Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Edward M. Kennedy 1932-2009

First, let me say that my feelings toward Sen. Edward M. Kennedy are ambivalent at best. It's tough to really describe. Out of one eye, I saw a deeply flawed man, a scion of privilege, a playboy, the very essence of what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote at the end of The Great Gatsby when he said, "They were careless people ... they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

He was describing Tom and Daisy Buchanan in the novel, but he could have easily been talking about the Kennedys, as that same carelessness, or recklessness, seemed to follow them around too. Ted Kennedy was very much a product of his family's seeming air of privilege and invincibility, and it should come as no shock that, as No. 9 out of nine, he inherited a lion's share of this view of life.

Hence, Ted Kennedy could get someone to take his Spanish exam for him at Harvard so he could remain eligible for football. And he could expect -- without really giving it a second thought -- that his aides and coat-holders could simply clean up the tremendous mess he left behind in the waters off Dike Bridge in July 1969.

Why not? It had always been this way. He got back into Harvard even after it was proven he'd cheated; it's tough to say how much of the Old Man's money came from ill-gotten gains, but it's fair to say it was a substantial amount; it's also fair to say the Old Man's money and influence helped get his brother elected president; and it's fair to say that with people of privilege, in general, the rules are always meant for other people to follow. They play by their own rules.

It didn't matter that mind-crippling tragedy seemed to belie that feeling of privilege and indestructibility that ran through the Kennedy family. All that money couldn't protect Joe Jr. from dying during World War II -- on a mission he undertook, in no small part, because he was jealous of his younger brother Jack's heroism during the PT-109 battle.

And it didn't seem to faze Ted Kennedy that his sister Kathleen took a huge risk flying on a private plane in the middle of a thunderstorm ... and paid for it with her life. Nor did Jack's assassination. Nor Bobby's. Not even the plane crash in 1964 that almost claim his life.

None of those events seemed to put much of a dent in No. 9 son's view, apparently, that no combination of human folly, arrogance and carelessness could do too manage damage to him. So when Ted Kennedy drove his car off the bridge that separated the main part of Chappaquiddick from the poison ivy-infested beach on the other side, he had every reason to expect that all of that influence ... money ... public cachet over the mind-crippling family tragedies, would somehow leave a very forgiving and sympathetic public feeling very sorry for him.

But it didn't quite work out that way. Instead of being the type of chapter in his life that he could close quickly, and from which he could move on, Chappaquiddick became the defining point in a life that may have reached dizzying heights in terms of legislative accomplishment and prestige, but never could reclaim what was lost in both 1963 and 1968 by assassins' bullets.

Of course, it wasn't supposed to be this way when the Kennedy dynasty was set in motion. I would imagine if Old Joe had revealed his wildest dreams, they would have involved a 24-year dynasty of Kennedys, beginning in 1960 with Jack, continuing through 1974 with Bobby, and ending in 1984 as Teddy closed out HIS second term.

Could that have ever happened? Doubtful. Americans got sick of the Clintons ... and the reason they got sick of the Clintons is because it had no stomach for a political dynasty that flipped back and forth between two families. That's one VERY big reason Barack Obama is your president today. Certainly not the ONLY reasons ... but a big one.

But the Kennedy brothers were well positioned to at least make a run at such a dynasty. But again, one wonders just how ambitious young Teddy was. Chances are, had he not had this tremendous legacy dumped on him with the responsibility to uphold, he'd have been content to serve his two or three terms in the Senate and then go off and count his money. I truly believe that's all he ever wanted out of life.

Fate, of course, had other plans. And I really think that what defined Ted Kennedy from the time Sirhan Sirhan killed his brother Robert until he met and married his second wife Vicki was that inner tug-of-war that went on between what truly made him happy and what he felt his obligations to his family were. Here was a man who grown up with an army of maids, nannies, family members, and coat holders to clean up his messes for him. He wasn't exactly a ne'er-do-well, as was George W. Bush (a man who I find has an awful lot in common with Ted Kennedy, especially in his younger days) until he straightened out, but he was certainly destined for a life of no heavy lifting. His brothers had blazed the trail, first Jack and then Bobby. They were the ones who kept the Old Man's political ambitions alive and fulfilled. All Teddy had to do was show up.

He showed up, of course. And even when he was greener than the lawn on a bright spring day, he had instincts. He knew enough not to get angry and self-righteous when opponent Eddie McCormack told him in a debate that his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 1962 would be a joke had his name simply been Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy. Any outward show of anger of indignation would have reinforced the fact that McCormack was, of course, right. If ever a man ran on his name and not his resume, it was Edward M. Kennedy. He knew it. He was stunned, of course, that McCormack showed so little class as to point it out ... and was probably very tempted to point out, himself, that the name McCormack, in Massachusetts, in 1962, had just as much political cachet as the name Kennedy (Eddie's uncle John was, of course, the Speaker of the U.S. House).

