When Truth Is More Dramatic Than Fiction

by Joel on November 26, 2006

Over the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, I took in the movie Bobby at the AMC Fiesta Square 16 Theater in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (I mention the movie theater not to give them free advertising but to tell them if they are going to charge $4 for a small popcorn they could at least turn the heat up some.) The movie shows the parallel dramas of the Kennedy campaign in the California primary and those staying, working or entertaining at the Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was assassinated shortly after giving his victory speech on the evening of June 5, 1968. The screenplay was written by actor Emilio Estevez, son of actor Martin Sheen, who both have roles in the movie. Overall, I thought the movie did a good job of capturing the mood and circumstances of both 1968 society and political environment.

One curiosity, though, is that the movie seems to leave the impression that Kennedy’s California victory over McCarthy was easy. Real news footage posts a margin of 52-38 in Kennedy’s favor. In reality, the final vote narrowed to 4-5 points. (Similary, the movie portrays McCarthy’s loss to President Johnson in New Hampshire as narrower than the reality of a seven-point margin. Nevertheless, that was a good enough showing to politically humiliate Johnson.) In California, Kennedy won the Black and Latino vote overwhelmingly (gaining over 95% in many of those minority precincts) and lost the White vote by a substantial margin, losing even in many “working class” neighborhoods. The movie seems to suggest that Kennedy would have had a sure road to the White House. That’s not only unneccessary fiction, but from my thinking detracts from the drama. The race was uphill, as Kennedy had already lost in Oregon and Vice-president Humphrey was substantially ahead in the delegate count. The fact is that Kennedy was considered radical by a substantial number of Americans, and an opportunist by others for waiting until Eugene McCarthy effectively forced President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from the race. That irritated many die-hard McCarthy fans for years to come. I might point out that McCarthy later took what I consider a strange turn, endorsing Republican Ronald Reagan for President in 1980 over Jimmy Carter.

Initially I supported McCarthy but switched to Kennedy as soon as he announced. I was just a few days short of being 13, but already an avid follower of politics. I was very traumatized by Kennedy’s assassination. On the other hand, I was perhaps naively idealistic, believing that Kennedy’s election would guarantee no more unjust wars and an end to poverty and racial injustice. It could have been a start, though.

Fictionalizing some of the dialogue in the movie makes sense, but I have no understanding of why the vote margins were changed. As well, the movie seems to present Kennedy as uniting the races. That was his goal, but his life ended without him being successful at it. Too many Whites were scared of his support for migrant farm workers and his opposition to apartheid in South Africa. As well, many liberals were leery of him for his former association with Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Kennedy had great compassion for the poor and wanted better opportunities for minorities, but he took a “law and order” stance when it came to riots, violents protests, etc. He was convinced that no true justice could be achieved by destroying institutions that, however flawed in their conduct, guaranteed life by U.S. Constitutional means. He was very pro-family and did not identify with the “free-love” aspect of that era. That is not to say that Kennedy never strayed, but that he showed great devotion to his family.

I highly recommend the movie, with its all-star cast. For its few flaws, it might inspire the present Democratic party to have more vision and purpose. For Republicans, it could inspire that there once was a time when a Democrat could answer questions without waffling. As Ruben Navarrette wrote in his column today, November 25 (Kennedy was born this day in 1925) when Kennedy “was challenged by a college student who wanted to know who was going to pay for the growing number of social programs for the poor, Kennedy shouted back, ‘You are!’” Too many modern Democrats try to find evasive words rather than answer a question straight up.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


Richard 11.26.06 at 8:44 am

I haven’t seen this fillum but on the last point, I agree completely Joel. We have exactly the same problem over here.


Kim 11.26.06 at 4:44 pm

Thanks for the review, Joel. It brought it all back.

I was nineteen and a student at Wesleyan University at the time of Bobby’s murder, and radically committed to the civil rights and anti-war movements. I was a McCarthy supporter and considered Bobby an opportunist, but like you I was traumatised by his violent death, particularly since we were still mourning Martin’s assassination just two month’s earlier. It was the coup de grâce for my hopes in the political process - and little that has happened since has given me cause to moderate my abiding cynicism.

Now, of course, I would argue my take on politics theologically - which, however, also means that my cynicism never finally turns into out and out despair or resigned withdrawal, despite further false dawns of optimism, most recently New Labour, and terrifying nightmares, like the Bush regime. Let the bastards strut, Christ reigns. And not only are some bastards better than others, God sends us the odd Mandela to keep our chins up.


Joel 11.26.06 at 7:48 pm


I understand the view of Kennedy as an opportunist, as there was also the history that he moved to New York, where he had only briefly lived as a child, to run for the Senate (of course, that is what Hillary Clinton did, too). On the other hand, I think Kennedy’s initial hesitancy to run had to do with more than waiting for someone else to do the task of knocking out Johnson’s re-election hopes. Kennedy had repeatedly told friends and family that he was doomed to assassination if he ran. Further, while Kennedy recovered somewhat from the assassination of his brother, he remained a somewhat morose or sullen person until the day he died. He also felt a sense of responsbility to look out after his kids and to help with President Kennedy’s children. Finally, Kennedy and his advisers, knowing that winning both the nomination and the the fall election was iffy enough for their own campaign, genuinely believed McCarthy had no chance of getting the support of party bosses who controlled perhaps 40% of the delegates and very little chance of winning a general election. History indicates that with respect to at least one party boss, Mayor Daley of Chicago, such was true about McCarthy. Although Daley was committed to Humphrey, under some circumstances he might have switched to Kennedy, but never to McCarthy. Now of course, I’m glad that the delegate selection process of today is more open, but such was reality then.

Kennedy as opportunist? Perhaps, but then let me introduce you to some pastors I’ve met over the years.

I remain a big admirer of McCarthy and was saddened by his passing. I have a letter from him, written in 1969, that appears to be personally signed, although I suppose the auto-pen, which I then knew nothing of, could have been the real signed. No matter the justification offered, I am also dumbfounded by his endorsement of Reagan.

Good point about approaching politics theologically, something I do more of than formerly.

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