How Bobby Kennedy Became a Progressive

An interview with Dawn Porter, director of the new Netflix docu-series about RFK.
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Robert Kennedy gives a speech at the Democratic National Convention in New York on September 2nd, 1964.

Robert Kennedy gives a speech at the Democratic National Convention in New York on September 2nd, 1964.

When I first learned about Bobby Kennedy as a kid, something about him seemed to make no sense. How did this family friend of Joe McCarthy, who approved wiretaps on Martin Luther King and advised his brother as the war in Vietnam escalated, wind up running for president as a pro-civil rights, anti-war lefty?

It turns out I wasn't the only one who felt that way. Netflix's new docu-series Bobby Kennedy for President seeks to answer that question by surveying the life of the late attorney general, senator, and presidential candidate. Along he way, it explores the drastic changes that took place in the United States during the 1960s. Drawn from hundreds of hours of archival footage—including some that hasn't been seen in decades—and featuring interviews with everyone from Harry Belafonte to Pete Hamill and D.A. Pennebaker, Bobby Kennedy for President works on an ambitiously broad canvas, even given the four-hour running time. Directing the project is Dawn Porter, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker behind Trapped and Gideon's Army. Porter's earlier films tackle contemporary controversies and living subjects: Gideon's Army follows three black public defenders working in the Deep South, while Trapped follows abortion providers (including Willie Parker) as they try to keep abortion safe and legal while being subjected to Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws. Porter says she was drawn to the RFK story both because she's a self-professed "nerd, historian, and history buff" and because she, like me, had long been curious about RFK's many political conversions.

Porter spoke with Pacific Standard via phone in the midst of a hectic press tour, revealing how she navigated all that footage, why Bobby Kennedy changed his mind on civil rights and the Vietnam War, and what we can learn from his story today.

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One of the challenges here is that you're doing a project about maybe the most well-documented, written about, and filmed family in the 20th century. RFK is probably second only to JFK, in terms of how much he's covered. It's not an obscure subject matter you're delving into.

No, it's absolutely true. We feel like we have seen it all, and you have to think like your audience thinks. So, for example, when we did the March on Washington scene, as sad is it is, pretty much everyone in this has probably seen Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. So we were like, "Why don't we show John Lewis' speech?" That's something you haven't seen that much, if at all.

There's a reason why those moments are famous and iconic. Because they're great. But what else is there? I think it's interesting to see what's surrounded, some of those moments, I find that deepens your appreciation and understanding of some of those moments.

It's like you don't want to do the thing where Creedence starts playing, and then there's a helicopter shot of the Vietnam Jungle.

Yeah. A huge thing is the music. It would have been fun, certainly, to do iconic '60s music. But I was like, "That's what people expect is going to happen." So then I had a great composer [Paul Brill] and just worked with him about finding the feeling.

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of getting access to that footage at ABC?

When I was working at ABC News, I had a friend who said, "You know we have all this footage of the 1960s in cams, and it hasn't been digitized on actual film." When someone came to me and we started talking about the [RFK] project, I just kind of flashed back to the fact that there was all this material, and I thought, "You know, this might be one were we could tell a history story with the footage as the star."

I had worked with a great archivist, Rich Remsberg, and he's the kind of guy who likes crawling around dusty attics and finding remote sources. So I described the project, described what I wanted to do. He started going out and doing some searches. We had a little team for him. We had a junior archivist and then somebody who could catalog everything and organize everything. So ultimately he ended up looking at 2,000 reels of film.

Jesus!

We digitized 150 hours that had not been digitized before, and we ended up using film from 75 different sources. When you make your own film, and you shoot it, look, you know where the good material is. For this, we all really had to work as a team.

I've spent my own time in archives and doing research-based projects, so I gotta ask: Archival nerd to archival nerd, what is your favorite nugget that you found?

There were so many. I really loved the footage of Bobby and Ethel in California that we used at the opening scene, where they're in the car, and they've got their sunglasses and they're driving in the sun. There were some small moments, like when Bobby Kennedy is announcing he's going to run for the presidency, and Ethel is sitting next to him with one of their many children, who starts fidgeting, and she just gives him a look, like every mother's given her kid that look. Moments that make them people and not icons.

I was quite taken with the moment where you show D.A. Pennebaker his own movie.

Oh, I love that. I was talking to him about that last night.

It reminds me in weird way of when he and Mick Jagger look at the footage of Altamont in Gimme Shelter. It was like, you pennebakered D.A. Pennebaker!

