Sunday, April 06, 2008

Deprogramming Teddies
(This article first appeared in Boulder Monthly in September, 1979.
I was their humor columnist for about a year.)

You see them everywhere, it seems: on streetcorners, in airports, at rock concerts. Nicely dressed young men and women, apparently college age, well-groomed, with freshly scrubbed faces and bright eyes, approaching people at random, handing out little buttons and pamphlets and talking quickly, intensely, with a fixed smile and eager, searching eyes, telling anyone who will listen about their cause.

They seem to come from every walk of life, from every income group, from various ethnic and social backgrounds, and they have given up college, turned their backs on their budding careers, moved out of the home, all to promote the man they claim will unify America and bring peace, prosperity, and social equality to our troubled land: Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Who are these "Teddies," as they are called by others, though they call themselves members of the "Kennedy for President Committee"?

We spoke with famed deprogrammer Pat Theodore about the Teddies.

"A Teddie could be anyone," he told us. "Your son, your daughter, your brother or sister. For the most part, they are bright, middle-class kids, and it's hard for many people to understand how these kids could get involved in what seems on the surface to be a fanatical cult. But you must understand the way these cults work. They prey upon impressionable young people who may be disillusioned with the world around them and maybe a little lonely in their personal life, too. It's really a form of brainwashing."

These kids, then, actually believe that Senator Kennedy could be the next President of the United States?

"More than that," Theodore tells us, "they believe that he will be able to do extraordinary things: limit strategic arms, curb inflation, solve the energy problem, bring about an equitable system of low-cost health care for everyone in America, etcetera, etcetera. The powers they attribute to this man are really quite extraordinary and obviously irrational. This is what is frightening about the Teddies, that they truly believe all these things and are willing to do almost anything to bring about this perfect world that they envision."

Elizabeth Luepner is a quiet, dark-haired young girl who looks as if she would be a member of the Future Teachers of America or perhaps a promising young piano student. But Lisa, as she is called, has dropped out of school and spent a harrowing six months as a Teddie, six months that ended when Pat Theodore, together with her mother and a family friend, snatched the young girl from a streetcorner and spirited her away to a remote cabin where they spent five days in the process known as "deprogramming." Lisa is now recovered and planning to return to school in the fall.

"It was, like, everything you did, you asked yourself, 'Will this help Teddy get elected?'" she told us. "There was just no time for you to sit around and wonder if he was, like, you know, everything they said he was."

A typical day in the life of a Teddie begins early, according to Lisa.

"We'd get up around five in the morning and have a quick breakfast, and then we'd all get together and stuff envelopes for maybe three hours. Then, like, we'd break, but instead of relaxing or something, they'd have what they called 'mini-rallies.'"

The infamous mini-rallies, according to Theodore, are one of the Teddies' most powerful brainwashing techniques. Lisa tells us about one:

"This guy got up, and he made kind of a short speech like he was nominating Teddy for the Presidency, like we were in New York at the Convention. As soon as he said, 'The Senator from Massachusetts, Edward M. Kennedy,'like, there'd be all this music and we'd all jump up and start cheering and running around the room with all these posters and banners, throwing confetti and everything, and chanting 'Teddy! Teddy! Teddy!' The first mini-rally, you know, I thought it was all pretty weird and all, but, like, you get caught up in it. It's really kind of fun."

After the mini-rally, the Teddies eat a light lunch while one of the leaders delivers an address on a topic of interest. Health Care, Salt II, OPEC, and inflation are popular subjects, and each Teddie is expected to be up-to-date on the various positions of the Senator. After lunch, they troop down to the infamous boiler room.

"There'd be, like, all these phones," Lisa recalls. "We'd each have a phone and a list of numbers, and we'd just call people and ask them questions. First, we'd ask if they were registered to vote. If they weren't, we'd tell them how to go about it and offer to send someone out there to help them register. Then you'd ask if they had decided who they wanted to support, but you wouldn't ask it quite like that, you'd say, like, 'Are you interested in making sure that the next president will whip inflation?' or whatever, you know, depending on what topics were really hot that day or something. And then you'd start talking about Teddy."

