DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Our guest today Neal Gabler is known, among other things, as a film critic and a historian of the entertainment world. But his new book is about politics and the course of American liberalism over the past 50 years. He's written the first volume of a two-part biography of the late Senator Edward Kennedy. Kennedy was the youngest of three charismatic brothers who ran for president in the 20th century. His life was marked by notable political achievements but also by tragedy and scandal. And while he never secured the Democratic nomination for president, he became a force in the Senate where he served for nearly 47 years, a proponent of liberal ideas until his death in 2009.
Neal Gabler is the author of five previous books, including biographies of Walter Winchell, Walt Disney and Barbra Streisand. He joins us from his home in Amagansett in Long Island to talk about his new book, "Catching The Wind: Edward Kennedy And The Liberal Hour, 1932-1975."
Well, Neal Gabler, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
NEAL GABLER: Thank you very much.
DAVIES: Why did Kennedy matter this much to you? I mean, it's not a life unexamined. Why did we need a new look at his achievements in life?
GABLER: Well, Dave, I begin books not with a subject but with a question. So when I set out to write this book, it wasn't as if I was saying, I have to write an Edward Kennedy biography. It was that I was fixated on the issue of what happened to American liberalism, which I regard as the largest political question of the last 60 years, the one that changed the tectonic plates of American politics.
The way to go about answering that question was by looking at the preeminent liberal of the last 60 years. It was Senator Edward Kennedy. And I always look at these lives as metaphorical. And so I thought by examining this life, by telling this story, I would be telling another story as well, which is the story of what happened to liberalism. So that's how I got to Edward Kennedy. Of course, the life provides the narrative engine for the book, and liberalism provides the thematic text for the book.
DAVIES: And what an eventful life. You know, Kennedy came on the scene in the early '60s, when liberalism was about to have its great moment. I mean, we - you know, we had the Voting Rights Act and Social - and, you know, Medicare, and the Civil Rights Act and Great Society legislation. And he was there at the beginning. That's why the book is called "Catching The Wind." And it sort of seems the perfect metaphor for him coming in at that moment. Before we talk about his life, I'm interested in your thoughts on the state of liberalism today. You know, looking at the election that we just experienced - you know, the repudiation of Donald Trump and yet him getting more votes than he did four years ago, the state of the Congress, the Supreme Court, state legislatures and the Democratic Party - where is liberalism now?
GABLER: Well, liberalism years ago became really a kind of profanity. I mean, people talk about the L word. And I'm not sure that that has changed entirely in this current environment. Liberalism, at the time I write about at the beginning of Ted Kennedy's career, was the prevailing ideology in America. The book is subtitled "Edward Kennedy And The Liberal Hour" because historians have called that period in the 1960s the liberal hour, when liberalism was at its ascendancy.
But over the 60 years, you know, since, you know, liberalism has declined mightily, and it certainly doesn't have the potency now that it had then. And I think liberals have to fight to get their ideas into the political marketplace. So liberalism is still under siege. It's been a long, long siege. It's been a siege that probably begins in the late 1960s, and it's continued almost unabated until today.
DAVIES: Right. And you say there are many causes for this, but part of the story is losing its moral authority.
GABLER: As I examined all of the various aspects of liberalism, my conclusion was that what liberalism had that conservatism, at that time, did not have was moral authority and that liberalism sustained itself not on the basis that it was providing all sorts of economic benefits for Americans - particularly white Americans - but that it had this sense of moral authority to which many Americans subscribed. In a sense, though this may be overstating things, it was the right thing to do. Liberalism promoted the right causes. Liberalism created community. Liberalism worked for the voiceless and the powerless and the disenfranchised and the marginalized.
And what really contributed to the decline of liberalism, in my estimation, was not, as many historians say, death by a thousand cuts so that it essentially bled to death. But it was a larger thing that subsumed all of these others, a kind of samurai sword cut. And that was that liberalism was stripped of its moral authority. That's a very complicated process. It's the process I discuss in this book. And Ted Kennedy contributed to that loss of moral authority through his own behavior. But liberalism had moral authority. It sustained it. And liberalism lost more authority, and that is how I think it lost a lot of the power that it had in this society.