Right. And because of that, he turns and says, "You can see it in the camera that he was thinking about his brother." That's special. It's not often you get to speak to the person who shot something that was gorgeous and beautiful and iconic, and then ask them about it, and have them respond. That's what I wanted to do. That's why I tried to speak to people who were there with Bobby Kennedy. Because it's their story too. They interacted with this moment in history, but it's also their memory. That was the goal. And that's getting harder and harder. People are passing away, or they're too old to do interviews, or they're not well. So I just kept trying to stick to that idea.

I am curious about the process, on a formal level, as a director, figuring out what gets in, what gets out. Was it intuitive? Did you have a rubric?

What I wanted to include were things that gave you an insight into Kennedy's political and personal evolution. As you said, it's physically impossible to cover everything that Bobby Kennedy did or stood for. This is not the definitive work. I welcome, and am excited about seeing, other people's work on this. So you have to find a through-line, core question. And for me, it was, what a particular set of circumstances tells us about Bobby Kennedy as a person, and how he evolved, how he changed, and what influenced him.

Right.

You always wish you could do more. ... I wish I could do more on the Cuban missile crises, even deeper into his relationship with Martin Luther King. There are a lot more stories to tell, and that's what's fun about our job. Seeing what comes next, what is striking to somebody else. That's how we all learn.

A lot of this film is tracing his various conversions, right? Bobby starts out his career as a family friend of Joe McCarthy. Joe McCarthy was godfather to his oldest kid, if I remember correctly. RFK's a lawyer on the House Un-American Activities Committee. As attorney general, he signs off on wiretapping civil rights leaders. His brother started the Vietnam War. And he turns against all of these things at some point in his career. Going into it, were you skeptical of these conversions?

I don't think I was necessarily skeptical. I was curious. I was open to hearing about them, but also I felt like there's a story there. That doesn't just happen. I never got the sense that he was doing politically expedient things. You can't watch his speeches about getting out of Vietnam without feeling like there's some clarity there. I was like: "What was that moment. What were the things that pushed him to change?" But also, can watching his story of change be instructive today? Is it possible to change without getting accused of being flipping, and with the connotation that it's not sincere?

Living in a time where there's a lot of distrust of what comes out of our current White House, it was such a relief to see a person who changed because of his curiosity—because he was pushed, because he was open to listening. We want our leaders, in particular, to wrestle with these questions. We don't want dogmatic opinions that may be wrong. That's disastrous.

Part of the story you're telling is that what helped cause those conversions was that, on a deep level, Bobby Kennedy was committed to ideas of justice, and particularly of law and order. So he's against the civil rights movement early on because he feels like they're going too far and it's disrupting things. But the backlash to it is so extreme that it really helps him convert. Since Richard Nixon, of course, "law and order" has become a code term for opposing civil rights and social programs.

Right.

Do you think that today we can take back the idea of law and order on the left? Or has that ship sailed?

Law and order has such a bad name now because we know it as a dogwhistle for racist behavior. I do think, if you really understand what law and order meant to Bobby Kennedy, it wasn't code for racism. It was, "We need an orderly society in order to function." It cannot function in chaos. And he was afraid that marches and sit-ins would cause violence and chaos. I think he came to understand that you also needed direct pressure. He came to understand that because he was willing to sit with civil rights leaders, and understand how difficult it was to press their cause. There would not be progress without some confrontation. I think his understanding of what order meant, and law meant, evolved.

There's a component to Bobby Kennedy that you can't overlook, which is compassion. And his religious beliefs. He thought law and order is important, but so are morals, and so is being a decent human being. And there are times when something has to be sacrificed in the name of decency. It's not that he was a fully formed, full-out civil rights guy from the time of birth, but it's that his core belief in decency [and] supporting people who are less powerful. That struck him as the right, religious, and moral thing to do.

You play excerpts of a speech where RFK quotes Yeats' "The Second Coming" when talking about the turmoil of the late '60s. One of the reasons why we're revisiting this story now is that a lot of us feel, again, as though we're in this moment where things are falling apart, "the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is released upon the world." What are you trying to achieve in telling this story to America in 2018?

I think that leadership matters. We're all learning that government does not run itself, but really does take on the characteristics of who is in charge. But one of the greatest assets and qualities we can look for in a leader is compassion—because ultimately it's very hard to figure out what the "right" thing to do is in any of these very complicated situations. But if you don't have compassion, you're much less likely to make decisions that are good, that are actually befitting a leader.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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