But he didn't. He let it pass. And the good people of Massachusetts felt sorry enough for him that Teddy swamped Eddie McCormack in the primary and went on to win the seat he never relinquished as long as he was alive.

Teddy's early career in the Senate was a virtual blueprint on how to win friends and influence people. He did what his brother Jack never could do ... followed rules of protocol. He ingratiated himself into the Senate club in a way Jack never did.

He'd grown in stature so that by 1969, when the Democrats chose their leadership for the new term, Ted was named assistant majority whip.

There was already serious talk about Kennedy running for president in 1972, but even if he chose not to, he'd still only have been 40, so there was plenty of time. Besides, it wouldn't have been too smart to waste him unduly in '72, so it seemed more sensible to see him as a major force in 1976, when he'd be 44 ... a year older than Jack was when he was elected.

Chappaquiddick, of course, rendered all of that speculation moot. There was no way he could run in '72 ... a mere three years after the accident. And when Ed Muskie self destructed, George McGovern picked up the pieces ... and lost famously.

Four years later, still gunshy about putting himself through all that scrutiny, and besieged by other, more personal, issues (such as his son's cancer, his wife's increasingly obvious drinking problem, and his family's natural antipathy on the whole issue of running and making himself a target for a third crackpot assassin) he ceded to Jimmy Carter (though brother-in-law Sarget Shriver gave it a try).

This is where I believe Chappaquiddick might have changed the course of U.S. political life. Without it, there would have been no Jimmy Carter. And, perhaps, no Ronald Reagan. I have no idea what would have happened in a Ted Kennedy presidency, but I am saying that here are two major U.S. political figures -- who couldn't have been more opposite in their approach to government -- who may never have seen the light of day had Ted Kennedy not been politically vulnerable in 1976.

By extension, too, you could conclude that much of what happened beyond the 80s might have been altered too.

Then again ... there's plenty of evidence to suggest that Ted Kennedy could just have easily thrown his hands up and said, "I don't WANT to be president." It certainly does seem that way. He always seemed very ambivalent about the whole idea of it. Even when he chose to run, in 1980, he couldn't complete a simple sentence telling Roger Mudd why he wanted to run.

He obviously felt a family pull toward reclaiming the White House out of memory for his fallen brothers. But it didn't seem to be a joyful task. It seemed to be more a grim project than anything else. He didn't really appear to be truly free of those expectations, and that legacy, until he chose not to run in 1988. That somehow triggered this tremendous release in him, too, as that's when he began what could only be described as his second adolescence ... a sort of non-stop spring break that culminated in him being in Palm Beach the night his nephew, Willie Smith, allegedly committed rape (a charge of which he was acquitted).

That was the only time in his life when his public transgressions affected his job. Because of all he was going through with the trial, and the exposure of his own sophomoric behavior, he was a non-factor in the Clarance Thomas hearings. And he had to get up at Harvard and confess these transgressions publicly, and promise to sin no more.

From that point on, a new, more dedicated, and certainly more effective Ted Kennedy emerged. He met, and married, his current wife, and it seemed truly happy and content with what life had given him. At an age when most people seem eager to kick back and enjoy the fruits of their lives, Kennedy was in there fighting ... and winning.

Always gregarious, friendly and helpful man even at his worse, he turned bipartisanship on issues that affected people positively into an art form. Kennedy developed the reputation for being able to reach across the aisle to either get support for his bills, or broker support for Republican legislation that he believed in.

Even though he had the reputation as being the "liberal lion," he also understood that compromise, and negotiations were more important when it came to getting things done than ideology. He could still state his case with resounding forcefulness, but he could also close a deal too.

His biggest political challenge came in 1994 when Mitt Romney ran against him, and somehow managed to insinuate that the Kennedys weren't as altruistic when it came to public service as they'd like you to believe.

"Mr. Romney," Kennedy shot back, "the Kennedys have never been in public service to make money. We've paid too high a price."

Game, set and match.

I don't know how you rectify the two diverging elements of Ted Kennedy's life. He was a deeply flawed human being who still managed to become a de facto father to a horde of nieces and nephews, and, with few exceptions, shepherd them to adulthood and productivity. It took him forever to grow up, yet even as he behaved like a college freshman in a dorm for the first time ever, he spearheaded some of the most meaningful legislation in our nation's history.

