The multipliers. These are some of the most dangerous elements of political life.
Intelligence, knowledge, persuasiveness, experience in political affairs — all these good things may add much to a politician’s ability to succeed. The lack of such qualities may subtract from it. But you can be possessed of all of them and still be only half as likely to win public office as a person who lacks them completely, but has real money, or one-quarter as likely as a person whose father happened to be a noted politician, or one-tenth as likely as a person who happens to possess the right age, color, or creed. Wealth, unearned prestige, the accidents of demographics — these are multipliers, and there are many others.
The first President Bush, a man of normal abilities, achieved high political office by means of multipliers unrelated to political ideas or performance. He was rich, his father had been socially and politically important, and his contrast with Ronald Reagan endeared him to journalists who, for their own reasons, valued that contrast. The second President Bush, a man of no ability at all, was a nice guy, which added something to his political appeal. But the multiplier was the fact that his father had been president and had been surrounded by a gang of hacks who wanted to get back in power.
Wealth, unearned prestige, the accidents of demographics — these are multipliers, and there are many others.
Political multipliers can be mildly amusing, innocently useful, morally disgusting, or existentially disturbing. In the case of the Kennedy family, they are terrifying. One of the Kennedys — John — had intelligence, courage, and a personality that was attractive in many ways. On its own, this ensemble of good attributes would probably have gotten him nowhere important in the political life of his time. His success depended on multipliers — a large fortune; an ambitious, politically manipulative father, good at surrounding young John with media toadies; a family ethic that sanctioned and demanded constant, conscienceless lying; a support base of fanatical Irish Catholics prepared to vote for anyone who shared their ethnic and religious identification, no matter what that person did; and an unbroken phalanx of media writers and performers for whom “Jack” embodied fantasies of male potency and sophisticated “culture.” His assassination provided another mighty multiplier, so mighty that sane people should thank God every morning that his brother, Edward (“Teddy,” then “Ted”) Kennedy, the inheritor of John’s manufactured charisma, never realized his life’s purpose of attaining the presidency.
Few readers of this journal need to be reminded of the fact that Edward Kennedy had no good qualities whatever, political or otherwise. Yet he might have become president; and after he died, he continued to be celebrated by crazed or cynical followers who would have hounded any person without his multipliers out of politics, if not out of the country.
Finally, a mere five decades after the event, a serious film has been made about the great divider of Kennedy’s political prospects, the incident of July 18, 1969, in which a drunken Kennedy drove a car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, drowning the young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was with him. Kennedy left her to die, trapped in the car. Then he tried, in various ridiculous ways, to conceal his involvement. This proving impossible, he admitted some vague form of responsibility, retreated to his Irish Catholic base, which, I repeat, would swallow any kind of explanation from a Kennedy, and, with the aid of friendly media and the accustomed throng of social and intellectual gofers, rebuilt his political career.
Political multipliers can be mildly amusing, innocently useful, morally disgusting, or existentially disturbing. In the case of the Kennedy family, they are terrifying.
Jason Clarke, who plays Kennedy in this film, and director John Curran, both apparently modern liberals, seem to think that Kennedy rebuilt not only a career but a self; they seem to believe that he became a genuinely great political figure. The idea is absurd, and the film does nothing to support it. It shows Kennedy deciding to recover from the incident at Chappaquiddick by founding his life on ever more aggressive lies — which is exactly what he did.
The film is, indeed, closer to fact than any historical movie I have ever seen. By the time it’s done, you have encountered all the relevant evidence, evidence that gains power by being introduced slowly, by frequent revisits to the scene of the crime. The scenes, both indoor and outdoor, are impeccably authentic and meaningful as further evidence. To select a small detail: the camera notices that when Kennedy is to make a particularly “authentic” television broadcast, he is seated at a serious looking desk behind a case full of important looking books, but the legs of the desk are propped by haphazard piles of the same kind of books — a good indication of the importance of knowledge in the life of Ted Kennedy.
As for acting — at the start of the movie, Clarke doesn’t look or talk much like the Kennedy we saw all too frequently, but as he develops the character’s psychology he actually convinces you that the two are exactly the same, right down to the shape of the face. The other well-known people who are impersonated do the same (a sign of great direction). One of them is Bruce Dern, playing Kennedy’s father. Dern is the most recognizable of actors, but I didn’t discover who he was until I read the credits. Kate Mara has a hard job playing Mary Jo Kopechne, and her performance is not memorable, but she had a difficult task, given the fact that Kopechne was not allowed to achieve distinctness in real life. Clancy Brown does a magnificent Robert McNamara; Taylor Nichols presents an interesting view of the psychology of Ted Sorensen (perhaps the most respected of the Kennedy hacks), though without aspiring to the height of Sorensen’s towering arrogance; and Ed Helms does an excellent job in the difficult role of the one good guy, Kennedy sidekick Joe Gargan.
Ted Kennedy left Mary Jo Kopechne to die, trapped in the car. Then he tried, in various ridiculous ways, to conceal his involvement.
Real artists often exceed their conscious ideological programs simply by taking seriously their jobs as artists, so that in their hands a representation of human life takes on a life of its own, which is simultaneously our own real life, seen more deeply and rendered more self-explanatory. Artistic insight becomes analysis, and fact becomes a more suggestive truth. This is what Chappaquiddick does. Particularly revealing are the serious but irresistibly comic scenes in which all the hacks that money can buy are assembled to advise Teddy Kennedy about how to get out of the mess he has made. Here, viewed without overt explanation, analysis, or moralization, are a horde of important men, operating on the assumption that (A) the politician they serve is a destructive fool; (B) this politician must be elected president; and (C) his supporters must create all the lies and corruption necessary to make him so. The childishness is funny; the absolute lack of conscience is, in these true images of the powerful, terrifying. Add to that the movie’s evocation of the stolen prestige of John Kennedy’s presidency, and the Mafia-like adulation of “family” that has always characterized the Kennedys and their followers, and you have all the multipliers you need. The picture is complete.
I consider Chappaquiddick the third-best film about American politics, after Advise & Consent and The Manchurian Candidate. That’s quite an achievement.