We will let the New York Times and liberal blogs lionize the man. I assure you there will be enough of that for anyone’s tastes.
Here, I will try to give the unvarnished truth about a person who was indeed, the “liberal lion of the Senate” (take from that what you will), as well as representing the absolute worst of wealth and privilege in the United States.
Ted Kennedy, the rogue son of a rogue family has died of brain cancer at age 77. Oftentimes, liberals like to compare the Kennedy family to that other famous political family that featured presidents, and legislators of note; the Adams family.
Pardon me if my outrage can’t quite be held in check. The man who fought longer and harder for American independence than anyone of his time - John Adams - had it all over Teddy as far as personal moral behavior and principled, pragmatic leadership. His son, John Quincy Adams, took stands against slavery that made any “political courage” shown by Kennedy to be minuscule by comparison.
Suffice it to say, that the difference between the two families couldn’t be more pronounced and referring to the Kennedy’s in the same breath as the Adams’s is a travesty.
No doubt Kennedy the man was a despicable cad, a notorious roue, and, until late in life, a certified drunk. As most conservative blogs are reporting this morning, “Mary Jo Kopechne could not be reached for comment.” ‘Nuff said about Kennedy the man.
But history is a relentless bitch of a mistress, holding us to standards of truth and accuracy so that even one so vile as Kennedy must be examined not only in the context of his personal peccadilloes but also for his contributions to his times.
And those contributions were awesome.
There is no doubt that the average Joe working American lives a better life today because of Teddy Kennedy. He is safer on the job, his wages are higher (even non-union workers), his children have more educational opportunities, he is healthier, and wealthier than any working American of any other generation in history. We can certainly criticize liberal excesses in much of the legislation that this master parliamentarian guided through the labyrinthine maze of Congress. But no honest appraisal of Kennedy’s career would be complete without referring to the gigantic impact he had on ordinary, blue collar America.
He was at the center of every major legislative initiative that created much of the welfare state, as well as shepherding through Congress important legislation regarding voting rights, health care, labor law, and education. Conservatives like Barry Goldwater and Orrin Hatch found him not only to be a tough enemy but also someone with whom they could negotiate their concerns. He earned the respect of his opponents by having the issues associated with any legislation he was pushing down absolutely stone cold. And his mastery of Roberts Rules of Order made him a formidable presence in any senate debate.
Even historians not enamored of his far left liberalism — a liberalism that seemed to get farther left the older he got — compare him to Henry Clay or John C. Calhoun as far as his impact on the senate. That may be unfair to Clay who sacrificed his chance at the presidency to bring about compromises on the slavery issue. I did not sense such self abnegation in Teddy Kennedy, who viewed his senate seat as something of a patrimony from God. The wealth and privilege he enjoyed that allowed him to escape justice in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, and his family to get out of scrape after scrape with the law highlighted the fact that this was a family not above the law but beyond it. Their money, power, and influence had far too much impact on our national life than is healthy in a republic. And perhaps that’s the key to Kennedy’s psyche.
I believe the guilt of possessing great wealth drove him to compensate for his privileged position by pushing legislation that he believed exonerated him of his family sins. This is not unusual in American history, with industry titans from Astor to Rockefeller giving away much of their fortune prior to their death. But what drove Kennedy was also perhaps the nagging belief that he really wasn’t up to the Kennedy mystique, that he was a fraud compared to his martyred brothers.
The truth is, John Kennedy was no liberal at all (just ask Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.), and Robert Kennedy’s liberalism was far more muscular and more out of the classic school of left wing thought than the New Left activists who tried to adopt him in 1968. Robert’s liberalism was informed by both his Catholicism, and his own personal demons of trying to live up to the heroic image he carried of his brother John.
It took Ted a few years after Robert’s death to be convinced that “carrying on the legacy” of RFK actually meant going beyond his brother’s concerns that welfare was creating a permanent underclass to embracing the welfare state and the left wing agenda that went with it. Perhaps he saw this as the quickest way to the White House, not even able to fathom the damage done to his presidential aspirations by being responsible for Mary Jo Kopechne’s death. Or perhaps, it was indeed guilt that drove him on. Historians will have a field day with his motivations, that’s for sure.
The last of the “original” Kennedy brothers is dead. An age has now passed into history where for “one, brief, shining moment” one American family stood at the apex of power, largely bought for them by their immensely wealthy father. His two brothers who preceded him in death were known for what “might have been,” having been cut down before they could make any lasting impact on the country.
Not so the third Kennedy brother. His legacy will live on in the lives he made better, the lives he made worse - and the life he was responsible for ending.