He might be the last true liberal to come out of old Roosevelt way of doing things, yet in many ways he was much larger than that.

Most of all, for a man with such national stature, he understood the old Tip O'Neil line that all politics is local. Ask anyone who ever sought help from him. He delivered.

Warts and all, Ted Kennedy is the last of a dying breed. We'll never see his likes again, and that, in the end, is a tragedy in and of itself.

Monday, August 3, 2009

On cheating and such

All right. David Ortiz has been found out. Exposed. He's a fraud. He cheats.

Just like Doyle Lonnigan in "The Sting," Big Papi has been pulling the wool over our eyes at the high stakes poker game called baseball by injecting himself full of performance-enhancing drugs, hitting home runs far into the night, and, well, crafting a legend based on a lie.

Either that, or David Ortiz is a victim of an era when just about everyone with the potential to earn more money by busting down fences did pretty much the same thing, everybody knew about it, and nobody with the power or influence to prohibit it, or penalize people for doing it, seemed to think it was all that terrible.

Those are the two extremes. The true story, and, perhaps, the true perspective, obviously lies somewhere in between.

There's a lot of truth to both viewpoints, but the problem with the steroid era in baseball -- as with a lot of things -- is that the total picture is shrouded in Jerry Garcia's touch of gray as opposed to simple black and white. To use a word that nobody seems to like or appreciate, there are nuances upon nuances to this story.

First, drugs and baseball go back a long way. It's just a question of which drug was prevalent in which era. If we penalize Manny Ramirez for testing positive for steroids, do we also frown on all the players who battled the fatigue of a 162-game season -- and all the sleepless nights that go with it (for various reasons) -- by popping amphetamines? How about all the athletes who have fought their way through pain via analgesics or Novocain? Aren't they, in effect, cheating by falsifying their bodies' reaction to injury?

And let's forget about drugs for a moment, and let's talk about all the other ways baseball players have cheated through the ages. Gaylord Perry once wrote a book about how he doctored up the baseball. Some of what he wrote may have been apocryphal, and some of it might have been nothing more than good-natured leg-pulling, designed to infuriate all the purists who used to rail endlessly about his pitching tactics.

But I'll bet some of it was true. And Gaylord wasn't the only one. Legend has it that Yogi Berra, and then Elston Howard, used to use the buckles of their shinguards to scuff up the ball for Whitey Ford. Supposedly, the reason Bob Stanley threw the wild pitch (or should I say Rich Gedman allowed that passed ball) that proved to be so disastrous in the 1986 World Series is that he'd doctored up the ball so much he lost control of it.

(Though, if that IS the case, score one for poetic justice, not to mention the childhood schoolyard chant, "cheat, cheat, never beat.")

So, looking at it from this perspective, steroids are just a chemically sophisticated method of a time-honored baseball tradition of increasing your edge any way you can. No different, let's say, than using a telescope and hand signals to steal signs (the way the New York Giants allegedly did in in that famous 1951 "shot heard 'round the world" playoff win over Brooklyn Dodgers). AND, no different, let's say, than growing the infield grass long and deadening the baseballs by storing them in a cold, damp place so that your punchless team, long on speed and short on offensive talent, has a distinct home field advantage (as the 1967 White Sox, under Eddie Stanky, were accused of doing).

How about teams that move the fences in so that their power hitters have an easier time hitting home runs, which is what the Red Sox did when they built new bullpens in right field, shortening the home run distance for Ted Williams; or like the Yankees did when they BUILT a stadium with a short porch in right field to take advantage of Babe Ruth's power?

That last one COULD be considered a stretch. After all, one of the great things about baseball is both the timelessness of the game, and the total lack of conformity of the stadia. Yet there's no denying that teams often tailor their venues to the specifications of their talent (though, curiously enough, that's not the case with the left-field wall at Fenway, which has more to do with cramming the stadium in the available space allotted than anything else).

And is baseball the only sport where cheating has become an issue? And is it the only sport where the penalties for doing so don't come close to matching the seriousness of the infraction? Hardly. The Patriots violated NFL rules by filming their opponents' defensive signals and got caught. They forfeited a draft choice for it, which may have hurt them in the distant future. But they didn't forfeit any games, and their coach (Bill Belichick) didn't miss any either. In fact, his boss (Robert Kraft) rewarded him for disgracing the honor of the franchise by extending his contract. How's that for a double standard?

So, for all the bitching and moaning that people do about the scourge of cheating, whenever we see examples of it, it always seems to be either explained away, swept under the rug, or dealt with by slapping the offender on the wrist and admonishing him to "go and sin no more."

