The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to the obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress.
“I wanted to be president. That was not in the cards. That was certainly not a pleasant experience.” As Edward Kennedy makes this bland observation, you’re looking at photos of his retreat from the podium at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. Convinced at the time that he was right to challenge Jimmy Carter for the presidency, Kennedy discovered that he did not have the necessary votes within the party. And so, he made his announcement while his supporters chanted his name and dabbed at their eyes.
According to Teddy: In His Own Words, the disappointment resulted from a vague confluence of forces, primarily a newspaper story that resurrected what Kennedy once called the tragedy of Chappaquiddick.” The article — the headline noted in close-up — offered no new information, no details concerning the long-rumored cover-up of Kennedy’s liability that night in July 1969, and no name-clearing either. But merely raising the specter was enough to dash the Massachusetts senator’s intraparty insurrection. And so, he endured yet another “unpleasant” turn of events.
He endured lots of these. The documentary makes this much clear, along with the senator’s dogged devotion to “public service,” even as his narration avoids digging too deeply into causes and effects. In this patent lack of questioning, the film might be said to take up an unusual structure: an assembly of stills and footage (some little seen, some all too familiar) is accompanied by Kennedy’s comments (some helpfully descriptive, some decidedly lackluster). This unusual structure makes the documentary a striking choice to initiate HBO’s Summer Documentary Series. The point here is not to revisit adversities like Chappaquiddick and his brothers’ assassinations or even to look very closely at his remarkable record in the Senate. The point is to let Teddy look back for 90 minutes, to say what he wants to say.
That’s not to suggest the documentary is Ted Kennedy’s own project. He insists he’s not interested in a “legacy” (that “I’ve always wanted to try and be a better person and always perceived my role as to try and get some things done”). But the film appears very interested in laying out a legacy — partly in the context of the Kennedy family and partly in a wider historical scope. To this end, it provides somewhat obscure footage and stills — Teddy flat on his back on following a 1964 plane crash, Teddy and Bobby joshing one another as they enter the Senate together for the first time, as Teddy notes he was the senior senator (this is slightly later in 1964, when they were slender and boyish and preternaturally attractive). It also serves up well-known imagery, such as Teddy’s moving eulogy for Bobby in 1968 or his endorsement of Obama in 2008.
The film suggests that Teddy played a crucial role in Watergate — in the sense that the administration was specifically looking for information on Kennedy or “one of theirs.” The movie cuts from stark-seeming photos of Nixon and Haldeman in the Oval Office, under odious audiotapes, to Kennedy’s description in hindsight: “It was clear that this was an atmosphere and a climate where the White House was taking no prisoners and they were infiltrating the movement.” The “movement” was essentially anti-war, perceived by the Nixon crew as anti-Nixon, and included Ted Kennedy, whom John Dean describes during the senate hearings as subjected to “the greatest amount of surveillance.”
For all of this momentous sweep, the film never loses sight of the connections between Kennedy’s personal experience and his professional dedications. He took up Bobby’s campaign for the Democratic nomination with a particular focus on the war and civil rights, and made the case early and often for universal health care, citing his own family’s many encounters with illness and their position at “the tip the iceberg” (that is, being able to pay for the best possible care) as a point of departure. “As long as I’m a voice in the United States Senate,” he says in circa-1970s footage, “It’s going to be for the Democratic plank for health care.” As everyone knows, the cacophony of health care problems has only grown exponentially over the past three decades.
Even if this matter remains unresolved, In His Own Words repeatedly notes Kennedy’s dedication to “public service.” His decision to run again and again for the Senate (nine times) stands as proof of his declaration that, after his withdrawal from the 1980 campaign, “I’m going to be active in terms of party affairs. By disposition, nature, and desire, I’m an activist.”
In the intervening years, Kennedy has continued to suffer “unpleasant” incidents (including, most infamously, the rape charges brought against his nephew William Smith, after Teddy took him and a cousin out drinking) and, of course, his current struggle with brain cancer. This last is prominent in the film, which begins and ends with his appearance at the 2008 DNC. “The work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on,” he says, as cheering conventioneers wave blue placards bearing name and the camera cuts to close-ups of tearful Maria Shriver and Caroline Kennedy. As he steps away from the podium this time, his wave appears in slow motion and the film offers a montage of images it’s already shown you — little Teddy looking up at his father Joe, teenaged Ted playing football with his brothers, and the senator sailing on Cape Cod. Yes, he’s had an incredible life, a mishmash of crisis and uplift. And he’s still working on it.