August 27, 2009
The passing of Teddy Kennedy from the world stage has been a long time coming, and almost everyone made up their mind on him many years ago. As a ferocious, zestful crusader who made helping poor and disadvantaged people his life's mission, he left a mark that will be remembered for many decades to come. Burdened with trying to uphold the political legacy of his two fallen older brothers John and Robert, both of whom were almost universally revered, Teddy sometimes faltered and stumbled, but he always got back up and started pushing once again. No one can imagine the pain and the agony that he must have suffered from the awful way they both perished, both on a personal level and on the level of political leadership. The Kennedy mantle was thrust upon him, and it was simply inconceivable that he would not carry it forward.
Kennedy was larger than life, figuratively speaking, and it would be hard to compare him to any other leader in modern America. He meant for the Democratic Party about what Ronald Reagan meant to the Republican Party: he was the source of rhetorical inspiration, and the touchstone by which all policy initiatives had to be evaluated. While he had an ample record of legislative accomplishments from nearly a half century on Capitol Hill, during the prime of his career he was out of step ideologically with the nation as a whole. Many of us baby boomers always assumed that Kennedy would eventually win election to the U.S. presidency, but it never happened. Given the polarizing figure that he became over the years, we are probably better off that he never lived in the White House.
Kennedy's various moral shortcomings are well-enough known not to need recounting here. Those vices may even have been a result of the enormous pressure he was under. It should be pointed out, however, that deep character flaws such as Kennedy exhibited are not so easily separated from the public figure himself (or herself), as many people seem to believe.
Many conservatives loved to hate Kennedy, but some of them learned how to work with him. For example, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) often collaborated with Kennedy to hammer out bipartisan compromises in the Senate. In today's Washington Post, Dan Balz noted that Kennedy left a dual legacy:
He was the vibrant symbol of American liberalism in an era of conservative ascendance. He was also the vigorous embodiment of a pragmatic legislator in an era of deep partisan divisions and political polarization.
Many on the opposite side of the political spectrum have paid graceful respect to Kennedy's life, which is indeed fitting, but we shouldn't let such gestures cloud our judgment. While it is true that he could be dignified and civil toward his adversaries, Kennedy frequently went overboard in denouncing some of them. He could not seem to understand that those with different opinions were not necessarily evil or corrupt, and some of his rhetorical statements needlessly inflamed his supporters and caused greater division in our country. In this respect, Kennedy fell far short of the standard set by Ronald Reagan, who was also hated by people on the other side, but hardly ever let it get under his skin or showed animosity, such as Kennedy did.
It is quite a coincidence that Kennedy passed away just as the country is at a crossroads, deciding whether to make Teddy's fondest dream come true: nationalized health care. Some say that he would have helped to forge a bipartisan compromise, but I think it is more likely that he would have sided with those Demorats who favor the "nuclear option" of ramming through legislation by suspending the U.S. Senate's procedures by which a 40-seat minority bloc can stage a filibuster. Health care was Kennedy's life mission, and his name will be invoked both by supporters and opponents of "Obamacare" as the moment of legislative truth approaches.
Whether history judges him favorably or not, Kennedy's career in the U.S. Senate will serve as an epochal frame of reference. The United States is now in the transition from the old-style Kennedy liberalism, an enduring alliance between Eastern cultural elites and industrial labor unions (which "succeeded" in putting themselves out of business), to the new-style Obama liberalism, in which sophisticated media manipulation is crafting a utopian image of an America in which class and ethnic distinctions wither away. Hold on to your hats ... and your wallets!