And Still They Rise


What more is there to say about the Kennedys? Since their story is the defining one of the Irish in America, and of all immigrants who have come to these shores before and since, there's still quite a lot. In the documentary The Kennedys: Americas Emerald Kings, director Robert Klein lifts the veil on the famous clan. This week he talks to CAHIR O'DOHERTY about the continuing relevance of Irish America's first family.

IN 1968 Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech to the radio program Voice of America. Despite all the challenges facing the nation in that tumultuous year he was optimistic, he said. Never mind what was going on down in Alabama. Political progress was being made. It was inevitable.

Then, in an extraordinary moment Bobby Kennedy said this: "Things are moving so fast in race relations, a Negro could be president in 40 years." Kennedy was speaking in 1968. It's now in 2008, and we've just elected Barack Obama to the White House.

"There's no question about it," Kennedy said. "In the next 40 years a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother had."

The term Negro has not aged well, but Kennedy's political instincts certainly have, and his awareness of the time it takes for change to occur was flawless. It's those sharp political instincts and an abundant faith in progress - even in the face of setbacks - that have kept the Irish American first family in the headlines and at the forefront of Democratic politics for generations now.

True to form, this year the Kennedys have also been at the forefront of President-elect Obama's campaign too. Senator Edward Kennedy's decision to rally to Obama's cause raised eyebrows among senior Democratic strategists and was derided at the time as sentimentality, but he had the last laugh.

Kennedy's endorsement of the junior senator from Illinois is now considered a defining moment in the 2008 campaign, as was his niece Caroline Kennedy's announcement in The New York Times that Obama would be a president like her father.

This week, when speculation about imminent appointments to the Obama administration surround Caroline and Robert F. Kennedy Junior, film director Robert Klein will release his documentary The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings, which takes a fresh look at the country that made them - Ireland - as well as the U.S.

Klein's resume is quite impressive - a former vice president at 20th Century Fox, co-founder of the Lifetime Network and the producer of director Oliver Stone's 1993 Vietnam saga Heaven & Earth.

Klein has based his new Kennedy documentary on Thomas Maier's 2003 bestseller of the same name, which examines five generations of the famous family.

When the book version of The Kennedys: Americas Emerald Kings hit Klein's desk two years ago he was instantly intrigued. It was a new take, he realized. It told the Kennedy family story though the experience of prejudice, and their work to combat it.

Over the years Klein's passion for the Kennedys has made him an authority on their life and times - he teaches a course on the Kennedys at the University of Southern California. And it was the hard lessons they learned in Ireland, Klein argues, that really shaped the Kennedys' views.

"To be Irish in Ireland in the 19th century meant that you understood the history of the English landowners. Before Ireland became a free state the English land owners controlled the vote, the taxes and reminded the Irish that they were second class citizens in their own country," Klein told the Irish Voice.

You can hear the indignation in Klein's voice. Learning about the Kennedys has taught him about how the Irish fought centuries of injustice. The Irish Famine, in Klein's view, became another way the British drove the Irish out to control their land.

"Between one million and three million people died. It was an unprecedented catastrophe. The Kennedys understood that the only hope for their future rested in the new world. But much to their shock, they came up against much of the same prejudices in Brahmin New England," offers Klein.

Klein uses potent images in the documentary that were real, not an urban myth - the "Help Wanted, Irish Need Not Apply" signs that were seen all over the country were no laughing matter.

"I also used a picture of the head of the family, Joe Kennedy, with his wife Rose at the beach. People have asked me if the photo was taken in Kennebunkport and I tell them no, it was Old Orchard Beach, because that's where Catholics could get into hotel rooms. They couldn't get into them with their children at Kennebunkport."

The experience of prejudice, and the will to combat it wherever it appears, has been a consistent theme for the Kennedy family for generations, Klein argues. In the film he also reminds us how concerned many Americans were about John F. Kennedy's candidacy and Catholic religion in the first place.

"Of all the Kennedy boys it was said that Jack Kennedy was the most aloof, the most Brahmin and the most sophisticated. But he was visibly and emotionally moved by his presidential visit to Ireland, which he called the highlight of his presidency to that point," says Klein.