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09.14.10

A Kennedy on the Fence

Rory Kennedy’s new documentary takes a dim view of the U.S.-Mexico border barrier. Lloyd Grove talks to her about the movie, John McCain’s flip-flops, and how the family misses Ted.

Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy had always admired Arizona Sen. John McCain—and then she saw the notorious television spot that aired during his recent Republican primary race.

“He was walking along the border, saying, ‘Finish the dang fence!’” Kennedy tells me, recalling the money-quote in the commercial, in which McCain is portrayed as the lone defender against illegal Mexican immigrants swarming into the United States to wreak mayhem and murder.

The ways in which American politicians have cynically exploited the public’s fear of invading barbarian hordes—and built a wildly ineffective pork-barrel boondoggle to calm those fears and ensure their reelection—is  the central theme of The Fence, Kennedy’s latest documentary, which premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday September 16, on HBO.

“Here is a guy who co-sponsored legislation to create a path for citizenship—with my uncle!” she says about McCain, referring to the comprehensive immigration reform bill he co-authored with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy with the backing of President George W. Bush—and then renounced during his 2008 presidential campaign. “Here is a guy who I have so long respected and looked up to for his candor and his ability to work around politics, and to really look at what is necessary and what is important—not what is politically viable.”

"If losing Teddy’s seat can help us maintain our control over the House and Senate, then that may have been worth it,” Rory says.

The 41-year-old Kennedy—the 11th child of New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, born six months after her father’s assassination—adds with a sigh: “And now I say: I am disappointed in John McCain.”

She is speaking from Malibu, where she lives with her husband, screenwriter Mark Bailey, and their three young children. Her 36-minute film—shot last year on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border along Texas and Arizona—is a primer on the human capacity for arrogance and self-delusion, illustrated through the construction of what amounts to the modern-day equivalent of the Tower of Babel (except, in this case, it’s pitched on its side and 670 miles long).

Kennedy, who serves as narrator as well as director, points out that the $3 billion structure, containing 120 tons of metal, is responsible for environmental damage, floods, and the deaths of hundreds of would-be immigrants in the desert. And yet, it’s woefully inadequate to the protection of a 2,000-mile-long border. As an Arizona rancher says in the movie, “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound.”

“What became clear to me,” Kennedy says, “is the degree to which the making of this fence was part of the construct of politics, not of legislators and policymakers thinking, ‘How can we protect our country?' They weren’t questioning, ‘What are the best policies?’ but ‘How can I stay in office?’ ”

Kennedy embarked on the nine-month project at the suggestion of historian Douglas Brinkley, a visiting faculty member at the University of Texas at Brownsville at the time. “He just told me one absurd story after the next about how the fence was affecting peoples’ lives,” she says. “And, of course, the entire premise of it—to have a 670-mile fence on a 2,000-mile border—seemed ridiculous and absurd to begin with. The more I learned about it, the more absurd it got. It was also really tragic, because people are now dying trying to cross the border, having been forced to cross in more treacherous areas like the desert in Arizona. I think there are 70 people who died last month alone.”

Beyond the tragedy, the movie “touches on a lot of issues that I think are relevant and important in our time: immigration, the drug war, the war on terror,” Kennedy says, “and holding our legislators and policymakers accountable for how they are spending our money.”

Speaking of holding the government accountable, Kennedy sounds less than ecstatic these days about the 20-month reign of Barack Obama, whom she enthusiastically supported for president.

“Less good,” she says about President Obama’s style of governing compared to his inspiring campaign.

Is she as disappointed with Obama as she is with McCain?

“I guess my hopes were higher for Barack,” Kennedy says. “Listen, I am not as naïve to have felt during the campaign that he would be able to do everything he said he would do. But there have been a number of policy issues that have been disappointing to me…I don’t think it has been entirely fair to hold Barack Obama accountable for what has happened in Washington, because I do think his intention has been to do the right thing, and that has been very hard; the Republicans have been very, very difficult.”

On the other hand, Kennedy says, “I think he has compromised, in my opinion, too much on things like torture policy, keeping Guantanamo open, and the fact that we are having military commissions—so I am very disappointed on that front. I am disappointed in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are still 50,000 troops there, so that seems like the war is continuing.”

Will she still vote for him in 2012?

“Yes,” Kennedy says. “He still has my vote.”

These days the members of her famous family are voters, not candidates. Her nephew Joe Kennedy IV, an assistant district attorney on Cape Cod, declined to run for retiring Rep. Bill Delahunt’s seat and her brother Joe—to say nothing of Ted’s widow, Vicki—couldn’t be persuaded to run for the Senate seat held by a Kennedy for the past 57 years. Rory predicts that at some point, some blood relative will run for public office, but it’s possible to serve in other ways.

“I guess I feel like the narrative of what comes up is ‘Oh, the Kennedy legacy is over’ or ‘There is nobody running,’ ” she says. “My point is that there are many ways that we all contribute and there is a deep running passion in so many of my siblings and cousins, and even a number of nieces and nephews that have such a great potential to run for public office. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year. But do I imagine people in my family running for public office? Yes.”

She was, not surprisingly, distressed when Republican Scott Brown beat Democrat Martha Coakley to win the Senate seat in Massachusetts. “I was really upset. It was very disturbing, and you would be hard-pressed to find any member of my family who wouldn’t agree with that. But I think it was a wakeup call. I think the Democrats have really focused their energy on making sure we don’t lose the Senate, and doing everything we can to not lose the House. If losing Teddy’s seat can help us maintain our control over the House and Senate, then that may have been worth it.”

Losing Teddy, however, is another matter entirely.

“It has been hard,” she says of her uncle, who died of a brain tumor in August 2009. “We all miss him terribly. For a lot of my siblings, who spent time with him over that last summer sailing on Mya [Kennedy’s beloved schooner] and being in Hyannis Port where we tend to gather as a family, it was hard being back up at the Cape this summer and not to have him there…We are all very close to each other and look out for each other and there is a real sense of family and camaraderie and support, and a linking desire to make this country the best it can be, and to contribute in that effort. Certainly that is something that Teddy has taught us all.”  

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.