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By Bryan Newbury
July 12, 2009

tedkennedy2008democraticconvention1Is it possible for a Kennedy to be overlooked and underappreciated? If you’re inclined to agree with or admire Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a viewing of HBO’s Teddy will certainly lead you to an affirmative answer.

Teddy begins in Denver, at the 2008 Democratic Convention. In terms of sheer artistry, vigor and conviction, his 1980 speech had this one beat. In filling out the Odyssean narrative that has been Teddy’s life, it couldn’t be more fitting. The speech, relatively soon after Kennedy’s being diagnosed with a large brain tumor, serves to sum up the man rather than the youngest brother. While it is true that simply being a Kennedy must define a person in many ways, Teddy is larger than that. A little thing like a brain tumor isn’t going to silence, stop, or even slow this fighter down.

That irrepressibility is the oil that lubricates the endearment of his fans and the ire of his detractors. Teddy Kennedy has a long list of formidable foes, from Nixon to the generation of conservatives after him to many in his own party to the vagaries of fate itself. No one would sooner assent to his life of privilege than the man himself, but even the fiercest of composers of enemies lists would grant that the senator from Massachusetts isn’t going to shy away from a fight.

To those detractors, there isn’t much in Teddy to like. The film, narrated by Kennedy, sticks its toe right to the hagiography line. Like everything else regarding Kennedy or politics in general, whether that line is crossed depends entirely on one’s persuasion. Chris Matthews will likely give this work an enthusiastic five-star endorsement. Rush Limbaugh’s review is surely to be more reserved. Though it goes far to illustrate the courage, convictions and strength of character Kennedy prides himself on, Teddy doesn’t avoid things that aren’t exactly comfortable subjects. Naturally, there are the untimely deaths of his siblings – Kunhardt and Nevins deserve much respect for treating the shootings of Jack and Bobby with the propriety so many have chosen to discard – his son’s bout with bone cancer, a plane crash, the wreckage of which would lead one to surmise that the passengers hadn’t a chance of surviving, let alone walking again, a few tips of the bottle, a failed campaign for the Democratic nomination and…

O, that Chappaquiddick thing.

tedkennedychappaquiddickIt would be irresponsible of a filmmaker endeavoring to present a fitting biography of Senator Kennedy to omit the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. The word Chappaquiddick has taken on a sort of mystical quality among hard-core right-wingers in the United States, resulting in a call-and-response reaction for reactionaries. Ask your closest conservative acquaintance the first word that comes into his (or, who knows, her) head with the mention of Kennedy’s name. If Chappaquiddick doesn’t spring into the conversation in less time than Christopher Hitchens clutches a sherry glass, the subject’s bona fides should be in question. Teddy doesn’t linger on it, but chooses to proceed to the next set of difficulties. It isn’t a stretch to ruminate on whether Teddy Kennedy is the most fitting Job analogue our politics has available. If the film has missed a trial or a triumph, this reviewer can’t find it. There’s a moment in the film when Joan’s battle with alcohol comes up. The first thing that strikes the viewer is the seeming omission of Kennedy’s own legendary dipsomania. That nagging question is eventually addressed, as is virtually every twist and turn on Teddy’s road.

tedkennedy1980conventionIf there is a missing piece to lament, it is the brevity of clips from his 1980 Convention speech. Among his trials and triumphs, that speech is what cements his legacy. It rings as true today as it did in 1980, and the speech in its entirety is compulsory supplemental viewing.

Around this time, Kennedy was finding the dominant theme in his public policy career: health care. Like so much else involving him, the timing of this film falls right in the center of things shaping our future. At the moment, he seems poised for vindication on his battle of more than two decades. The victory will be worthy of Pyrrhus of Epirus, as the Obama Administration seems hell-bent on capitulating to the criminal syndicate that makes the American health care apparatus the Aunt Sally of the developed world. Teddy has taken on those recreants in the insurance industry. His fight has been noble if thwarted by his closest allies. Though the outcome is likely to be far from sufficient, Kennedy deserves great credit for working to keep this national shame in focus. It is quite imaginable that his crusade for adequate medical access among those who weren’t born into vast fortunes is the primary reason this woeful status quo is being challenged.

How Teddy, and his brothers and sisters, arrived at such a profound understanding of noblesse oblige must be credited to his parents. The Kennedys weren’t the first limousine liberals, but they’re easily the most ubiquitous. It is perplexing to conceive of how a person from his class could empathize so completely with the lower orders; however he does it, it is without question that he does. In the end, the story of Edward M. Kennedy is one of ordeals and outcomes. Long languishing in his brothers’ shadows, he is deserving of the hero’s treatment this film bestows upon him. Ask anyone from the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the anti-war movement, or any of a host of others that defined the Democratic Party before the Clinton Era. If the word hero doesn’t come up regarding Teddy Kennedy, it should. Given the torments he has endured in life, even the staunchest neocon blackshirt must agree that Kennedy meets every possible literary standard of heroism. Perfect? No. Neither was Hamlet or Henry or Huck. That Kennedy is imbued with an almost Falstaffian countenance must contribute to the universal respect he receives on the Hill.

Teddy: In His Own Words allows the story to unfold and return to his moving moment in Denver. As the end loops the beginning to some of the bounteous footage provided in the film, it is clear that there’d be no other way to finish. After a barrage of images and events, after delivery of far too many eulogies for one man to bear, after accusations and innuendo, Teddy always comes back around. Back to Cape Cod, to his skiff and his water dog, to the ethics and ideals of Joseph, Rose, Joe, Jack, Bobby and Kathleen. Back to the fight for those left behind. Always back to the fight, because, as Teddy illustrates in perfect detail, if you can’t bring yourself to call him a hero, he will gladly settle on fighter.


Teddy: In His Own Words

Produced by Peter Kunhardt & Sheila Nevins

Color and Black & White, 90 Minutes, 2009

Dragonfly on August 30th, 2009 at 6:27 am 

Where may I purchase this DVD??? It was a really good documentary.

marie bailey on August 30th, 2009 at 9:21 am 

Has this Teddy-In His Own Words made into a Viedo? I would love to get it for my Son. He has had a great admiration for the Kennedy Family, Especially John. My son was not even born then, but has picture of him surrounding his office at home. Would love to hear from someone. Thanks you so much

Elizabeth Bowe on January 11th, 2010 at 4:38 pm 

Is the Film `Teddy in his own Words` available in DVD! I have tried HBO and Amazon without success. Can you help me I am trying to get it for my sister in Ireland for her birthday in February.
Yours sincerly
Elizabeth Bowe

Margaret, Fiji on January 19th, 2010 at 2:34 pm 

I too would like a copy of the DVD. How can I buy it?

Holy Family Retreat Center Bookstore on September 5th, 2012 at 6:32 am 

i would like to purchase this dvd for my bookstore-how would I go about ordering it?

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