Last night was billed as a "once-in-a-lifetime interview with Charlie Rose, acclaimed broadcast journalist with both film and documentary director, Rory Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., exploring the lives and legacy of the Kennedy family."
There were moments when that actually happened, courtesy of Rose and Rory, during Friday night's program at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Mostly, though, it was a bizarre performance by a bizarre and charming Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who avoided answering questions about his family by diving into stories -- some of which he could not possibly have witnessed firsthand -- about his father's political career and his uncle's presidency, or yelling some emphatic slogan disguised as commentary on today's political climate.
Charlie Rose's entrance elicited cheers, and he is among the best who ever played the game. On this night, though, his hands were full with trying to contain RFK Jr. Some of his failed attempts included:
Rose, to Rory: "We have turned him loose, haven't we?"
"I have a lot of other things I want to talk about in terms of family."
"Let me ask some other things here. It's important that we do this."
So where, you might be wondering, did RFK Jr. take this strange little evening? When he was speaking, he was animated and entertaining; when he wasn't, he leaned into the round oak table with his chin in his hand, covering his mouth. It was like RFK Jr. had an automatic on/off switch. (It was mostly on.)
There was celebrity name-dropping (Muhammed Ali, Larry David), and funny stories about an elephant at a Kennedy family gathering who hated Amy Carter and tormenting J. Edgar Hoover. Those are the stories we came to hear.
It got weird when he went into a historical lecture about his father's investigation into the JFK assassination. He was speaking about it as if he had been part of it, then cited a book called The Unspeakable by Jim Douglas as being the best book on the subject, then kept referencing things from the book. He was losing the audience, so he burst out, "My father believed that the Warren Report was a shoddy piece of craftsmanship," to the delighted applause of the mostly Baby Boomer audience.
Whenever Charlie Rose would ask about the family, RFK Jr. would evade the question until he heard either delighted Boomer applause or delighted Boomer laughter. One of his responses to a family question was an unrelated story about World War II. A lady behind me who must have recently Netflixed The Iron Lady kept saying, "Here here!" for the benefit of us unfortunate people around her.
Some of the strangest RFK Jr. outbursts with the biggest applause were:
"We're becoming a national security state!" (applause, "Here here!")
"Corporations want profits!" (applause, "Here here!")
"Corporations are great things, but we'd be nuts to let them run our government!" (applause, "Here here!")
"Nationalism in Africa! The end of colonialism!"
At this point, I don't think anyone knew what the hell he was talking about. It was something about the Kennedy family airlifting President Obama's father out of Kenya to begin a new life in America.
When Roe tried to get this beast of an interview back on topic, RFK Jr. mugged to the audience, asking "Mind if I tell a story?" and teasing us with his boyish grin. Oh, there will be applause, and there will definitely be a story.
Exasperated, Charlie finally asked him, "Why haven't you run for office?" RFK Jr. answered, "I have six kids." (He should have answered: "My 1983 arrest for heroin possession.")
The most revealing exchange, near the end of the evening, was this:
Rose: "There's a fierce loyalty in the family."
RFK Jr.: "Yes."
And then silence.
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Rory is RFK Jr.'s youngest sister, born six months after their father's assassination. Her documentaries for HBO have examined cultural class differences, AIDS, nuclear power and Abu Ghraib. Her latest film is Ethel, about her mother, which all three participants took pains to plug throughout the evening. (Mayor Mike Rawlings did as well in his introduction of the guests). Rory was relaxed, funny, and normal. Her only weak moment was this statement of the obvious:
"I think there's still a huge divide between rich and poor in this country."
It was the slightest bit of condescension by someone who has observed it, but never had to live it. She gets credit for good intentions, though. Unlike her big brother, Rory handled the evening gracefully.