DAVIES: In 1962, Ted Kennedy comes to the Senate, just 30 years old. His brother is president, having won the election in 1960. What was his reputation in Washington, then, to the extent that he had one?
GABLER: His reputation in Washington was that he had gotten to the Senate - and this is not an entirely wrong characterization - because he was a Kennedy and because his brother was president of the United States and his father was one of the wealthiest men in America. And at 30 years of age, that's how he got into the Senate running a race against the nephew of the Senate of the - excuse me - of the House majority leader, John McCormack. So it was a kind of battle of Massachusetts family dynasties.
And Ted was completely ill-equipped by experience to be a senator. Not only was he only 30 years old, but he had had no experience in elective office. He was an assistant D.A. in Suffolk County. So he comes to the Senate with the idea that, you know, he's kind of - the Kennedy family has bought his way into the Senate and he's going to be a show horse. He's going to be a guy who really isn't there to work very hard but to luxuriate in the idea of being a senator rather than working at being a senator.
And I have a chapter in the book that I call The Least because the expectations of Ted Kennedy were always the least. He was the least of the Kennedys, and he regarded himself that way. So this wasn't only an external judgment. It was his own internal judgment that his brothers were always much greater than he. He was the least.
DAVIES: Right. And the Senate that he went into was a different kind of body then. I mean, you know, seniority ruled. A lot of the committee chairs were these Southern Democrats that had been there for decades, and they, you know, ruled with an iron fists. Your legislation didn't get anywhere unless they said so. He set about learning this. Tell us what his approach was.
GABLER: Ted Kennedy had what his mother called a ninth child's talent. And what Rose Kennedy meant by that was, you know, he was - he knew how to ingratiate himself. He understood deference. In the Kennedy family, he was the kind of jester. He was a pet. He was actually literally an afterthought. The Kennedy family had named their yacht The 10 of Us, never expecting that there would be an 11th of them. But lo and behold, Ted Kennedy arrives, and he arrives as an afterthought. And he arrives as, you know, someone who is, you know, again, the least in the family as he was the least almost everywhere else.
But that ninth child's talent became a very valuable tool in the institution of the Senate, which Ted Kennedy treated very much as he treated his own family. He was extremely deferential. He was a kind of jester in the Senate not just in the sense that he was a joke but in the sense that he knew how to jolly up the other senators. He was - he ingratiated himself in the Senate.
And so when he came there, the other senators realized something that they had no expectation of realizing, which was that they liked Ted Kennedy. He was likable. And he understood his role in the Senate. But there was something else as well, and that is Ted Kennedy worked very, very hard. And that was also something that was not expected by the Senate bulls and the other leaders of the Senate. But Ted Kennedy wanted to establish himself as someone who could gain the respect of his Senate elders by showing how hard he would work, and he did.
DAVIES: Maybe you could give us an example of Ted Kennedy using his mastery of relationships and knowledge of the Senate to make incremental gains and advance a progressive agenda later on, when, you know, Republicans ruled the Senate.
GABLER: Well, let me give you an example of the - one of the most important pieces of legislation that Ted Kennedy passed, which was the Children's Health Insurance Program. One of the things that Ted Kennedy always did when he introduced a piece of legislation is he said to his staff, find me a Republican, meaning a Republican who would co-sponsor the bill. He wasn't just there to introduce a bill. He was there to get a bill passed. And he understood, particularly when the Republicans ruled the Senate, that he needed a Republican co-sponsor. In the case of CHIP, Children's Health Insurance, he decided that he would recruit Orrin Hatch - or to see if he could recruit Orrin Hatch - to co-sponsor the program.
