In fractious and bellicose times, it's tough out there for conciliators. Which makes “Hesburgh,” Patrick Creadon's lively and inspiring portrait of one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century, more welcome than ever.
Father Theodore M. Hesburgh was most famous as the president of the University of Notre Dame, an institution he led for 35 years. During Father Ted's tenure, Notre Dame went from being a football school to being not just academically respected but a bastion of intellectual freedom and ideological pluralism, sometimes at the consternation of Vatican officials. “I took a vow of obedience,” Father Ted says during one debate about academic freedom, “but I had to draw a line.”
If only as a principled educator and beloved paterfamilias, Father Ted is worthy of admiration. But as Creadon makes clear in this swiftly moving chronicle, his biggest role was that of civil rights pioneer and transcendent public figure. As a one of the first members, and later chairman, of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he helped create the underpinnings of what would become landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s and 1970s.
He did that, not through strong-arming or shouting but by bringing opposing sides together to find compromise that even they didn't know they were capable of – in one memorable case, over steaks, bourbon and fishing at a Wisconsin lake. Handsome, sensitive and open-minded, he became a friend to Popes and presidents, establishing a deep, what-might-have-been friendship with close confidante Eppie Lederer, better known as Ann Landers. (I nominate George Clooney and Sandra Bullock for the biopic.)
Was Father Ted too good to be true? “Hesburgh” never suggests a dark side or even slightly troubling contradictions, although he disappointed even his most devoted young fans when he came down hard on campus protesters during the Vietnam era. Presumably he never spoke – or was never asked – about the sexual abuse scandals that rocked the church toward the end of his lifetime (The movie is narrated by an actor reading from Hesburgh's writings and tapes, and includes testimony from admirers in religion, education, politics and activism.)
Those who are willing to take “Hesburgh” at its word are left with a simple but exhilarating portrait of leadership at its most morally grounded and pragmatically effective, based on cultivating respect, mutual understanding and compassion. Father Ted, who died in 2015, doesn't just make those principles look attractive, he makes them look attainable. This moving, illuminating slice of American life and social history serves as a stirring example that we should all do much better. And we can start right now.