Most people have to fight a whole Civil War before getting a Ken Burns documentary. Not Teddy Kennedy, who staged a triumphant appearance before the Democratic National Convention last night complete with a Burns-crafted tribute casting him as the modern Ulysses bringing his party home to port.
Weakened by cancer, the Massachusetts senator first let the pictures do his talking but then rocked the Denver hall with an appeal for healthcare reform and party unity that brought him full circle from his famous “the dream shall never die” speech in New York 28 years ago.
“There is a new wave of change all around us and if we set our compass true, we will reach our destination, not merely victory for our party but renewal for our nation,” Kennedy said. “This November the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans . . . With Barack Obama, and for you and for me, the country will be committed to his cause.”
“The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”
Time and again, the video and Kennedy speech hammered home the theme of healthcare reform as a central tenet of the Obama campaign —much as it was for the defeated Hillary Clinton.
“For me this is a season of hope — new hope for a justice and fair prosperity for the many, and not just for the few — new hope. And this is the cause of my life — new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American — north, south, east, west, young, old — will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.’’
Kennedy’s words echoed his 1980 speech in New York, when he had lost the nomination to Jimmy Carter but still brought the delegates to their feet when he invoked the memories of his slain brothers and Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”
Monday night in Denver, it was Burns’ turn to set the stage, and with pictures of Kennedy aboard his sailboat Maya, the video cast the senator as a modern mariner, relishing the sea and implicitly passing the helm to Obama who appeared himself in the final footage.
Kennedy flew to Denver Sunday night with a prepared speech in hand. But it wasn’t until the lights went back on after the film, that the delegates saw the senator himself.
“Nothing, nothing is going to keep me away from this special gathering,” Kennedy laughed, his voice firm but face still puffy from treatments for brain cancer. Defying past predictions, he promised “I will be there next January on the floor of the United Senate” when he hopes to welcome a new President Obama.
Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the senator’s niece and the daughter of the late president, introduced the eight-minute documentary, which Burns directed with fellow filmmaker Mark Herzog. Included were interviews with Massachusetts constituents as well as the senator’s wife, Vicki, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement central to the Kennedy legacy.
Most moving perhaps was the interview with Brian Hart, a Massachusetts father who lost his son in Iraq and later joined with Kennedy to try to improve the availability of body armor for troops in the war.
Hart spoke of the Kennedy’s family’s own loss when the senator’s eldest brother Joseph was killed in World War II. “Senator Kennedy was a living Gold Star family before I was born,” Hart recalled. “He remembers where his mother was, where his father was when they came to tell them that Joseph was killed. We share a wound that doesn’t heal . . . Sen. Kennedy taught me that government can function for the common man.”
But the central image sprang from Ulysses, and like Homer’s Greek hero, Kennedy seems to grow stronger with age.
“There is an extraordinary feeling of good will toward Ted Kennedy,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and long-time observer of Congress. “It is just astounding to me to see this build and build over time and the fact that someone can be both the liberal icon and the greatest legislator the party has produced in all of our lifetime.”
“It is just extraordinary. And his embrace of Obama, even though it didn’t immediate affect the course of the campaign, is a way of saying he’s one of us and we’re together.”
Amid the poetry, Monday night’s political stagecraft also showed another side of Kennedy — less Tennyson and more the showman tub-thumper.
This is the same man who led the “Where was George?” chant in the 1988 convention in Atlanta or in 2000 in Los Angeles: “That’s called progress -- not partisanship -- and that is Al Gore's way.”
This all rings true for the grandson of the colorful Boston politician “Honey Fitz” and as a child, Kennedy can recall learning politics listening in while his father plotted strategy with the New Bedford publisher, Basil Brewer. A Taft Republican, Brewer was furious with then Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge for helping to deliver the Republican convention to Dwight Eisenhower, and the New Bedford returns proved crucial to John F. Kennedy toppling Lodge in 1952 and setting himself on the path to the White House.
That conversation also, as Kennedy tells it, was on a boat.