And he did a couple of things that were very interesting. One, there was a member of Ted Kennedy's staff by the name of Nick Littlefield who had, in a previous life, been a Broadway singer. And Orrin Hatch was a composer. So he would bring Littlefield to Hatch's office and have Littlefield sing Orrin Hatch compositions, which very much ingratiated him (laughter) to Orrin Hatch. But the other thing he did was that he knew that Orrin Hatch would probably have no particular interest in passing another piece of government legislation, even one that would help children. And the whole idea of CHIP was to assist children whose parents made too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough money to provide health insurance.
So what he did is he asked Hatch, a conservative Republican from Utah and a Mormon, if he would join his cause. And the way he brought Hatch into it was to say that Hatch, who was very much - as a Mormon, very much against smoking, that the - that CHIP would be financed by a steep tax on tobacco. This gave Hatch a reason to join Ted's cause. It would discourage tobacco smoking. And Ted got a co-sponsor for his bill.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Neal Gabler. His new book is the first volume of a two-part biography. It's titled "Catching The Wind: Edward Kennedy And The Liberal Hour, 1932-1975." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with journalist and historian Neal Gabler about his new book, the first of a two-volume biography of the late Senator Edward Kennedy and the course of liberalism in American politics. It's titled "Catching The Wind."
So when Ted Kennedy first gets into the Senate - I mean, he's 30 years old when he begins, and he's not there two years before tragedy strikes his life. Tell us where he was when his brother Jack, the president, was assassinated in Dallas.
GABLER: Ted Kennedy was presiding over the Senate. Now, to understand how this works - in the Senate, freshman Senate are usually put in the role of presiding over the Senate. It's a thankless task. But when the news came into the Senate, Ted Kennedy was on the dais, presiding over a debate. And he was approached, told that something had happened.
There are various versions of this story. He was led down from the dais out into the lobby. And depending on which story you believe, he either read the account of his brother being shot on an AP wire service or he was told by one of the Senate officers about - that, obviously, triggered a whole mayhem as he then raced around the city trying to get a phone so that he could access his brother Robert to find out what had happened.
But the phones were all dead in Washington because after the news of the shooting - at that point, they didn't know whether he'd been assassinated or not - that news spread throughout and clogged up all the phone lines. So Ted spent the next few hours racing around Washington, seeing if he could find active phone lines to contact Bobby to find out what had happened.
DAVIES: He eventually finds Bobby. Bobby, of course, was deeply devoted to his brother Jack. He served as his attorney general. How was Ted Kennedy's reaction to this tragedy different from Bobby Kennedy?
GABLER: Bobby Kennedy was not only devoted to Jack Kennedy, but in some ways, he lived vicariously through his brother. He was an adjunct to his brother. He served his brother in every possible way. And when John Kennedy died, it was not as if a piece of him had died, but as if, you know, he himself had died. And he was immobilized by grief. There was no question that Bobby Kennedy absolutely ceased to function. He ceased to function. And that put on Ted, the youngest of the brothers, the burden of trying to carry the family forward. So Ted didn't have, if one wants to call it the luxury of tragedy, of luxuriating in his own tragedy, Ted had to move forward, and he did. And he did.
But it - this was - one of the things that I think one has to understand about the Kennedy family, and I don't think that it's been discussed enough, but it's something that Patrick Kennedy, Ted's son, said to me. And he said, you know, of all the tragedies, you know, we see this kind of stoicism that - to which the Kennedys react to tragedy. And we all sit there in a certain amount of admiration that they persevere. They keep going. But he said, in some ways, that's misleading because the Kennedy family all suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. And though Ted persevered, he definitely suffered from this post-traumatic stress disorder, which became a kind of Kennedy - endemic to the Kennedy family.
DAVIES: So after Jack dies, Lyndon Johnson becomes the president - no friend of the Kennedy family, really, particularly had a hostile relationship with Bobby Kennedy. And now Ted is in the Senate, and Lyndon Johnson surprises a lot of the Kennedys by, you know, aggressively taking up the civil rights legislation that Jack Kennedy had endorsed but had never gotten very far with and proceeded on that. There was a Civil Rights Act. There was a Voting Rights Act. There was Medicare - a whole series of, you know, what came to be known as Great Society legislation. What was Ted Kennedy's role in any of this?
