were three major assassinations in 1960’s America and there is a convincing narrative that says it was the second Kennedy murder that had the greatest impact at the time, and crucially on the future trajectory of America and therefore the world. The slaying of Martin Luther King exactly two months prior to the death of Robert Kennedy saw the inner cities explode in a wave of violence but it could be argued that MLK’s methods could only take black America so far and that his greatest days were behind him. As for Jack Kennedy, the path of his presidency was well set and it is debatable if he, and not Johnson could have delivered Civil Rights legislation and still retained the South in ’64. The race to the Moon was well underway and the first disastrous steps had been taken in Vietnam.

Bobby Kennedy was born into opulence funded by his father’s bootlegging business which bought Joseph P. Kennedy influence and the Ambassadors post to London despite his Irish Catholic background. Whilst in the UK Kennedy Senior saw the USSR as the greater evil in Europe and attempted using back channels in the Vatican to build a Grand anti Soviet Alliance with Nazi Germany. Fortunately his plans were thwarted and he turned his attention to first Joe Junior, and then Jack’s political careers. Not one to hide in the background old man Kennedy was obsessed that one of his son’s become President. Joe Junior’s demise in the war saw JFK take on the mantle, first becoming a Senator and then defeating Vice President Nixon in the 1960 race to the White House.

In the maelstrom of electoral and presidential politics, largely unseen to the public was Bobby. The third Kennedy son, he largely avoided the overbearing presence of his father whilst observing and then becoming a key force in his brother’s tenure in the Oval Office. Bobby skillfully kept the lines of communication open during the Cuban Missile Crisis and facilitated his brother’s climbdown over NATO missile silos in Turkey with little loss of face. Akin to his dealings with USSR Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin Bobby was able to deploy his talents to ensure there was both a velvet glove and an iron fist when it came to recalcitrant Democratic Governors  and the issue of segregation in schools.

Despite his privileged background Bobby seems to have displayed genuine empathy for poor Americans and was open in discussing class as the root of inequality. His interactions with poor and black Americans seemed far more rooted in truth than his smoother brothers. He famously undertook a “Poverty” tour into the heart of the Mississippi Delta and according to Marxist historian Simon Schama, “…was firmly on the side of the underdog”.

Speaking about his experiences Kennedy said, “Here in the United States – with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars – I have seen children in the Delta area of Mississippi with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation. They end their lives by killing themselves – I don’t think that we have to accept that.  If young boys and girls are so filled with despair when they are going to high school and feel that their lives are so hopeless and that nobody’s going to care for them, nobody’s going to be involved with them, and nobody’s going to bother with them, that they either hang themselves, or shoot themselves.”

For a candidate, then or indeed now to address the sheer hopelessness of life, and then to mention suicide was and is an extraordinary thing. This was, “saying it how it is”. A far cry from the nasty bigotry of Trump and in the UK, Farage and his ilk who make that claim for themselves.

Booby speaks on poverty here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dpaJXSWbvI

The additional thing about RFK was, when all the men around him were cheating philanderers, his quiet but steely personal morality. He expected a great deal from himself, and from those around him but avoided the trap of pointing out the failings of others or being judgemental.

The biggest loss to America was perhaps not Bobby himself, but what he represented in terms of hope and in terms of what he believed could be achieved by cooperation. He clearly detested the down side of capitalism but was unable to make the necessary leap that, according to Malcolm X, “You can’t have capitalism without racism/ inequality/ poverty” (delete as applicable). Only a planned economy can right these wrongs. The Blair Government here perhaps had more successes in taking the hard edges off the system than Carter, Clinton and Obama did, but only Socialism can liberate the 99% of us from the tyranny of money.

The consequences of Bobby’s murder was a Nixon White House with all that flowed including the war in Vietnam and Watergate. The body politic was dealt a blow from which it never recovered regarding disengagement and low voter turnout. Trust was fatally damaged. Who knows what might have been but it sure as hell can’t have been half as bad following that fateful June day just two weeks from my birth.

The denouement of the film is played out to one of Bobby’s finest pieces of oratory which is well worth a listen. Ignore who is saying it. Listen to the words and what they transmit. They identify the problems facing us all and the words are moving. But unless we act on what Bobby pointed out then the speech has no meaning


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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