The uncertain legacy of Ted Kennedy

Susan Reisler

Teddy Kennedy’s death did not surprise me – we knew he would soon succumb to his merciless brain cancer. But what did surprise me – as a former Washington correspondent for the CBC and long time observer and reporter on American politics – is how my own life as a journalist, and the business of journalism was so embedded (I can use that word now) in the transition from one Kennedy to the next.

It was the violent death of President John Kennedy that drew many of us, still high school students, into the complex and sometimes incomprehensible world of American politics. By 1968, there was a generation of us working at our university student newspapers, preparing to become journalists, when Bobby Kennedy’s dream was ended by another assassin’s bullet.

These events contributed significantly to my embrace of journalism as not just a job but a way of life, a constant learning experience.

I was at the Democratic Convention in New York in 1980, sent from Toronto for CBC National Radio News, when Senator Teddy Kennedy conceded that he had run a failed campaign to steal the Democratic Presidential nomination away from the current President, Jimmy Carter. But Kennedy had the most amazing ability to turn defeat into victory. He did it in his speeches. The line still haunts me today: “For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

I will admit that I did not want the dream to die, and most of the reporters there at the time, also children of the Camelot era, did not want it to disappear either. Interestingly, I don’t remember ever discussing exactly what the dream was. Maybe it was just that there would always be a Kennedy in public life.

With Kennedy’s words still ringing in my ears, I landed my own dream job – Washington correspondent for CBC National Radio News. Hard to believe that back then I was the first woman foreign correspondent for the CBC English network. Ted Kennedy had shaken up the Democratic Party, but not for the better. Carter lost and a new era of Republican politics descended on the Capital. My first thought at the time was “I don’t know any Republicans.” Much time was spent building new relationships with the Reagan White House, State Department and Congress. Ted Kennedy was in the background and when he did make news it had more to do with his private life and indiscretions than his political achievements.

Looking back on the 80s, whether working as a correspondent based in Washington, or later, when I returned to Toronto and covered American politics for CBC Television’s The Journal, I realize we had significant access to people at the top. Not necessarily the President – although in those days you could try to shout a question and get an answer – but you could travel on the plane with the Secretary of State, attend briefings and be recognized. We were able to sit down with Oliver North, Arthur Schlesinger, Ross Perot, Casper Weinberger, Congressmen and women, and Senators.

Mark Starowicz, the executive producer and documentary visionary, pushed us to be ambitious when aiming for interviews; to get beyond the bishops and the pope to land God him/herself. Perhaps we were blessed, then, that there was less competition simply because there were fewer television programs: Nightline was the premiere current affairs show and CNN was just a newcomer, and the only major cable station.

Ted Kennedy had not been high on my list for profiles, but there was something about the Kennedy dream, “the hope lives on” guy that stuck with me. And so, when the story hit the news that Ted had been out drinking with his son and nephew in Florida and the nephew was charged with rape (later acquitted), I felt it was now or never in terms of having a chance to tell a small part of the Kennedy story. His Senate seat was up for renewal and this was the opportunity to do a profile.

It was really luck and persistence that helped us land the access and the interview in the spring of 1991. There were no votes for Kennedy in Canada. I am sure we pitched the fact that the CBC was watched by east coast Americans, PBS might run the documentary, we are Canadians, polite, discreet, and I probably said we would not spend our time asking about the Palm Beach scandal. Whatever it was, we were given a copy of his Boston area schedule and allowed to follow the Senator as he campaigned for a few days, getting snippets of interviews along the way. On one occasion we saw him driving to church with his son Patrick, and we decided not to follow.

I think it was the way we handled ourselves in Boston that allowed us to get the big prize – the interview with Kennedy in his office. What stands out for me now, reviewing the documentary, is how Ted Kennedy was not the greatest of interviews. He gave short answers without a lot of emotion. On the stage he was passionate, spellbinding. His speeches on the floor of the Senate, at the many political events he participated in, at Democratic Conventions, were unrivalled. But in his office, perhaps answering age old questions about why he stayed at it, he gave good answers but not always engaging ones. Only at the end, when I asked about what he wanted to be remembered for (pretty cheeky given that he was unlikely to lose his seat or quit), did he seem stuck for words. He appeared quite genuine when he said he had not thought about his legacy.

In our documentary, by a ‘foreign journalist’, we talked about the scandals with balance: one voice critical of Kennedy while another saying the scandals would not undermine his Senate work. We had the luxury of time to report the story. Looking at the documentary today, I realized it runs 21 minutes (today you are lucky to get six minutes on The National). I was shocked at how long we allowed the opening montage to run without any narration – about two minutes. The interview clips ran 30, 40, 50 seconds – long enough to let people really say something, get out their own thoughts, more completely than in today’s 3 second soundbites.

Some might ask today “why spend the money to send a Canadian crew to do a story that the Americans or British or some other network has already done?” My response is that we do see things differently. Our values while similar in many cases, are not identical. Our job as journalists covering stories outside Canada is to help our audiences better understand characters and events that are of importance to us. It is to help make sense of why a man as deeply flawed as Ted Kennedy would never lose his Senate seat nor even his influence in the Senate even if it was at times somewhat diminished.

It is much more difficult to tell these stories today – certainly we can’t get the same access. Friends tell me the ubiquitous cable talk shows have ‘bought’ up most of the guests. Canada is a much tougher sell, no matter how we make the pitch. It’s a pity, because if you can’t look your subject in the eye, it is hard to have a good measure of the person. I would never have known that in a one-on-one interview, Ted Kennedy does not soar. His speeches, on the other hand, were masterful.

Ted Kennedy died without seeing his most desired legislation realized, a health care bill. For me, the Kennedys represented hope, an ill-defined idea that things would get better for Americans, and Canadians as well, that we would be better, as citizens. Judging by the debate in the US around the health care legislation, the level of political discourse both in the United States and in Canada, hope seems in short supply. Barack Obama was supposed to represent hope, and certainly Kennedy believed that when he passed the torch so powerfully to Obama. But the President looked a little lonely and unsteady when he spoke about Kennedy after he died. He was elected on the promise of “yes we can” but can he do it in the absence of giants like Senator Edward Kennedy?

Susan Reisler was a journalist for almost 30 years, mostly with CBC Radio and Television. She joined Media Profile in 2000 and is currently a vice-president.