GABLER: Well, as you pointed out, Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy were absolutely at loggerheads, in large part because Bobby felt that Johnson was really insincere when it came to liberalism and that he would not carry forth John Kennedy's agenda. Turned out, of course, he was wrong, but that didn't dissuade Bobby Kennedy from disliking Lyndon Johnson. And Lyndon Johnson disliked the Kennedys because he felt that they were condescending to him and that they didn't respect him.
But Ted Kennedy was different because Ted Kennedy was not a hater. Ted Kennedy was an ingratiator, as I'd said earlier. So Lyndon Johnson and Ted Kennedy had a different kind of relationship. Lyndon Johnson tried to work Ted Kennedy. And, in fact, as Ted was the first to admit, he tried to separate the brothers, thinking that he might be able to get Ted to form some sort of alliance with him against Bobby. But Ted also said that that was an impossibility. No one could ever divide the Kennedys.
Nevertheless, Ted, unlike Bobby, was willing to work with Johnson and did work with Johnson. He did not have that antipathy toward Johnson that Bobby had. And so he worked on the Civil Rights Act of '64, and he worked on the Voting Rights Act of '65. And he worked with Johnson even on the war in Vietnam. Bobby broke with Johnson relatively early, but Ted did not. Ted continued, almost unconscionably, to support Johnson's prosecution of the war in Vietnam for a fairly long time, again, even as Bobby had turned against Johnson.
DAVIES: Neal Gabler's book is the first volume of a two-part biography. It's titled "Catching The Wind: Edward Kennedy And The Liberal Hour, 1932-1975." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with journalist and historian Neal Gabler about his new book. It's the first of a two-volume biography of the late Senator Edward Kennedy and the course of liberalism in American politics. It's titled "Catching The Wind: Edward Kennedy And The Liberal Hour, 1932-1975."
Ted Kennedy lost another brother. Robert Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary in 1968 as part of his presidential campaign. So that was another deep tragedy for the Kennedy family. But the following year in 1969 was an incident which would probably do more to undercut Ted Kennedy's moral authority and reputation than anything else in his life. This was the Chappaquiddick incident. I mean, you know, a lot of people remember this but may not remember the details. Some younger listeners may not recall it, know of it at all. Do you want to just give us the bare outlines? What happened in this episode?
GABLER: Well, this was the summer after Bobby Kennedy's assassination. And Ted was in a dire state. I described the state that Bobby Kennedy was in after John Kennedy's assassination. At this point, Ted Kennedy was in a similar state. He was asked to come to Chappaquiddick off of Martha's Vineyard to participate in a meeting of Bobby Kennedy's - a group of Bobby Kennedy's former staffers. They were known as the Boiler Room Girls because they managed the room in which state delegations were monitored.
He went there for a kind of wake for Bobby. He also went there to participate in a regatta, in a race. He was a great sailor. And what happened that evening, the evening of the party on Chappaquiddick Island is one of the Boiler Room Girls named Mary Jo Kopechne and Ted Kennedy went off in a car. Ted had said that they were going to go back to the mainland, back to Martha's Vineyard, to Edgartown.
But on the way back, Ted took a wrong turn, went off a very narrow bridge over a pond called Poucha Pond, and the car sailed off the bridge, overturned into the water. It was about seven feet of water. Ted managed to free himself from the car through a window, then said that he dove back toward the car to try and remove Mary Jo Kopechne. But he tried repeatedly, and the current was very, very strong, and he could not pull her out of the car. Eventually, Mary Jo Kopechne died. She drowned in the car.
As a womanizer and even as a drinker - so there were those elements. Was he drunk? Were he and Mary Jo Kopechne going off to have some sort of tryst? Which seems highly unlikely, what everyone thinks of Ted Kennedy - highly unlikely that Mary Jo Kopechne would have done that. She was a strict Catholic, and it impugns her reputation. But also, to be fair to Ted Kennedy in this instance, it would be very unlikely that Ted Kennedy would have gone off with one of Bobby's Boiler Room Girls. It's just not something he would have done.
