A Great Man, But Perhaps Not a Good One
He was undoubtedly a lion but, troubled by the unreserved lionization being displayed upon my Facebook page, I posted not a dissent, but a partial concurrence:“ A young man of seemingly little promise, thrust into the spotlight on the money and accomplishments of others, he grew up in public to become one his generation's legislative giants, practiced in the arts of the possible, including compromise, while still also serving as the inspirational national voice of the voiceless--a pretty neat trick, since the roles are generally mutually exclusive.
Of course, if he'd only grown up a bit sooner, we might have been spared Nixon's second term, and maybe even the Reagan revolution. I'll leave the rest unspoken, but we all know what the rest is.
I was about 12 at the time of Chappaquiddick; it shook me then and it is hard to shake now.Once, in an article ruminating upon what circumstances did and did not make the personal lives of politicians the business of the public, I made a throwaway comment about Ted Kennedy’s one campaign for the White House, referring to it as his “‘he may be a drunken murderer who can’t keep it in his pants, but he’s the best hope our party has’ challenge to Jimmy Carter’s re-nomination.”
In retrospect, that seems far harsher than necessary. Only a judge and jury would know for sure, but criminally negligent homicide or involuntary manslaughter do seem more like it, along with a raft of related lesser offenses.
But even with reduced charges, Ted Kennedy’s detractors (mostly, but not exclusively, right wingers---in the same way his fans were mostly, but not exclusively, liberals) were not deluded when they questioned whether the Senator got off easy from the criminal justice consequences of his actions.
Concerning the impact of celebrity, wealth and power, who can deny that the amount of one's money and related accoutrements do seem to have some influence upon the way our society operates and the results it yields?
But the unfair impacts of wealth and power in our society are far less than they would have been but for the efforts of Senator Kennedy.
Whatever one’s personal opinion about whether Senator Kennedy eluded the proper legal consequences from that series of events (and the accident which cost a young woman her life was surely but one example among many of Kennedy‘s misconduct that day--he waited nine hours before reporting the accident to the police, having first made sure to contact his political advisors), no one sane can deny that the political consequences he endured , though not non-existent (he lost his job as Majority Whip and forever damaged his presidential viability) were far less than others have faced for far less consequential events. Virtually any other politician would not have been re-elected, no matter how rich he was, or who his relatives were.
And let us not forget the streak of misogyny revealed in that incident. Nor should we forget other incidents which, taken individually, are (unlike Chappaquiddick) perhaps explainable and forgivable, but taken together form a unmistakable pattern of treating women as commodities. As such, it is hard not to sympathize with those feminists who concluded this was not merely evidence of the Senator’s bad character (which, in itself, may be considered disqualifying), but also as evidence of Kennedy’s underlying values.
And yet, if Kennedy’s bad acts reflected Kennedy’s values, this fact was seemingly never evidenced in Kennedy’s politics. There is probably no male politician in the country who did as much to advance the rights of women of all ages. If Ted Kennedy did indeed treat women as a commodity, he was jes’ fine on a wholesale basis, while godawful on the matter of retail (at least until the last decades of his life).
In the end, though, personal behavior can be relevant, we are probably best off judging a politician’s values based upon what they do in their official capacity. Living in the gay ghetto of Dupont Circle in 1980, I was privy to much gossip about how Ted Kennedy, while politically pro-gay, was a homophobe, while the purportedly anti-gay Hollywood Reagans had many gay friends. Assuming arguendo that this was indeed the case (and there seems much evidence in subsequent years which indicates that, in Kennedy's case, it was not), the only logical response seemed to be to support Kennedy for the White House while having the Reagans over for brunch.
But, in the year 2009, can we any longer unreservedly praise Thomas Jefferson without remembering Sally Hemmings?
And yet, it would be wrong to forget the moments of glory. There were the legislative triumphs and there were the moments of inspiration.Kennedy’s speech at the 1980 Democratic Convention laid out the road map for liberal happy warriors---a road we largely have yet to travel. By contrast, the salute to Kennedy at the 2008 Convention was a bit creepy, like having a funeral where the corpse gave the eulogy. The documentary shown before Kennedy’s speech really could have used some editing (did we really need the part on the sailboat to remind us of the subliminal suggestions generated by Kennedy and water?) and Kennedy's speech may have been more impressive for its existence than its contents, but at the end, even my cynical eyes were not dry.
What can I say? He was a great man, though perhaps not a good one. His failing were larger than that of most men---perhaps even damnable. But his achievements were larger as well.
So, conflicted as I am, I have to say that it is time for the President to stop hemming and hawing, and instead grab the opportunity to erect a monument to Senator Kennedy’s legacy far truer than renaming some office building:
Meaningful health care legislation.
It would be useful for Barack Obama to remember the legacy of Lyndon Johnson. Despite the bilge generated by the likes of Rock Hackshaw (and the Obama campaign itself) during the last presidential campaign, it should be remembered that LBJ didn't merely sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act; the important instrument he wielded on behalf of that legislation was not a pen; it was a jawbone. LBJ whacked Congress upside the face til the deed was done, shamelessly wrapping himself in JFK's bloody shirt to make it happen.
Lyndon Johnson may have been ghoulish in using the death of JFK to pass the Civil Rights Act that JFK himself could not pass, but no one remembers that element of tastelessness today (in part because Ted Kennedy himself used the same tactic in his speech to help break the Senate filibuster).Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that Obama isn‘t more JFK than LBJ--(perhaps Hillary was right). I’m not really sure that President Obama is capable of jawboning that result.
Historians have long noted the key role of Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, a man with a mellifluous voice (his spoken word record, “Gallant Men” had made the top forty) and an unquenchable appetite for flattery, in passing the Civil Rights Act. Only Dirksen had the clout to persuade his fellow Republicans to vote to break a filibuster being staged by Southern Democrats.
However, Dirksen was still smarting over nearly losing his last re-election to a Democrat who‘d attracted overwhelming black support. Undaunted, Johnson told Dirksen that if he would take the leadership in getting the bill passed, Illinois school children would thereafter know only two names to honor—Abraham Lincoln and Everett Dirksen. Johnson’s efforts were successful and the legislation passed.
If I were Barack Obama, I'd go to Ted Kennedy’s best buddy, Orrin Hatch, and give ole Orrin the same speech LBJ gave to ole Ev Dirksen. I’d remind Orrin of his own Mormon community’s commitment to a social service safety net protecting all stratas of society, and of his dear friend’s dying wishes, and then ask him if he wanted Kennedy-Hatch health insurance to be remembered alongside Fulbright Scholarships and Pell Grants.
And then I’d get ready to compromise.
For the real lesson of Ted Kennedy was to speak grandly and eloquently of lofty goals, but to work for achievable ends. Sometimes this led to mistakes, like “No Child Left Behind;” more often it lead to a gain in yardage and another first down, as we advanced the ball towards the goal post. More importantly, the real, but incremental, improvements to lives of millions of American were a worthy goal in and of themselves.
Ted Kennedy made big speeches with big dreams, but his real achievements were embodied in the fine print of lengthy bills facilitating half a loaf (or even less) at a time.
Perhaps Kennedy first learned this in his unsuccessful fight to insert a poll tax repeal into the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He did not let this stop him from voting for the imperfect bill which passed, and we should not let a perfect health care bill (if such a beast even exists) which cannot pass stop us from enacting an imperfect bill which will improve peoples’ lives and bring us closer to the lofty goals outlined in Senator Kennedy’s speeches--goals which never served in his life to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
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