This past week, the Massachusetts legislature voted in favor of the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s dying wish that his seat be filled immediately by appointment, rather than through a special election. Thus, they rescinded their 2004 vote—made with the support of the same senator—to the opposite effect when it looked like Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, rather than Democrat Duval Patrick, might have to fill John Kerry’s seat. (George W. Bush’s victory made that question moot.)
The other day, Gov. Patrick appointed to the seat Paul Kirk, the type of politico that Garry Wills, in The Kennedy Imprisonment
, called an “honorary Kennedy”—one of a group of men closely associated by marriage, politics or friendship with the trio of brothers who dominated national politics for the past half century. The appointment demonstrated how one family became an institution to such an extent that it influences politics even in death.
In the summer of 1964, with America still gripped by post-assassination grief, the New York Times
’ Tom Wicker attempted a dispassionate analysis of JFK’s successes and failures in the White House, in an Esquire
article called “Kennedy Without Tears.” This post is written in the same spirit.
There should be nothing unusual about this. All public figures in American history—some loved even more than Ted Kennedy—have undergone this corrective process.
Even as the Boston Globe
staff-written bio of the senator, The Last Lion
, occupies a berth on the bestseller list, and Kennedy’s own posthumous memoir, True Compass
, receives respectful reviews, the signs point toward him receiving the same treatment as these earlier figures. It does not appear at this point that a younger Kennedy will occupy a Senate seat anytime soon. As the family power fades, greater objectivity than exists in the aftermath of a death will set in, and the process of revisionism and counter-revisionism will begin in earnest.
Coming to terms with Edward Kennedy
, as statesman and private person, is complicated by the wild ardor of admirers and the equally fierce animus of detractors. Neither side, I think, gets at the essence of the man because they ignore anything outside their worldviews.
To a degree that even his older brothers couldn’t summon, he evokes, even in death, Americans’ longstanding ambivalence about matters of class and power-- none of which has ebbed one iota, even after a widening revolution in rights in the nearly half century in which he served in the Senate.
As a Catholic, I am additionally fascinated by the questions his situation poses about penitence, good works and forgiveness— matters far more complex and uncomfortable than we like to admit.Kennedy at Columbia, 1980
I experienced something of the varied reactions to the senator in a campaign appearance during my sophomore year at Columbia University in 1980. Then as now, students in that Ivy League institution tended to be overwhelmingly liberal, so this was a natural audience for the Massachusetts Senator as he attempted to keep alive his insurgent challenge to President Jimmy Carter
in the New York primary.Roger Hilsman
, a professor of government and a member of JFK’s administration, introduced the surviving Kennedy brother. The candidate couldn’t ask for friendlier listeners: young, progressive, with a fairly large Jewish component who (rightly) cheered his attack on the Carter administration for a botched American vote at the U.N. that resulted in an anti-Israel resolution.
Even in that receptive crowd, however, naysayers existed--not Republicans (they were so close to extinction on campus that they were viewed like exotic animals at a zoo), but smart-alecks and dissenters who didn’t buy into the Camelot mystique.
At one point, just before Kennedy started, the crowd standing outside the capacity-filled room in Ferris Booth Hall grew restless. From my seat in the back of the auditorium, I heard one lone male voice lifted above the hubbub, vocalizing the title of a pop standard distinctly alien to most of us: “Call Me Irresponsible…” A couple of people snickered.
Shortly thereafter, a low hum ensued, rising in intensity, as several people joined in. I figured out the title of that tune just at the moment it evoked a loud guffaw: “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
If Kennedy encountered that ridicule even on Morningside Heights, he must have experienced it far more often, with much less reticence, elsewhere around the country during that primary season. The question of Chappaquiddick shadowed his candidacy—and, now that he is laid to rest with his brothers in Arlington National Cemetery, it shadows a reputation he can do no more to alter.Kennedy, as Candidate and Legislator
No less than today, the press gave no real idea of how Kennedy (or, for that matter, Republicans) would govern while in office.
It wasn’t just that reporters were only interested in the horserace aspects of his candidacy. Policy positions made to capture interest groups, in primaries as in general elections, are notoriously fungible once oaths of office are taken. The one better-than-average predictor of performance in office is how a candidate moved legislation as a Senator or governor.
This area was precisely where Kennedy enjoyed a sizable advantage over Carter. Not only was Carter’s inner circle filled with young Georgians (e.g., Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell) possessing little or no experience in Washington, but even in his home state they had been at constant loggerheads with the legislature.
