Bobby Kennedy and the endurance of American celebrity

It is dumb, but I didn’t appreciate just how dynastic the Kennedy dynasty was until Bobby Kennedy for President noted the thorniness of a US president appointing his brother as attorney general back in 1961.

Britain has our own history of political families, not the least being the Johnsons Boris and Jo who both are government ministers – respectively foreign secretary and transport minister. Other familiar names are the Benns, the Kinnocks and the Milibands.

It will always be true that families sometimes congregate in the same fields, with politics no exception. But as an Englishman it’s hard not to be struck by the fawning – almost monarchical – worship of the Kennedy clan at points in Bobby Kennedy, a four-part series outlining the political career and assassination of the above attorney general.

For those unfamiliar, after some time lawyering for the government, Robert worked as a campaign manager for his older brother John, helping him get elected president in 1960 and then being picked as attorney general. Following John’s assassination in Dallas, Robert gained a serious sense of conscience, travelling America and noting the wretched state of some of his countrymen in the Appalachians, Mississippi and California.

By the documentary’s showing, scepticism from some gave way to broad public reverence of Robert. Not least, as others have noted, are the endless reels of outstretched hands grasping at Kennedy – Jesus parallels abounding.

Doubtless Robert benefited from the reflected glory of his brother, not to say reflected hope. Such was the fervour for Kennedys that, during the Democratic National Convention after Robert’s death in 1968, one Louisiana senator said: ‘There’s only one man who can win this election. That’s Ted Kennedy.’ Ted, or Edward, was the youngest of the brood that included John and Robert.

It would be possible to claim that Britain holds its politicians in sufficient contempt that nobody would think to draft in one brother for another in similar circumstances. But that’s without noting the continuous speculation that David Miliband might return to rescue the Labour party from the Corbynite mire that his brother Ed is significantly responsible for.

Oddly enough, there is a touch of Ed’s manner in Robert, who appears throughout the documentary as endearingly gawky. His speech is pleasingly old-fashioned and clunky, his grin a tad goofy, and his scrawny appearance at odds with the more jockish bearing of John.

Even so, America has a fervour for celebrity, and cleb politicians, that is not matched in Britain. This may be due to our continued existence of the royal family. As conservative journo Peter Hitchens has argued, they hog the reverence.

Although the US avoided a straight dynastic contest in its 2016 presidential race when Donald Trump beat Jeb Bush to face Hillary Clinton, America retains its openness to political families and celebrity politicians familiar to the Kennedy era. Americans are also fairly fond of the British royals. This is surely not what was intended in 1776.

Jimmy Nicholls

Jimmy Nicholls

Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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