When HBO2 airs “The Senator’s Bargain” tonight at 8 p.m. EP/PT, it’ll be doing so during a most fitting week will have a different context than it would have if it debuted just a few weeks ago.
If it had aired a few weeks ago, to the many who admired the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy it would have been excruciatingly painful to watch. The reason: it documents Kennedy’s 2001-2007 failed efforts to strike a deal with GOPers for immigration reform — battles that came nerve-wrackingly close but failed. Even if some in the Republican party started out wanting to work with Kennedy, the issue was simply too much of a hot-button issue for them (the word “amnesty” became a way to discredit it and push a hot button at the same time) to touch in the end. Both times the issue was filibustered to death.
The context to many — Kennedy foes and friends — would have been that this was a documentary that saw a man fail at a longtime dream of reforming immigration…aired at a time when his Republican replacement to fill his Senate seat upon his death not just won his seat but destroyed Kennedy’s other life’s dream to bring about health care reform. That is: until Sunday night and health care reform — rising from the dead partly, ironically, in reaction to Scott Brown’s upset win in Massachusetts — (for the moment) unified warring Democratic party factions and they passed the bill.
The film, shot during a six year period by filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini, is MUST viewing now by all (and particularly by moderates, centrists and independents) for several reasons:
It chronicles how a hot-button issue like immigration reform started with politicians of two parties agreeing to seek common ground but in several instances came unraveled. Why? 1. Political goals of politicians changed (but the survival instinct never does). 2. Political pressures by the more ideologically rigid in each party. 3. Most important, the growth of the talk radio political culture which also spread to TV cable and exerted the pressure…and whipped up the hysteria…to sink immigration reform. Former CNN staffer Lou Dobbs is seen (often sneering) several times along with Republican verbal bombthrower Ann Coulter and others who suggested that life as we know it would end if there was comprehensive immigration reform.
The starting point is 2001 when Kennedy, shown in alliance with Arizona Senator John McCain — the old John McCain, versus the new one who is now running around Arizona seemingly auditioning for a Fox News cable political show. That John McCain was eloquent about his desire to see comprehensive immigration reform that dealt with the many facets of the problem, not just law enforcement. That John McCain would talk with emotion about the people who tried getting into the United States through the desert, sometimes at the cost of their lives.
The film chronicles the inner workings of Congress, low key discussions, the meetings when hopes are raised — and dreams shattered. But Kennedy isn’t the “star”: he is seen in snippets.
In reality the big “star” of the film is an immigration reform advocate named Frank Sharry, a behind the scene presence, working with Ted Kennedy, his staffers and the Bush administration which wanted to pass meaningful health care reform. You can almost taste his passion, hopes and disappointments.
The key question becomes: how much does a Senator have to bargain to get what he wants through Congress? Kennedy, reluctantly, agreed to give away part of the immigration reform he himself had helped pass in 1965 to get a comprehensive deal..
But it was not to be. The deals, coaxing, pleading, researching, stem-burning speech making. In the end, it came up short as frightened politicos reverted to the easier positions.
As you watch this inside look at Congress — the pizza parties, the staff meetings, the staffers running down the halls, the attention to what appears on TV news and political polemics shows — you get a sense of how fragile any kind of attempt to bring about change can be in the end.
And you notice that the film documents (a)the beginning of the kind of mega partisanship and/or ideological purity (on the left and right) that has come to stalemate much of government (b)a big glimpse at the early power of America’s talk radio political culture which never saw an issue that couldn’t be exaggerated, or a foe who can’t be demonized. This one-two punch of sports team mentality and whipping up and transforming rage into real political power seemingly trumped meaningful intra or interparty compromise…until the health care reform vote showed that Democrats could at least hold their noses, try not to gag and vote for something they didn’t quite like but liked enough to pass.
Throughout it all, Kennedy, his back stopped with age but his good-humor and pizazz as intact as ever, comes across as the passionate political and legislative pro. In the end, when he loses — twice (in 2001 and 2007) — he takes his lumps like a big boy and vows to fight on for another day.
FOOTNOTE: This film is a centerpiece in a decade long project “How Democracy Works Now.” The Robertson/Camerini projects focuses on showing the inner workings of America’s political system. Future films in this project will be shown on HBO On Demand.
On a TMV scale of one to five stars, we give The Senator’s Bargain five stars.