Kennedy, on the other hand, had, by the end of the 1960s, not only passed major pieces of legislation (including bills related to immigration and civil rights) but had served as assistant whip of the Senate. With (at least initially) no intention of moving higher in government, he took the time to learn the ways of the Senate.
In reading about the young Kennedy, learning the ropes of the institution (and especially the fine points of a law and how it would affect the common man), I'm reminded of nobody so much as another Irish-American politician: Alfred E. Smith
in the New York State Assembly, learning every particular of a budget—and patiently concentrating during hearings on the Triangle factory fire.
In time, more than 500 pieces of Kennedy-cosponsored bills became law, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Immigration Act of 1965, the Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program of 1972, COBRA, and the Medical Device Amendments of 1976. Few, if any, Americans were unaffected by all this legislation.
Yet, though Carter’s incompetence as legislator-in-chief exasperated Kennedy, he was unable to describe it to the media and the public in anything other than one word: “leadership.” In the absence of ideological differences, the media and the public could and did interpret his candidacy as motivated by nothing more than ambition.
Kennedy’s eloquence was another matter. That booming voice was unsurpassed when presented with a prepared text, far less comfortable off the cuff.
As President, then, it seems safe to say, Kennedy would have far surpassed Carter in knowing how and when to cut a deal, as well as in mobilizing public opinion behind policies.
It remains an open question, however, whether Kennedy could have freed himself from the intellectual trough in which liberalism found itself in the late 1970s. For all their decided lack of interest in the machinery of legislation, Jack and Bobby Kennedy had demonstrated an interest in thinking outside the box, even in challenging their natural constituencies.
(See CBS political correspondent Jeff Greenfield’s Playing to Win
, which describes the extreme discomfort induced by Bobby when he asked an audience of college males if they felt okay to use their draft deferments when guys the same age with less money could not get out of it, or Michael Knox Beran’s biography of RFK, The Last Patrician
, which sees the newly elected New York Senator’s advocacy of an anti-poverty program in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the light of his suspicion of Great Society nostrums).
God knows, the Democratic Party could have used a “third way” between Reagan-style cowboy capitalism and a paternalistic welfare state that offered few rewards for innovation or staying off the dole. Its failure to find such a model, as America’s industrial model was shaken to the core by resurgent international competition, ensured that the Democrats would lose three straight Presidential elections—and that Republicans would take off every brake that had prevented another global economic meltdown after the Great Depression.
Nobody gets through nearly a half century in office with making serious missteps. In failing to accord proper weight to Kennedy’s, his admirers—including former New York Times
reporter (and biographer) Adam Clymer—fail to take the proper measurement of his achievements.
So, where was Kennedy found wanting?
* His refusal of a deal with Richard Nixon for a health-care plan
. In 1974, Nixon—by now mired in Watergate—offered a health-care plan that, as J. Lester Feder notes
, was even more liberal than the one President Obama is backing now, in that it included an employer mandate and a public insurance plan. Kennedy held out for a government insurance option for everyone, and when that wasn’t in the cards, he walked out from any deal. That moment in time ended up being a lost opportunity—right now, even Nixon’s plan couldn’t pass in the current Congress. It’s ironic that the issue most identified with Kennedy’s career also represented his greatest defeat.
* His wildly over-the-top denunciation of Robert Bork's nomination for the Supreme Court
. Kennedy was probably used to the style of the Senate, in which lawmakers could routinely denounce bills of colleagues in the most bitter terms—they all knew it was just politics and didn’t take it personally. Kennedy didn’t invent the game of playing politics with Supreme Court justice nominations (Republicans stalled LBJ’s 1968 nominees in the hope—proven correct—that they’d recapture the Presidency before the year was out), but all elected officials have the opportunity to make the atmosphere in DC less toxic. Even Kennedy’s best friends in the Senate, though, such as Joe Biden, while they opposed Bork’s nomination, thought the following words from Kennedy were way too extreme: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of the government.” This was utterly exaggerated—but it worked—much to the detriment of the subsequent nomination process.
* His advocacy of abortion on demand.
Senator Kennedy’s support for abortion under any circumstance selicited a predictable response from some Roman Catholics: the urge to deny him a Catholic funeral mass. Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley, I believe, was correct in permitting services. Indeed, denying one would have led to uncomfortable questions about what other sins were so bad that they could not
be forgiven. (Would, say, the Church deny a funeral to a convicted clerical child-molester?)
