The first reaction to the news that "American Experience" begins its new season with a two-hour piece on Robert F. Kennedy must be: Why? There is no peg for it. What can there possibly be left to say about a man who has been deified and deconstructed in endless books and documentaries since his assassination 36 years ago?
Not much, it turns out, other than an enduring fascination with the man. For many, though, that is enough. His story is the rarest of things -- the moral metamorphosis of a national figure in real time.
Bobby Kennedy was never a natural politician like his star burst of a brother. What haunts us about him, in part, was his unease until the very end of his life as the center of attention. "He was not really built for the spotlight," says journalist and author Jack Newfield. "He was built for the wings."
We've seen no one like him since. No such dynamic altered JFK during his three short years in the White House. The only person in recent years who has displayed any such growth while in office -- and it is modest compared to the profound changes in Kennedy -- is John McCain. In this miasma of a political season, RFK's life remains instructive, astonishing, heartbreaking.
That said, "RFK" covers awfully familiar ground. David Grubin, who wrote, directed, and produced the show, rounds up the usual suspects who knew him -- aides, journalists, authors -- for yet another group grope over the changes in Kennedy's psyche and the meaning of his life. They're smart. (All save his daughter, Kathleen, are men.) And they present their observations with intelligence and insight. The problem is that they've said it all before.
So for many, this program is a well-intentioned yawn. For others, it affords an opportunity to get to know one of the more intriguing people to step onto the American political stage. Kennedy died at 42, a creature of what-ifs. He continues to tantalize precisely because we'll never know, had he won the White House, if his powerful connection to the dispossessed would have bound together a nation savaged by racial and political strife. You can ruin a dinner party over this stuff.
Bobby Kennedy buffs get to reconsider yet again the man and his motivations. There was little that seems noble about his late entrance into the 1968 presidential race, and a lot that reeks of the raw pursuit of power. Only after Eugene McCarthy's forthright opposition to the war in Vietnam brought him stunning results in the early primaries against President Lyndon B. Johnson did Kennedy make his move.
And there was plenty to dislike about Kennedy as a young man. Overshadowed by his older siblings in Joseph P. Kennedy's huge, competitive family, he grew up to be absolutist and moralistic. He emerged as a boilerplate anticommunist who not only worked in the Senate for Joseph McCarthy, but, according to the show, admired the demagogue as he smeared innocent men and women.
As the protector of JFK's political career, Kennedy gained a reputation as a tough and vindictive operative. As one journalist put it, "Whenever you see Bobby Kennedy in public with his brother, he looks as though he showed up for a rumble."
He remained to his death unduly bitter toward Johnson as the usurper of his brother's Camelot crown. And while he eventually gained great empathy for the forgotten and reveled in his family, his treatment of those who toiled selflessly for him could be thoughtless.
Yet we watch him temper his simplistic, hawkish world view in crucibles such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. We watch him grasp, slowly, the moral imperatives of the civil rights movement and then push his brother to embrace the cause.
We watch him stand with agricultural workers and discover rural poverty in Appalachia. We watch him finally emerge from the shadow of his brother to reach for his destiny with a political base utterly his own.
Bobby Kennedy died one of the great question marks in American history. We return to him to wonder what if, but also why. Why has no one else changed before our very eyes as he did?
Sam Allis's e-mail address is email@example.com.