All of which brings us back to steroids and David Ortiz. And here again, there are some twists and turns to this particular story that make digesting it a bit more difficult. First, and foremost, this business of releasing the names on this alleged "list" of 104 people who tested positive in 2003 in dribs and drabs is just crazy. It is violating every confidentially law known to man ... not to mention the fact that it's just a little bit unsettling that one person -- presuming it IS one person -- can hold such sway in arbitrarily ruining reputations.

What we're seeing here is a witch hunt reminiscent of Joe McCarthy in the 1950s in that we're taking information that even the dumbest person on earth should be able to conclude is sketchy -- at best -- and using it arbitrarily to hurt people. And we're seeing a media so petrified of looking bad for having totally missed the ball a decade ago hop on every allegation as if it's a truth etched in stone.

I'm no fan of Roger Clemens for a variety of reasons, but I'm not sure he deserves to be branded for the rest of his life because some trainer of his rolled over to George Mitchell upon the threat of incarceration if he didn't cooperate. While I'm not suggesting that Brian McNamee made it all up, I am suggesting that his word alone -- considering his reputation -- shouldn't carry the day.

I'm also suggesting that some anonymous lawyer whispering in the ear of a New York Times reporter, without any evidence more concrete than that, shouldn't be sufficient enough to destroy David Ortiz's reputation, or Manny Ramirez's, or Sammy Sosa's, or even Barry Bonds'. This isn't to say I'm in total denial. I'm just saying the standards for throwing these names around should be a lot higher than they are at the moment.

Also: all the list says is that that the players named tested positive for banned substances. Which ones? What are they?

Now, I'm no expert on this stuff, but I'm guessing you can ingest a lot of nutritional supplements without having the slightest idea about what's in them. Is that the case here? Have we reached the point with this steroid issue where we seize information without the proper vetting and just run with it?

There's also what I call the "a-hole factor," which factors heavily here. Many of the previously-outed "cheaters," most notably Bonds, were not that likable to begin with, so it was easy to turn this into a black and white moral issue.

But Ortiz's presence on this list creates that gray area, because, by all accounts, he's not like that. He doesn't fit the profile (except when he gets called out on strikes ... then he becomes a totally different person). It's harder to put him in the "despicable cheater" box because, well, he's not all that despicable. He's more like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa -- ordinary guys who got caught up in all if it.

You can almost see this whole thing developing into something akin to Joe Hardy in "Damn Yankees," the player who sold his soul to the devil so that, just once, the lowly Washington Senators would beat the New York Yankees and win the pennant. He got his wish, and, from there, events just spiraled beyond anyone's control.

So call this whole steroid thing a Faustian contract, if it makes you feel better. Perhaps, if David Ortiz knowingly cheated (and you know what? the lines were so blurry back in those days it's questionable whether that's even true), he was merely doing what he saw everyone else doing. Sort of a "kill or be killed" mindset.

Yet at the same time, Ortiz was so adamant, when A-Rod was outed by Selena Roberts, that he who gets caught should be suspended for an entire season that he's set himself up for what he's going through now.

Finally, before we throw Ortiz, or any of the others, under the bus, let's save room for Donald Fehr and Bud Selig. If you want to talk about despicable, these two lead the parade. First, Fehr, and his union, put up every roadblock they could use to block implemention of a meaningful steroid policy in the Major Leagues. They did it because they knew where the big money was, and -- after all -- the International Brotherhood of Baseball Players is all about making the richest richer.

Selig, as commissioner, has a long history of being a total shill for the owners AND for being as pusillanimous as a man can be on thorny issues. You have to conclude, then, that not only did Fehr recoil in horror at the idea of a chemical-free baseball, the owners did too.

This is why I consider it the height of hypocrisy for MLB, now, to go after these players who tested positive six years ago, to expose them in the manner in which they're being exposed, and to cluck their tongues in horror over it.

If you're bagged in 2009, the way Manny Ramirez was, then fine. Because we're operating under an existing framework that, while it took forever to implement, is, at least, in place. You violate it at your own risk.

Not so in 2003. The water was a lot murkier back then.

Let's be clear. I'm a purist. I think ALL of it is cheating ... the spitballs, the growing the grass longer, the stealing of signals, the filming of the other team ... I think any chemical, or technologically, method of gaining edge takes the purity out of competitive sport.

But the only way any of that changes, and the only way we can truly hold the doers accountable, is to come down HARD on it the first time you see it ... not years after it becomes evident, and not after so much consternation and foot-dragging that you send out signals so mixed that nobody can possibly interpret them correctly.