The 1980 film “Who Elects the President?” is intriguing for several reasons, not the least of which is that no one, including filmmaker Jackie Kane, has seen the film for 37 years as of this writing. Kane will view her documentary this week after it has been reformatted to fit today’s projection systems. It will be shown at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern on Sunday afternoon, March 25, at 4 pm.
Kane was a 19-year-old Emerson College sophomore when she made the film, after spending more than a year volunteering on Sen. Ted Kennedy’s unsuccessful 1980 presidential campaign. Her film was at least partly the result of a political naif experiencing the impact of media, of pack journalism, and the age-old practice of backroom politicking.
So while America’s youth today take on gun control and deep-pocket special interests, Kane’s look back as a teenage idealist at a pivotal time that propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House adds an intriguing context to the youth movement and politics.
Kane posited then — and now — that the use and misuse of concerted media attention shaped the election outcome. Her film also features interviews with local political journalists of the time who savaged the Kennedy candidacy, bludgeoning him about his involvement in the Chappaquiddick drowning of staffer Mary Jo Kopechne a decade earlier.
But she seemed particularly affected by the reporting she witnessed by the princes of political journalism, nicknamed “the boys on the bus” by Timothy Crouse in his 1973 bestseller of that name. Those people included R.W. “Johnny” Apple, Robert Novak, Walter Mears, Haynes Johnson, David Broder, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Oliphant, Curtis Wilkie, and Jules Witcover,
That intriguing meme seems almost charming today, given the reported and purported use of social media to shape voter decisionmaking in the 2016 presidential election. So there is the matter of past being prologue to the future at work here as well.
Kane is not a 19-year-old idealist today. She has been a journalist, made another documentary about nuclear threats, and the Vineyard Haven resident has built a very successful career as the architect of cause-related and for-profit events. For example, she was pivotal in bringing the Boston Pops to the Island in 2007 to raise money for expansion of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional Hospital.
The Times spoke with Kane last weekend about her film.
I think there is a longing, especially now with the Trump presidency, not for a Kennedy-like family, but for the notion of a hero. Someone to come forward, as Martin Luther King and others emerged in their time. They are gone, and we have strayed so far from that. Maybe I’m looking back romantically, but I’ve noticed that CNN is doing a series on the Kennedys, so I thought the timing might be right to bring it out.
What will we learn from viewing ‘Who Elects the President?’
While I haven’t viewed it recently, it deals with political and media use and abuse that does elect presidents. I’m hoping that filmgoers will see Ted Kennedy as he was, as a candidate and a man. The media shed a spotlight that destroyed his candidacy. The film also deals with the tension around hostages then being held in Iran, and how then–President Jimmy Carter’s announcements on the eve of state primaries of potential “breakthroughs” in the Iran negotiations were empty.
The use and abuse of media in these times have dusted off this film, especially today with Internet and social media and Russian meddling. It is really the same thing [as then], but modified to a higher degree. People are also so impacted by TV as an influencer. That can be dangerous.
Advice for consumers of information?
To know the truth. We have a responsibility at large, both journalists and the voting public, to dig deeper below the surface. I was shocked at the time, witnessing pack journalism, I was shocked to see them all headed in the same direction.
“Who Elects the President?” plays Sunday afternoon, March 25, from 4 to 6 pm at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern. A Q and A session with the filmmaker, Island resident Jackie Kane, will follow the screening.