Now, Ted did not report the accident for another 10 hours. There were reasons that he gave for that, but he himself said that none of them were exculpable, that he couldn't exculpate himself from this. And that really was the incident of Chappaquiddick that had all sorts of ramifications politically, for him personally and for the political cultural generally.
DAVIES: Right. Right. I mean, after the accident - it was the middle of the night, and he actually plunged into the water and swam across this little area to the - Edgartown, went to his hotel, rather than reporting it, went to sleep, got up in the morning and spent a couple of hours. And by the time he reported the accident, you know, the car had already been spotted, and I believe they had already identified it as his and rescue had retrieved Mary Jo Kopechne's body.
He would eventually plead guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and get a suspended sentence. And, you know, it left the feeling that, you know, he got a treatment that no one else would have in that circumstance. What was the impact on him, his image, his career?
GABLER: The impact was that, given Ted Kennedy's reputation - he had a reputation to his brother. But, you know, Ted's reputation was certainly impugned and didn't need much more impugning. And it was almost certainly the death of any chance that Edward Kennedy would have of being president of the United States. Prior to that accident, it was assumed that Ted Kennedy would be running against Richard Nixon in 1972 if he chose to run and that he would have a very good chance of being elected president. And if not then, then in 1976. But that doomed his chances.
It also did something else. There's a line that Walter Mondale - who's then-senator from Minnesota - said and I think it's absolutely true. He said, when Ted went over that bridge, he took liberalism with him, because if we talk about, again, the relationship between liberalism and moral authority and if we look at Ted Kennedy as being the primary proponent of liberalism, then when Ted Kennedy went over that bridge, he took liberalism with him because he took the moral authority over that bridge with him.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with Neal Gabler. His new book is the first volume of a two-part biography titled "Catching The Wind: Edward Kennedy And The Liberal Hour, 1932-1975." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Neal Gabler, a historian and journalist, about his new book, the first of a two-volume biography of the late Senator Edward Kennedy. It's called "Catching The Wind."
There's so much in here about Kennedy's legislative efforts and accomplishments, him being involved in campaign finance reform and in the - you know, kind of in the background of the Watergate investigation. One thing that was new to me - I mean, I knew that health care was a passion of his for decades. I didn't know that Congress took a serious run at health care reform in the second Nixon term - President Nixon. Just briefly, what happened? How close did we come to getting a real health care bill then?
GABLER: We came very close. And the reason was that Richard Nixon needed one. He was reeling from the Watergate investigation. Ted Kennedy, from 1969, had been angling to get a national health insurance bill. And here you have these two giant adversaries. Now, Kennedy, because of Chappaquiddick and because of his own interest in passing some health care bill and Nixon because - largely because of Watergate, seeing if they could join forces to find some kind of modus vivendi to pass a national health insurance bill. And Kennedy also had recruited Wilbur Mills, who was the head of the House Ways and Means Committee, to see if we could get Mills to also assist with advancing a national health care bill in the House.
So we were bringing all of these components together. That is, Kennedy was bringing Nixon and Wilbur Mills, and of course he had himself and all the liberals on one side, and they were all meeting. And it's a very complicated story of how many parts there were in this. But because of Watergate, the labor leaders and other liberal leaders felt, you know, Nixon needs this desperately. But Watergate is also going to tumble Nixon and throw him out of office, and we will have a greater opportunity to pass a national health care bill when we get a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president.
And so Kennedy tried to argue with them. Kennedy tried to tell them that it wasn't going to change in the way they thought it was going to change. And he took out the congressional director. And he went down every member of the Senate Finance Committee and convinced them - tried to convince them, not successfully, that all of these guys were going to be there. These guys were going to win their reelections, that the committee wasn't going to be any different. If they thought they were going to have some better chance of passing this, they were wrong. And they considered Kennedy - and they called him this - they said, you're a traitor. You're a traitor to the cause.
