Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Tribute to Ted Kennedy

At a time when tributes to Ted Kennedy are popping up all over the media, each one making stops at all the right rhetorical bases (it is the end of an era, he was a titan of the Senate, a true lion for the cause of liberalism, etc), it is easy to forget that very few of us are actually capable of adequately encapsulating the contents of another man's mind. All of us can recite Kennedy's achievements in fighting for health care reform, civil rights, women's rights, education, environmental legislation, and beyond, but who is truly qualified to pronounce who Kennedy was - what made him tick, what made him such a legend, and as such why his death is such a great loss?

The answer to that question is organically connected, of course, to the mythos which surrounds the Kennedy brand. John Kennedy offered the liberal movement its first inspiring president since Franklin Roosevelt, and soon provided the hopes and ideals of an entire era with a handsome face, charismatic persona, and eloquent voice. When his life was brutally snuffed out, his brother Bobby assumed the mantle of his fallen sibling, and did so with great promise... until he too was murdered, at what very well could have been his impending ascent to the White House (it is worth noting that his murder arguably constitutes the first act of Islamic terrorism on American soil; his assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, shot RFK on the one year anniversary of the Six Day War due to Kennedy's support for Israel).

That left Edward Kennedy. A brief movement sprung up to draft him for the presidential nomination in 1968; Kennedy, recognizing the political power held by Vice President Hubert Humphrey over the Democratic Party following his brother's death and seeing the disadvantages of running as a one-term thirty-six-year-old Massachusetts Senator, prudently declined all such offers. It is quite likely that he would have been the Democratic party's presidential nominee in 1972 (indeed, there is abundant evidence that such a possibility was President Nixon's greatest fear) had it not been for a single irrevocable tragedy - Chappaquiddick, which occurred one year to the day after his Robert Kennedy's death and (ironically) transpired at a party being held to honor the memory of his quixotic campaign. Rather than summarize the details again here (especially considering how likely it is that they will be repeated ad nauseam within the next few days), I think it is sufficient to say that the damage they did to the personal reputation of Edward Moore Kennedy was fatal. It did not detract from the idealism of the Kennedy brand; indeed, Kennedy was capable of using the hope fostered by his great name to pose a serious challenge to an incumbent president within his own party, Jimmy Carter, during the 1980 Democratic primary. Yet Chappaquiddick ultimately guaranteed that while Kennedy might be allowed to carry on the legacy of his brothers, Americans would never entrust him to do so in the White House.

Though he was no doubt disappointed, Kennedy took advantage of this by having a rich and meaningful career as a Senator, one that far exceeded in sheer fruitfulness those of either of his two siblings. And I think this willingness to make the best of the hand fate dealt him - this resigned acceptance of the fact that he would never live to see another Kennedy in the White House, but that he had an obligation to uphold the values for which his family stood, even if that required attaining distinction in a less distinguished post - THAT, I believe, will be Kennedy's greatest legacy. Many politicians before him have abandoned everything for which they ostensibly stood once it became clear that their presidential dreams were out of reach; certainly Kennedy could have maintained his reputation, his fame, his wealth, his prestige, without subjecting himself to years of brutal legislative battles, exhausting re-election campaigns, and the constant slog of life as one of America's most active Senators. His supporters may have felt somewhat let down by his retreat from public life, but certainly few would have held a permanent grudge against him. Such selfishness is so common among our politicians that we have grown to expect it, and rarely fault our would-be statesmen when they choose to display it.

Yet Kennedy continued to devote his life fighting for the cause of liberalism well after there was any personal advantage he could derive from doing so. This, more than anything, proves that he deserves honor for more than just being a Kennedy; at a time when so many progressive champions prove their ideals to be mere expedients (I'm looking at you, John Edwards), Kennedy showed that he was the real deal.