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.

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