Where have you gone Bobby Kennedy? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Written by Russ Widdall

 

Robert F. Kennedy touched a lot of lives in a lot of ways. People the world over felt the grace of his kindness and were lifted by his gentle wisdom and vision of a better future.

Senator and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and his campaign manager and brother, Robert Kennedy, confer in a hotel room during the Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, July 1960.
Senator and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and his campaign manager and brother, Robert Kennedy, confer in a hotel room during the Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, July 1960.

For myself (as an artist and actor who had the unique opportunity to portray the man) I’ve tried to attach definitions to the many ways Bobby has touched my life.  Most impactful is the scope of his bravery.  First he had the guts and the steadfast self appraisal to alter his world view and allow the grief of the loss of his brother to guide him towards a better understanding of the fears and the dreams of all people…everywhere. Second he marched headlong into the political fray of a Presidential campaign in a time of war and deep civil unrest. He knew he would be both a figurative and a literal target of dark and powerful forces. He knew he was risking his life, and he knew the nation he loved needed him. He answered the call.

Young people with a "We'll take Bobby any time sign" during his 1968 presidential campaign.
Young people with a “We’ll take Bobby any time sign” during his 1968 presidential campaign.

I’m also mindful of Bobby’s heartfelt sincerity and his ability to project empathy.  His trip to the Mississippi delta to study the problems of poverty and hunger pointed him and his political skills toward the plight of the less fortunate. Although he had had an adversarial relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. in the past he found room in his heart to fully embrace the civil rights movement and room in his head to be pragmatic and patient about the results he wanted to see.  It is impossible to watch the sadly famous footage of his funeral train rolling down the northeast corridor from New York to Washington D.C. without noticing the glorious cross-section of Americans that bade him farewell along the way; working class whites and impoverished blacks, boy scouts in salute and policemen in tears, young and old, rich and poor, democrats, republicans, libertarians and the like.  Every race and every religion and every sort of American and most citizens of the world felt a kinship with the man and a warm feeling that must have bordered on actual trust, in a politician.  They were all there because they all sensed the loss; the feeling that a hopeful future was slowly disappearing into the distance.  They knew that Bobby was special, and now he was gone.  That coalition of the hopeful has not since gathered around a candidate like they did around Bobby. The loss of that unity is something I feel every day.

RFK visiting the Mississippi Delta region in 1967.
RFK visiting the Mississippi Delta region in 1967.

It is often said that we lost so much when Robert Kennedy passed away.  We submit to conjecture about what our country and the world could have become with Bobby at the helm.  What if there were no Nixon and no Watergate? What if Vietnam had ended years sooner?  How would he have shaped Middle East policy?  Fifty years down the line all the what-ifs form a speculative tree of historical possibilities. What if Robert Kennedy had the chance to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world”?  My mind spins at the possibilities.

I struggle not to measure the enormous unfulfilled promise of the man against the darkness of the place those fifty long years have led this country to.  I try not to compare a man who can soothe our national pain with an extemporaneous helping of Aeschylus with one who seems not to know our national anthem.  Oh how I try.

In the final analysis I am simply grateful that my life mingled with his.  I’m happy that a man of such great promise and sensitivity came from my world, from my country and that I had the chance to examine his life and his work and be touched and motivated by it; that I had the chance to share some small piece of his vision and compassion is constantly motivating and forever humbling.  I’m sad that he was lost at such a young age when he saw so much to be done, but I’m ever grateful that his fine example lives on and gives a shape and a resonance to his message and an outline for the great young people who will pick up the fight and fulfill his promise.

I’m glad there was a Bobby Kennedy and I’ll never forget him, not today or ever.

Russ Widdall as Bobby Kennedy in "RFK" with New City Stage Company at the Adrienne Theatre, 2012.
Russ Widdall as Bobby Kennedy in “RFK” with New City Stage Company at the Adrienne Theatre in Philadelphia.

 

Russ Widdall portrayed Bobby Kennedy in the regional premieres of “RFK” by Jack Holmes in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which were both directed by Ginger Aña Dayla. He also created the role of Bobby Kennedy in Dayla’s original play “Roseburg,” and is helping her research the next 2 plays in her trilogy of plays about his life and current political issues.  He has been a professional actor for over 25 years in Philadelphia, New York, and the DC metro area, appearing in dozens of plays and movies, as well as such notable television shows as The Wire, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Hack.