All that said, Kennedy’s resolutely pro-choice stance is an early example of what I call a “nomination conversion”—i.e., a mid-career switch that nearly every Democrat has had to perform in order to have a chance at the nomination. (Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, Richard Gephardt, and Al Gore all began their careers against abortion.)
Henry of Navarre, a 16th-century Huguenot who converted to Catholicism to secure the throne of France, is said to have remarked that Paris was worth a Mass. Abortion is the Democratic Party’s answer to that, only a rejection rather than embrace of moral or religious principle to secure ultimate power.
Rather than functioning as a profile of courage, Kennedy’s opposition to any constraint whatsoever on abortion (not even calling for waiting periods or bans on partial-birth abortions) constituted his most dismaying failure to act on behalf of the defenseless he always claimed to support. Before he declared his candidacy against Jimmy Carter, Kennedy mobilized liberal support by saying that sometimes a party had to “sail against the wind.” He was noticeably unable to do so concerning abortion.
It does not constitute, no matter what conservatives might say, an act that invalidated all the good he did in other instances throughout his career, but it was a profoundly dismaying road not taken.
And then there is Chappaquiddick.
Yes, Chappaquiddick—a subject I wish I didn’t have to write about and that many of my readers would rather forget.
Symptomatic of that syndrome is the recent New York Times
headline: “Kennedy Book Doesn’t Ignore Low Episodes.” Well, how could it? What publisher in his right mind would sign a memoir absolutely silent on Chappaquiddick?Chappaquiddick as Moral Midnight
Two months ago, I wrote a 40th-anniversary retrospective of Chappaquiddick
. I don’t intend to rehash the details of that piece. But the moral implications of the event not only remain dimly understood, but now, because of Kennedy’s death, rise to the surface again.
Kennedy’s black Oldsmobile toppled over the bridge at Chappaquiddick around midnight. The darkness surrounding the incident to this day is a perfect metaphor for how his actions have come to be construed over the years by supporters.
In a way, conservatives played into liberals’ hands by implying (or, more often, outright claiming) that Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne were having a rendezvous. That meant his supporters
could say what happened that night was strictly an act of the flesh, something done in passing, and, hence, not amounting to anything when weighed against the totality of Kennedy’s career.
Let’s change the perspective for a second:
1) What if Mary Jo Kopechne—blonde, attractive, female—was, instead, Jerry
2) What if the driver of the vehicle was not Ted Kennedy, but Richard Nixon?
The second question is more easily answered: You can bet your bottom dollar that if “Tricky Dick” were linked to a car with a dead blonde in it, a special prosecutor would have been appointed as rapidly as for Watergate. I think the appointment would have occurred even more
rapidly, because the car could have been traced far more quickly to its owner than the President’s ties were to a group of amateurish burglars.
But the first question would have fundamentally changed the perception of Chappaquiddick, too. In that case, Kopechne’s death would be seen not as the result of an affair, but of a tendency toward sporadic, out-of-control drinking that preceded the incident and that continued for a generation afterward. (To be more exact: until nephew William Kennedy Smith's rape trial--and Kennedy's testimony on the stand about getting his son Patrick and Smith out of bed for a night of drinking--endangered his upcoming re-election campaign for the first time ever, and forced him, at last, to turn his life around.)
In an example of brief but welcome candor, Boston Globe
columnist Joan Vennochi referred to Chappaquiddick as “a moment of tremendous moral collapse.”
The “moment” occurred when the car Kennedy was driving crashed into the dark waters off the bridge. But the “moment” didn’t kill Mary Jo Kopechne. She survived for a couple of hours through a tiny air pocket in the car. But she couldn’t survive Kennedy’s 10-hour delay in notifying authorities.
That meant that Chappaquiddick was far more than “a moment”:
* It involved a multi-year denial by Kennedy to himself and to well-wishers that he had a drinking problem.
* It spawned a successful, 40-year coverup that left understanding of the incident and its immediate aftermath murky.
* It damaged the Senator’s ability to speak with moral credibility on matters ranging from one President’s coverup attempt (Nixon’s), a Vice-President’s involvement with Iran-contra (George H.W. Bush), and the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.
