Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Edward Moore Kennedy (February 22, 1932 – August 25, 2009)

Lyndon Johnson is quoted as saying that in the Senate there are show horses and work horses.  What he never noted is that sometime an individual senator could shift between the two types.
Ted Kennedy started out as the very definition of a light weight. His only seeming qualification being that he was the baby brother of the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  As the Kennedys were running the state of Massachusetts as their personal fiefdom, this was sufficient for Teddy to win his brother’s seat.

In the early sixties, the Kennedy brothers formed a triple political threat. By the end of the decade, only the baby brother remained. First JFK, then RFK, were gunned down by marginal characters in an almost offhand manner. The nation has never come to grips the way both Kennedys lost their lives. The nation avoids the essential fact that our politicians are easy targets for lone wolves bearing a grudge and who have access to small arms.

After 1968 Ted found himself the Pater Familias of the Kennedy clan. He took on the  responsibility for raising both JFK’s and RFK’s small children. He also took on the political legacy of his dead brothers. It was a heavy burden and Ted Kennedy struggled very publicly with it. One year after RFK’s death, Ted showed the darker side of the Kennedy gene pool’s legacy. He proved himself every bit as reckless as his brother Jack by piloting his limo off the Chappaquiddick Bridge. In that car was a young woman Mary Jo Kopechne. The details of that accident were never adequately explained by Ted Kennedy nor by his lawyers.  The only agreed on facts is that the car ended up in the water along with a very dead Mary Jo. It is also agreed that Ted’s reporting of the accident was seriously delayed by at least ten hours.  There is a small cottage industry that speculates on what “really” happened at Chappaquiddick: the specific relationship of Ted to Mary Jo, why Ted decided to lawyer up before confessing to the accident, and what kind of condition then Junior Senator might have been in on that night.  Legally, Ted plead to leaving the scene of an accident. Personally and politically the liability was much, much larger. Mary Jo’s incorporeal frame followed Edward Moore Kennedy to the grave and beyond. Her name is forever linked to his.

In a way, the rest of Kennedy’s career can be seen as a type of penance for his carelessness on that night. He became a more serious political personality after Chappaquiddick.  Still the full transformation required one more act of political self-flagellation. That is the best way to view Ted’s manic run against Jimmy Carter.
The campaign against Carter positively invites amateur psychoanalysis. It started out as a train wreck and ended in self-immolation. Ted started out with a disastrous interview on CBS and went downhill from there. Ted only hit his stride when his chances for the nomination had evaporated. He won some meaningless late primaries and then went to the convention with the crackpot plan of separating the President of the United States from his pledged delegates.  Carter’s team easily quashed Ted’s quixotic plan with   ruthless efficiency.  Still Ted’s petulant behavior at the convention added further disarray to an already fractured party.

Ted sat out the election licking his wounds and Carter failed to live up to his initials of J.C. by being unable to provide the political miracle that his candidacy required.  Enter Ronald Wilson Regan and the long dark night for liberalism.  For the next thirty years Ted Kennedy was fighting a rear-guard action.
For twelve years Ted Kennedy did battle against Regan-Bush and the forces of reaction. He became the consummate insider, working the angles, finding allies in the oddest of places, pulling off minor and major miracles in the era of “Government is the Problem” like SCHIP. Even with the election of a Democratic President Ted Kennedy still had an up-hill struggle; the ideology of Regan still ruled D.C. While Bill Clinton claimed to be a “New Democrat” he actually more resembled a much older type of Democrat from the Gilded Age: the “Bourbon Democrat.”  Bill Clinton’s term of office had more in common with Grover Cleveland than FDR.  The parallels between Clinton’s and Cleveland’s second term are especially unnerving.

If the “Big Dog” was a bit smaller than advertised Kennedy had his hands full with dealing with the un-dynamic duo of George W. Bush and Richard Bruce Cheney. Bush was the consummate ideological reactionary.  Bush’s mission was nothing less than the full dismantling not only of the legacy of the 60’s but also of the New Deal.  Along the way Bush shredded the 4th Amendment, the separation of church and state, and our nation’s long-standing moral guiding principles.

Once again Kennedy was the road-block, the voice of Liberal consciousness calling out in the wilderness. He was spot on about the error of the Iraq war and much else. Still his leadership example was ignored by his more timorous Democratic colleges. John Kerry, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton all voted for the Iraq War.  Any one of those future candidates had to do was read the unedited CIA report to discover that Bush’s Cassis Belli was supported by a swamp of lies. One can not prove that Kerry, Clinton and Edward were looking at Bush’s stratospheric approval ratings or listening to the clamorous din of the Corporate Media advocating a rating-boosting conflict but one would have good reason to suspect. Kennedy was having none of it.

It is, however, Ted’s last political act that will be the most controversial. Ted Kennedy’s full-throated support of Barack Obama is the most perilous legacy that the Liberal Lion leaves behind.  Hard core, dead ender, PUMA, Clintonistas are still furious about Ted’s support of the Junior Senator from Illinois’ run.  Some are still muttering about how this was Kennedy’s revenge for Hillary’s supposed slight of JFK’s contribution to the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The discussion of that particular bit US History is best left to another place and time. In a primary process that was only decided by some one hundred delegates, it is impossible to really determine what pushed Obama over the top. What effect if any did Kennedy’s support have in the critical month of February? Who really did Hillary in? A “back-stabbing” Ted Kennedy or an incompetent Mark Penn?  One thing for sure political scientists and historians not yet born will be making their bones on these questions and others for decades to come.

For good or ill Ted Kennedy’s final legacy is now linked to the legacy of Barack Obama. If Obama turns out to be nothing more than a very clever technocrat that exploited the justified revulsion against Bush-Cheney’s eight years of incompetence and misrule, then Ted Kennedy turns into just another person who had the wool pulled over their eyes.  Is Obama nothing more than yet another iteration of a Blue Dog Democrat, the spiritual heirs of the Bourbon Democrats? Is Obama in short a fraud? Or is Obama one of those rare politicians who spring up every forty years or so; a man who changes the very rules of the political game? The answer to that question will determine the final coda of Edward Moore Kennedy’s legacy.

In the long view though Kennedy’s legacy is secure, his near half century of  public service will be a beacon shining out long after lesser lights have faded. The rise, fall and subsequent rise of Ted Kennedy is a story we will tell ourselves for generations yet to come. Each generation will add to the myth, each generation will find its own meaning to this uniquely American life. The story of Edward Moore Kennedy has not ended; it has barely begun.
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