A new Netflix documentary about his 1968 campaign and assassination seems to ask that question.
The most surprising thing about Bobby Kennedy for President, a new four-part documentary that debuted Friday on Netflix, is how every frame of archival footage of Robert Kennedy seems to feature a hundred people trying to touch him. As he tours different neighborhoods in New York, a sea of hands reaches out to make contact. During one drive through a campaign stop, a newscast reports, “he was touched, trapped, and at one point torn from his car.” A woman being interviewed about Kennedy in Kentucky says, “I’d just love to lay my hand on him.” There’s something about his presence that seems to justify, even demand, connection.
It’s an odd, Beatlemania-esque phenomenon to be sparked by someone who in interviews is more awkward, stilted, and even nasal than you might imagine. But that strangeness is unpacked by the filmmaker Dawn Porter in Bobby Kennedy for President, which sells itself as a docuseries about Kennedy’s 1968 campaign but is really about his significance within politics. Kennedy, through Porter’s interviews and wealth of archival footage, comes across as both mesmerizing and clunky. He’s ferociously ambitious but deeply empathetic. He’s the runt of his dazzling family, but also someone predestined for greatness: In a voiceover from the very first scene a broadcaster states that “no American in this century has ever been so likely to be president as Robert Francis Kennedy.” The question you’re constantly mulling while watching is how different America might be if his supposed destiny had been allowed to play out.
The second episode considers Kennedy’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 1964, while he was still reeling from the assassination of his brother. It was at this point, Porter suggests, that he started to engage more passionately with issues where he felt he could make a difference. Porter interviews former Kennedy aides and activists in his orbit, who recall his trips to rural communities assailed by poverty. Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, describes initially thinking that Kennedy was only making these visits to get some positive press coverage. But she was startled by his focus. “Robert Kennedy was not who I thought he would be,” Edelman says. “He was listening, and he was learning.”