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Neal Gabler Gets to Liberalism's Headwaters

Wed, 12/02/2020 - 17:53
Neal Gabler's new biography examines Edward Kennedy's life in the context of the rise and fall of liberalism in the United States.
PBS-American Masters

The subjects of Neal Gabler's books include Barbra Streisand, Walt Disney, Walter Winchell, and, most recently, Edward Kennedy. During a recent conversation, Mr. Gabler said he suspects that most biographies are undertaken because of the writer's interest in the subject. "I operate very differently," he said. "I begin with a question I want to explore. And then I find the subject who enables me to explore that question in a narrative way."

During the 1990s, for example, he wondered, "How did we get to this point where we are absolutely satiated with celebrity, and with this sort of journalism that basically trivializes journalism?" He decided to go to the "headwaters," and the headwaters were the domain of Walter Winchell. "If you trace Winchell's life, you'll find out how we got from there to here."

His newest book, "Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932-1975," the first of two volumes, seeks to address what happened to American liberalism. When Ted Kennedy entered the Senate in 1962, he says, "liberalism is heading for its high-water mark." John Kennedy had already proposed Medicare in 1961, and would soon advocate a civil rights act and a war on poverty.

"And yet in the course of Ted Kennedy's life, liberalism declines to the point where it literally becomes a dirty word." The biographer "thought it was the single most important transformation in American politics over the last 50 years at least," and he wanted to know why.

Mr. Gabler acknowledges he's about the "five millionth" person to address that question, but he takes issue with the most common explanation, which is that the decline was incremental. He was determined to find the "one big thing that gobbles it whole."

His quest began 12 years ago, while Kennedy was still alive. One of the senator's aides suggested Mr. Gabler prepare a detailed description of why he was writing the book and what he wanted it to be, and include letters of reference. "Ted Kennedy wants to feel that he matters. And you have to appeal to that, you have to make him feel that he matters," the aide explained.

Mr. Gabler still has Kennedy's encouraging hand-written response, which concluded, "I can't wait to see what you find on your great adventure." However, not long after, in May 2008, the senator was diagnosed with brain cancer, and he died in August the following year.

Despite Kennedy's implicit approval, the only member of his immediate family who agreed to speak on the record with Mr. Gabler was his son Patrick. "The Kennedys are very gun-shy, and I understand it," Mr. Gabler said. "They're a target."

Mr. Gabler, who has lived in Amagansett with his wife, Christina, for 26 years, admitted it takes him years to write his books, "and it's not anything of which I'm proud." He was the editor of his high school paper, one of only three in the United States that were published daily, and he still holds the record for producing more copy for the University of Michigan Daily than any other writer in its history.

His parents, however, saw him as a Clarence Darrow, not an Ernest Hemingway, and suggested he apply to law school. He withdrew after two years and earned a master's degree in film, going on to teach at Penn State and Michigan. "I had some books in me," he realized, and a publisher agreed: "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" was the first, which grew out of a course he was teaching. Published in 1988, it has been followed by five more, as well as work in film and television, including a stint as co-host of the PBS show "Sneak Previews."

Progress on the Kennedy book, "Catching the Wind," was held up by the delayed release of The Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Project, which did not launch publicly until September 2015. Hundreds of people contributed to the oral history project, and Mr. Gabler felt he couldn't write the book without hearing what they had to say. While waiting, he took a break and wrote "Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power" for Yale University Press's Jewish Lives series.

While in Washington, D.C., on a Woodrow Wilson Public Policy scholarship, the biographer had a "eureka moment. I was asking the wrong question. The question wasn't what happened to liberalism. It was, why did it last so long, when people didn't feel the need for those benefits."

After World War II, the Depression was over and the middle class was on the rise. But by the 1960s, "liberalism shifted to satisfy the minority community and marginalized communities, and not the American working class." Mr. Gabler concludes that what liberalism had that conservatism did not was moral authority.

"Americans knew that, above and beyond their own economic well-being, liberalism assisted those in need, gave power to the powerless, voice to the voiceless -- all the things that Ted Kennedy would talk about." That moral authority "brought us the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which didn't benefit most Americans, yet most Americans supported it." The same was true of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. ("They probably wouldn't support that today," he said.)

What he discovered in writing about Ted Kennedy, Mr. Gabler said, was that it was precisely the senator's sense of his own fallibility and weakness that connected him to people who were disempowered.

The last of nine children -- four years younger than his closest sibling -- young Teddy was considered "the dumbbell, the fat kid in a family, where everyone else is sleek and handsome." As a result, he became a kind of jester, and "the guy who has to be deferential to everybody. He's not the guy destined for greatness. That was John, and, before him, Joe Jr."

In 1962, the fat kid's senatorial colleagues had low expectations of him, Mr. Gabler said, pretty sure that because his brother was president he'd be throwing his weight around. "He does the exact opposite, because he understands, being the least of the Kennedys, what it's like to be the least of the senators. It ingratiated him to them. He worked the chemistry of the Senate probably as well as, if not better than, anybody who has ever been in that institution. He was a genuinely likable human being who did not take himself too seriously."

Kennedy went on to sponsor 2,500 pieces of legislation, 700 of which were passed. This, according to Mr. Gabler, qualifies him as the most successful senator in that body's history. Among his many initiatives were Meals on Wheels, the National Cancer Act, the Children's Health Insurance Program, and COBRA health care coverage.

The first volume ends with Kennedy "literally running for his life" from a mob of white Boston anti-busing protesters, the same working-class citizens who had supported him so enthusiastically when he ran for office. Mr. Gabler called that a harbinger of today's bitter red and blue divisions and part of why he feels the book is relevant now in a way he never imagined when he began working on it. He urged Crown, his publisher, to release the book before the election, which it did, on Oct. 27. The second volume, subtitled "Against the Wind," will be published next October.

The biographer feels the restoration of moral fiber in this country is critical, though he isn't certain that it's possible. "I wrote about Ted Kennedy because through the lens of his life I could address the idea of moral authority, which he personified in public life, if not in his private life . . . I'm hoping the book reminds us of what you can accomplish. If you retain your moral compass, you can sail, even against the wind. Ted Kennedy did."

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