Just compare the reaction of Kennedy’s most diehard supporters with how they greeted the news that Dick Cheney had accidentally shot a friend on a quail-hunting trip
. The more conspiratorially minded wondered about the chronology of events—how it had all happened, how long it took before medical aid was summoned, why the press wasn’t notified sooner.
If you’re looking for a defense of Cheney’s impact as Vice-President on American foreign policy and on the President he was asked to serve, find another post. With each succeeding revelation of how he helped steer policy with ideological blinders, with each statement he’s made to the media about the Obama Presidency (maybe more in nine months out of office than in eight years in the Bush White House!), I don’t think there’s any question that influence was harmful.
But in this incident, and this incident alone
, the bete noire
of the left wing did the right thing: call immediately for help. It’s the same thing that responsible adults are morally—and, in the case of incidents involving motor vehicles, legally—obligated to do. It’s the same thing that you’d expect a longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee would do. It’s exactly what Kennedy failed
The question not merely of equality of press coverage but equality before the law comes into play with Chappaquiddick.
Within the last couple of weeks, a beloved retired New York Mets pitcher was sentenced to six months in jail for tax evasion. A recent Super Bowl hero received a two-year prison term for carrying an unlicensed, concealed weapon into a New York nightclub.
Nobody died because of Jerry Koosman’s or Plaxico Burress’ actions (though they certainly could have in the latter case). Somebody did
, of course, in Kennedy’s case. His punishment? Two months’ probation for failing to report, and leaving the scene of, an accident.
The difference in treatment, of course, resulted from the fact that politicians were not making a high-profile example of Kennedy, as New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg did with Burress. In contrast, Kennedy himself was
a politician, and not just any
politician, but one whose position came in no small part from family wealth.
Also, a politician who could call on all kinds of human as well as financial resources to evade responsibility. Predecessors of Kirk as “Honorary Kennedys” descended on Martha’s Vineyard that weekend to help extricate the frantic senator from his mess: Richard Goodwin and Ted Sorensen; Milton Gwirtzman, David Burke and Burke Marshall; brother-in-law Stephen Smith; congressmen John Culver and John Tunney—men called on by Ted’s brothers to assist in some of the noblest battles involving civil rights and anti-poverty efforts in U.S. history, now enlisted in something infinitely grimier.
All these shrewd men were forced to, in effect, square a circle—explain how Kennedy, if he was as shaky from a concussion as he claimed, could, in the hours after the accident:
* disregard the advice of lawyer friends Paul Markham and Joey Gargan that he report the accident (take care of telling the girls at the party, he instructed them—he would “take care of the accident”; only he didn’t);
* make more than 16 long-distance phone calls to aides;
* gripe to his hotel manager about a noisy party (forgetting, perhaps, that the one he’d attended the night before wasn’t exactly quiet);
* discuss the regatta race the next morning with a friend as if nothing had happened;
* order two newspapers;
* meet again with Gargan and Markham;
* phone another
Then, and only then
, did he go to the police.
If Kennedy devoted so much effort just to hold onto a safe seat he already possessed in Massachusetts, what would he have done to gain and retain the Presidency?
If he invested so many resources in covering up the circumstances of what was the life of only one person, what would he have done to paper over those involving service personnel sent into harm’s way in the defense of their country, as every President since FDR has had to do in one form or another?
To the day he died, Kennedy expressed regret over actions he called “irrational, indefensible, inexcusable and inexplicable." Actually, they’re inexplicable only
if you accept Kennedy’s statement that he had no more than two or three beers in the hours leading up to the accident.
And this is the amazing thing: for all the talent he employed to get him out of his dilemma, for all the kid-gloves treatment he received from the Massachusetts legal and political establishment, and for all the years he’s stuck to the same basic statement, hardly anyone I’ve read believes Kennedy’s account
Though it is largely forgotten now, there was a legal finding to this effect, issued by Judge James Boyle following a grand jury investigation. Boyle wrote that Kennedy lied about intending to drive to the ferry slip, and that, given the difficulty in crossing the bridge, it "would at least be negligent and, possibly, reckless" when he approached it at 20 miles per hour.
Want to know the most ironic aspect of this? Respect for Kennedy accrued over the years at the same time that Mothers Against Drunk Driving increasingly stigmatized the type of behavior that just about everyone believes occurred that night 40 years ago.A Horrifying Moral Calculus
After my post two months ago, I didn’t think I could write anything else about this incident. But three essays filled me with a horror that could only be abated with a response.