But eventually, it just blew up. But they came within an eyelash. And Kennedy always said that the greatest regret of his career was not sitting down with Nixon and getting a national health care bill through the Congress because with Nixon and Kennedy working together and also with the assistance of Wilbur Mills, he thought it was a doable thing. But in the end, it wasn't doable.
DAVIES: Would this have been a single-payer national health system?
GABLER: It would have been a system - no, it would not have been single-payer. It actually would have been a national health care system that would not be that dissimilar from Obamacare. It had employer mandates. That was what Nixon was proposing. Kennedy always understood. You know, we always think of Kennedy as being this hard, liberal ideologue. But Kennedy was a pragmatist, always a pragmatist. The health care bill that he proposed year after year after year after year, the Health Security Act, was a single-payer system. But Kennedy also understood that you put that on the table and then you have to retreat from that to get a bill that will actually pass. That's how Kennedy legislated.
And - so, no, it wasn't a single-payer bill that would finally have emerged from this compromise, but it would have been a bill that Kennedy could then build on, which is what he always sought to do. You know, let's get what we can get - let's get the half a loaf, and then I'm going to bake the full loaf. But they couldn't get the half a loaf.
DAVIES: You know, after the Chappaquiddick scandal in 1969, the next presidential election was 1972. And it wasn't out of the question that he would run and certainly not out of question four years later in the 1976 election. In the end, he didn't in either case. But he did go around the country giving speeches and, you know, raising people's hopes. And what's interesting is that he was still beloved by so many people. Right? I mean, he got amazing receptions.
GABLER: The Kennedy brand is a strong brand. And Ted, you know, used that brand. You know, here is a thing, also, about Ted that I think is interesting. We tend to read John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy forward into Ted Kennedy, and the Ted Kennedy becomes a sort of liberal icon because he bears that legacy from John and Robert.
But I think there's another process at work here. We read Ted back into Robert and John. John was nowhere near as liberal as Ted Kennedy. And I think one could make the argument - and I would make it - that even Robert Kennedy, who was much more liberal than John and, in fact, used John's death to advance a much more liberal agenda, is also a beneficiary of Ted's liberalism.
You know, Ted became the icon of the powerless. He enjoyed that role. And it became a more important role as Republicans took over the Congress and as Ronald Reagan became president in 1980 and then, you know, George Bush - George H.W. Bush and later George W. Bush, Ted was that flickering flame that kept liberalism alive. And for those who believed in the things in which Ted Kennedy believed, which was an activist government that would help those who needed help, you know, he remained. He remained the outstanding figure of the left.
DAVIES: You know, the last story that you tell in the book is one in which an element of the old New Deal coalition, the progressive coalition, which was, you know, white, ethnic, working-class voters who had supported, you know, the New Deal and supported John Kennedy - that Ted Kennedy lost them really over the issue of integrating schools in Boston, which, according to court orders at the time, included busing of students - both Black students and white students - into different neighborhoods. And it was, you know, passionately opposed by a lot of Irish - in a lot of Irish American communities.
Ted Kennedy didn't exactly endorse this, but he believed in upholding the law and embracing the principle of integration. What kind of encounters did he have with these constituents who were so furious at him?
GABLER: Well, Dave, you're exactly right. I mean, Ted Kennedy is caught between a rock and a hard place. Ted Kennedy is advocating for integration because African Americans, he felt, deserved it. But on the other hand, those very supporters of his - the ethnic Irish and Italians of Boston are feeling that this is a zero-sum game and they're losing it, that integration comes at their expense. And though Ted's endorsement was somewhat lukewarm, he couldn't turn his back on African Americans. And he - in 1974, when the integration plan, a court-ordered integration plan, was going forward, Ted appeared at an antibusing rally. He was not invited; he just appeared, hoping that he might restore peace between the sides, hoping that he might use the Kennedy magic. But the Kennedy magic had vanished at this point. And what happens then and in a subsequent appearance that he makes, where a group of white Bostonians gathers outside, is that Ted Kennedy is assaulted.
