There’s no question that Ethel, the documentary about Robert F. Kennedy’s wife that premiered here at Sundance, is a less-than-nuanced view of RFK’s opportunism and some of the less admirable moments in his career, ranging from his work for Sen. Joe McCarthy (who I didn’t know had dated two Kennedy girls) to his manipulativeness on civil rights. And given that Rory Kennedy is making this movie about the mother who bore her six months after her father was assassinated, the movie may be gentler than one produced by an outsider would be, though such a film would certainly have gotten less access to everything from home videos of the Kennedys to Ethel’s reflections about her life as a political wife. But Ethel is an intriguing look on a less-discussed subject: what did it mean to be married into the Kennedy family? And what lessons did one generation of Kennedys teach the next that made the family a liberal political dynasty?
Mostly, it seems, Robert and Ethel did it by treating their children as if they were old enough to understand and participate in both the issues of the day and Robert’s work. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend reflects that when her father was chief counsel for the Senate Labor Rackets Committee, “rather than take me to the playground where we could go on the see-saw, [Ethel] took me to the Senate Rackets Committee,” where she learned to refuse to give comment lest she perjure herself. Kerry recalls on a visit to the FBI that Ethel dropped a note in the agency’s suggestion box recommending that J. Edgar Hoover be replaced at the height of his power. During the height of the fight to integrate southern colleges, Kerry and the other children spent time in RFK’s office, occasionally chatting on the phone to Justice Department officials in the field, and Kennedy told them he hoped the issue would be resolved by the time they made it to college. When his brother was assassinated, Robert wrote to Kathleen that she must take responsibility for her cousins, closing his letter with the words “Be kind to others and work for your country.” Kathleen remembers him shaking on his return from his anti-poverty fact-finding trips, telling his children that he’d met families who lived in homes the size of their dining room. The children campaigned with him, including on the night of the California primary — Kerry found out her father was dead when she turned on the cartoons in the morning, and got the news instead.
All of this may sound twee or precious, but it’s clear that Robert and Ethel were sincere in their belief that their children could understand the events unfolding around them and deserved to be shown the respect of being expected to understand and engage. After Robert’s death, Ethel sent her children to live and work in settings that let them understand more deeply the issues that informed their parents passions, whether with Cesar Chavez, on Native American reservations, or on Western ranches. “That really comes from our mother,” Kerry insists of the family’s commitment to politics after RFK’s murder. “Those are her values.” Ethel demurs, insisting “I just don’t feel I can take the credit. I just don’t feel it.” But her influence is clear.
On a more light-hearted note, it’s fun to see the Kennedys beyond the standard football-and-the-Cape playfulness, and to understand how their sense of whimsy informed the family’s politics and campaigning style. There’s no question that Ethel was genetically destined to be a cut-up. “My brothers would take the train to Boston, but they never rode on the inside of the train,” Ethel reflects of her Skakel mischievousness. In school, she bet on horses and stole and burned the demerit book so she could go to the Harvard-Yale football game. The family had a seal at the farm on Hickory Hill, established a tradition (stopped by President Kennedy) of pushing cabinet secretaries into the pool, and Ethel got busted for speeding — and horse theft, when she discovered starving and mistreated animals on a neighbor’s farm and simply took them home, leading her to a court trial where she had to defend herself against a hanging offense. That same sense of humor made her a great campaigner, nailing it on the Jack Paar show when the host declared that “This lovely little girl, mother of seven children, has given birth to her own precinct.” There is a real strength in fun, and the ability to be self-deprecating that I think our politics loses sight of sometimes.