For more advanced Teddies, the afternoon was time to hit the streets, going to shopping centers, busy streetcorners, airport lobbies, anywhere where people gather, to pass out information and ask for donations. It was during Lisa's afternoon session on the street that she was "kidnapped" by the deprogramming team. Pat Theodore picks up the story:

"We have to, first of all, get the young person away from the Teddies. It can get a little hairy, but it has to be done. Then we get them someplace where they have to listen to what we're saying. You see, they are brainwashed to the point where they refuse to listen; they don't hear you. Usually, the first day or two, you just keep at them, but they tune you out or else they try to argue with you about some obscure points in the National Health Insurance plan. They're pretty well drilled on that. But after awhile, you start to get through, and then there's usually a lot of crying and hugging, as they realize what's been happening."

Lisa remembers the breakthrough in her deprogramming. "We were told that all the stuff about Chappaquiddick and getting thrown out of Harvard for cheating and getting drunk on press planes and all that was just lies or exaggerations, put out by these conservative Republicans to keep Teddy from becoming President," she says. "Really. They told us that people who said bad things about Teddy were Republicans and that they were going to get us and torture us and make us vote for Ronald Reagan. We were told that we had to resist these people and that if we didn't, they'd make us join the Young Republicans and we'd end up working to defeat Kennedy in 1980."

Did it ever occur to Lisa that Edward Kennedy might not get the nomination in New York? "That was kind of what broke me through on the whole thing. Mr. Theodore kept saying 'He's not even a candidate!' I had heard that before, of course, but we were told that it was something they called a 'Divine Deception,' just to keep the Carter people from getting on his case before we were ready. Then Mr. Theodore said that Bobby had done the same thing in 1968, pretending he wasn't running until Eugene McCarthy had won the New Hampshire primary and that Teddy wasn't fooling anybody in the Carter camp; he was just fooling the American people. I fought it for a long time, but he showed me all these quotes, you know, about who was going to kick who and things like that, and then I realized that he was right. And, like, I realized that all the other stuff was probably true, too, like, he hadn't been kidnapped by Republicans at Chappaquiddick but just ran away and all stuff like that."

Deprogramming isn't the end of the process. "Lisa has to rethink a lot of things," Pat Theodore tells us. "You have to remember that, in addition to living in a world where Edward Kennedy is going to solve all the problems, she's been involved in a cult system that makes a basic assumption, that politics generally can solve complex social problems in an effective manner that is democratic and equitable. If she were to go back out on the streets without unlearning that, she'd be easy prey for any number of cults that are particularly active at this time. She'd be back stuffing envelopes and making phone calls for some other false Messiah and the entire deprogramming process would be a waste."

What does Lisa think about the 1980 elections now? She ponders for a moment before answering. "I guess, like, I'll have to see who the candidates are, you know, and if one of them says he has all the answers, well, I'll vote for the other one. But I guess they'll both say that, so probably I guess I'll just see which one scares the hell out of me the least and vote for him."

Lisa seems well on the road to a normal view of life.

(At the time this was written, Kennedy had not declared himself one way or the other. But there was three weeks lead time before the magazine appeared and another four that it sat on the shelf, during which he could have made an announcement that would have torpedoed the joke. Fortunately, he continued to dance throughout the entire seven weeks, bless his soul. The illustration is credited to Jim Howard, but I was living in Colorado Springs, did this all by mail and never met any of the Boulder Monthly people, and I know nothing about him. Good illustration, though. )


ronnie said...

Very funny!

The illustration is very good. I thought it was an R. Crumb when I first glanced at the post.

I wonder how Lisa made out... she's probably relapsed as an Obama Mama now ;)

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

8~) An Obama relapse would be better than what i was thinking! As the piece closes, i fear she's headed for disillusionment overload -- and when a peppy "Get out and vote!" public service ad comes on, saying "Let's not and say we did," then switching to the latest Bigfoot show on Discovery Channel.