And in the second instance, which happened outside in Quincy, Mass. - the first was a rally in Boston on the civic plaza there; the second was in Quincy - he has to run for his life. So he is being chased. He is being pelted. He is being kicked. He is being, you know, hit. He is being chased down into the Boston subway and has to jump onto a train while his aides bar the gates because these people are going to go after him and try and physically destroy him.
DAVIES: And these were people who had been ardent supporters of his for decades.
GABLER: These are ardent Kennedy supporters. These are people who love the Kennedys. But in a way, this is a harbinger of the kind of thing that we're seeing in America in present-day America. This was the core of the New Deal coalition. But when the Kennedys began working, when Ted Kennedy began working for integration, they couldn't countenance that. They turned on him. They felt that he had been a traitor to their cause and that he had taken the side of African Americans against them.
It was, again, a harbinger of what was to happen in America, generally, which is why I end volume one with that story - because the notion of the rise of conservatism and the end of liberalism is somehow typified by that incident or those two incidents - the one in Boston, the one in Quincy - in which Ted Kennedy, the liberal icon, is chased by the very people who had always supported him and his brothers.
DAVIES: You know, Ted being the affable guy, the guy who always felt comfortable in a working-class bar, how did he react to this?
GABLER: He was shaken. He was shaken because he understood. He understood their grievance. It wasn't as if Ted Kennedy was some sort of ivory-tower liberal who didn't get it. He got it. It just felt - he just felt that, you know, it was something he couldn't embrace. He couldn't embrace letting the schools remain segregated. But he was so shaken. After that rally on the plaza in Boston, you know, he was holding a cup of water and his hand was just palsied. His face was flush.
He knew what had happened. He knew - he understood the forces that were being summoned against him. He understood all of that. But he was powerless to deal with it because there was no easy way out, as there was no easy way out now. That is - you know, these are the forces of contention. Either you embrace, you know, the forces of progressivism and integration and multiculturalism and whatever one wants to call it, or you don't, or you feel that there's a backlash against it. And Ted Kennedy was in the middle of that battle and suffered greatly for it, both personally and politically.
DAVIES: Well, Neal Gabler, thank you so much for speaking with us.
GABLER: Thank you so very much, Dave. I enjoyed it.
DAVIES: Neal Gabler's new book is the first volume of a two-part biography. It's titled "Catching The Wind: Edward Kennedy And The Liberal Hour, 1932-1975." The second volume called "Against The Wind: Edward Kennedy And The Rise Of Conservatism" will appear in October of 2021.
Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "Happiest Season," a new romantic comedy starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as a lesbian couple keeping their relationship a secret at a family Christmas gathering. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. For so many reasons, Christmas celebrations will be a lot different this year, and some traditional Christmas movies made before the pandemic will feature something new - more gay characters and romances at the center of the story. One such holiday release is "Happiest Season," a romantic comedy starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis. They play a lesbian couple trying to keep their relationship a secret during a family Christmas gathering. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: There's lots of reasons to like the holiday-themed romantic comedy "Happiest Season," my favorite being Kristen Stewart's wonderfully down-to-earth lead performance. It's great to see Stewart show off her deadpan comic chops while still retaining her gift for low-key believability. She gives this busy, endearing, not-always-subtle farce a quiet emotional core. Stewart plays Abby, a grad student who's in a deeply committed relationship with Harper, a journalist played by Mackenzie Davis.
Abby is planning to go home with Harper for the holidays and meet her family for the first time, figuring it'll be the perfect opportunity to propose marriage. In this early scene, Abby discusses her plans with her buddy John, played by the irrepressible Dan Levy, a recent Emmy winner for "Schitt's Creek." He's the gay protagonist's gay best friend, one of many rom-com conventions that "Happiest Season" cleverly recycles.
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DAN LEVY: (As John) Abby, you and Harper have a perfect relationship. Why do you want to ruin that by engaging in one of the most archaic institutions in the history of the human race?
