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His vote for Bobby Kennedy

RFK's legacy lives on in the L.A.-developed show that Jack Holmes has taken to New York.

December 10, 2005|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As economic pressures grind away at American families, one presidential candidate offers an unusual view on what ails the country: It is not simply a failure of fiscal policy, he says, but a blindness to the nation's true wealth.

The gross national product is a misleading barometer, he says, because it "does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages."

These words are not slogans and catchphrases of 2005. They were spoken in March 1968 as Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) began his doomed campaign for the presidency. Less than three months later, he would be gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, after claiming victory in the California primary.

The RFK story is fading into history. But some, driven by private passions, refuse to let it disappear. They have created an unofficial Cult of Bobby, determined to keep his memory alive. Jack Holmes, an actor and writer, is a member in good standing.

He has spent the last 10 years working on "RFK," a one-man play about the late senator. The 90-minute production recently opened at the Culture Project in New York; it had a limited run at the Court Theatre in Los Angeles last summer.

"I felt that Bobby was being lost to us historically," said Holmes, explaining why he has devoted so much time to the play. "His life holds out many lessons and has relevance for us today. I wanted my play to be a reflection of all that."

Nearly 40 years after his death, Kennedy's memory continues to inspire some and rankle others. To supporters, he was America's last best hope, a politician who spoke about moral courage and American life with language unlike any other. To critics, he was an opportunist who exploited the legacy of his slain brother, President John F. Kennedy.

An important parallel between past and present, Holmes said, was Robert Kennedy's public wrestling with the question of the Vietnam War, which was becoming increasingly unpopular. Many U.S. politicians face a similar dilemma today as they stake out a position on the Iraq conflict and debate the issue of a U.S. withdrawal.

"Bobby ultimately spoke out against the war, but many people criticized him for taking too long," Holmes said. "He agonized over the question of when or how much to speak out. It's a personal and political struggle that's being repeated today."

"RFK," performed on a spare stage, tells the story of Kennedy's last four years. It begins with the moment he learns in 1964 that he will not be Lyndon B. Johnson's running mate. It ends just before Kennedy speaks to cheering crowds at the Ambassador. Moments later, he's shot by Sirhan Sirhan.

During those four years, Kennedy made a remarkable odyssey. Once an awkward public speaker, he became an inspiring candidate with an upbeat message. He spent much of his political life in his brother's shadow, as JFK's top advisor and attorney general. By the end of his presidential campaign, he had become a bona fide leader.

In a poignant moment at the end of the play, RFK addresses his brother in an imaginary conversation and says quietly: "Johnny, you'd hardly know me."

Robert Kennedy's life has been celebrated by historians and biographers. There have been periodic television documentaries about him, and Emilio Estevez is currently directing "Bobby," a film about the assassination on June 5, 1968.

What drove Holmes to write and perform a play about the fallen candidate?

The author, who lives with his wife in Pasadena, said his moment of inspiration came unexpectedly a decade ago. He was meeting with a New York dramatic agent, who remarked casually that Holmes looked like Robert Kennedy.

Without thinking, the boyish-looking performer with shaggy hair and prominent teeth blurted out that he was writing and hoped to perform a one-man play about the Democratic senator. The idea, he said, came totally out of the blue.

"It's like the old saying," Holmes said, recalling the fateful 1995 meeting, "you don't know what you've really been thinking until you hear yourself say it."

Holmes, 42, was born in Scranton, Pa., and grew up in a large Irish household where the Kennedys were revered. His grandfather helped organize a 1964 St. Patrick's Day event in the city at which Robert F. Kennedy spoke. It was one of the younger Kennedy's first public appearances after his brother was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

For Holmes, the memory of RFK beginning his public re-emergence in Scranton ignited a lifelong fascination. He went on to study acting in New York with William Hickey and Elaine Aiken; he also studied in the Bay Area with Michael McClure.

Several months after his meeting with the New York agent, the play became even more of a priority. Holmes was browsing through a used bookstore in Hoboken, N.J., and came upon a box of books. They were all about Robert Kennedy.

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