KRISTEN STEWART: (As Abby) Because I want to marry her.
LEVY: (As John) OK. You say that, but what you're actually doing is tricking the woman you claim to love by trapping her in a box of heteronormativity and trying to make her your property. She is not a rice cooker or a cake plate. She's a human being.
STEWART: (As Abby) All right, it's not about owning her. It's about building a life with her. She is my person, and I really want everyone to know that.
LEVY: (As John) I suppose that's one way of looking at it.
CHANG: It's not until the couple are driving out to the suburbs that Harper drops a bombshell - she's never actually come out to her folks, and she begs Abby to pretend to be her roommate, at least through the holidays. Complicating matters is the fact that Harper's father, played by Victor Garber, is running for mayor of their hometown, and she can't do anything that would jeopardize his appeal to the family-values crowd.
Although "Happiest Season" never spells out anyone's political affiliation, the conservatism of Harper's wealthy family is pretty obvious. At one point, her mother, played by a breezily caustic Mary Steenburgen, makes a snide remark about gay people and their lifestyle choice.
Harper's parents are loving, but incredibly demanding, which seems to have negatively impacted all their children to some degree. That's why Harper's oldest sister Sloane, played by Alison Brie, is so ruthlessly competitive, flaunting her successful business and two young kids. By contrast, the lovably goofy middle child Jane is an aspiring fantasy novelist who's made peace with being her parents' least favorite. She's played by the comedian Mary Holland, who wrote the script with the director, Clea Duvall.
Duvall made her feature filmmaking debut a few years ago with an ensemble piece called "The Intervention." Audiences may also remember her breakthrough role in the 1999 gay conversion therapy satire "But I'm A Cheerleader." Twenty-one years after that indie favorite, some might find "Happiest Season" a little regressive on focusing on a smart, liberal-minded woman who feels the need to hide her sexuality. But the movie knows that coming out is something intensely personal, never more so than with family.
There's also the unfortunate fact that crowd-pleasers have always been slow to reflect social progress. A movie targeting the widest possible audience is, by definition, a little behind the curve. "Happiest Season" is being billed as the first studio-produced holiday rom-com centered on LGBT characters, a milestone that feels as though it should have been passed long ago.
The irony of this movie and others, like the 2018 gay teen comedy "Love, Simon," is that they break new ground by offering up cozy, comfortingly familiar pleasures. "Happiest Season" is chock full of traditional Christmas set pieces, from an ice-skating outing to a white elephant gift party, both of which go horribly wrong. The movie has a snappy one-liners, a few shticky running gags and throw pillow-heavy production design. Harper's family home is one of the more covetable pieces of cinematic real estate I've seen in a while.
It's all completely conventional, right down to that lump you may feel in your throat at the big emotional climax. But that conventionality, when seen from an underrepresented perspective, can suddenly look quietly radical. For all the broad comic shenanigans, the movie has two lead performances that are emotionally complex and consistent from moment to moment. Mackenzie Davis, who showed chameleonlike range in movies like "Tully" and the TV show "Halt And Catch Fire," is entirely believable as the intense, not-always-sympathetic Harper. By contrast, Abby's mellow go-with-the-flow vibe nicely modulates all the chaos swirling around her.
As always, you never catch Kristen Stewart acting, and you never tire of her company. It's not surprising when Abby, feeling neglected by Harper, forges a connection with Riley, who turns out to have been Harper's first girlfriend. Riley is played by the whip-smart Aubrey Plaza. And I have to admit that part of me wouldn't have minded seeing Abby and Riley get together and take off. A different movie might have gone that edgier route, rather than the sweet cinematic comfort food that "Happiest Season" turns out to be.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Happiest Season," now streaming on Hulu.
On tomorrow's show, Terry talks with actor Hugh Grant, known for his roles in films such as "Four Weddings And A Funeral," "Bridget Jones's Diary," "About A Boy" and "Music And Lyrics." He's currently starring with Nicole Kidman in the HBO limited series "The Undoing." I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering help today from Diana Martinez. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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