Pushed by his father Joesph Kennedy, a political force in his own right, John F. Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1952. He would become President in 1960, beginning an era of politics defined in part by the symbolism and power of the Kennedy clan. Alas, John would be assassinated in 1963, and middle brother Robert, who inspired hope in the midst of the unrest of the civil rights and anti-war movements, would be killed after the California primary in 1968. It would be left to younger brother Edward “Ted” Kennedy to combine symbol with substance in 47 years of Senate service. Few in history can match his legislative efficacy and impact.
Back when I worked in the Senate, Ted Kennedy’s office was a couple floors below the office I worked at. I would occasionally see the Senator in the hall way or leaving the building. He was even then one of the Senate superstars. A few years earlier he had lost his primary challenge to President Carter, and now seemed resigned to the fact he’d never make the White House, and would have to make his mark through Senate activism. He would work with anybody — even political opposites like Jesse Helms — if it would help get legislation passed. And by all reports he was from the old school where political opposition did not mean personal animosity. He got along with everyone, and was respected by his colleagues left and right.
Kennedy, however, had his flaws. There were constant rumors about his personal life. And, of course, if not for the incident at Chappaquiddick, when Kennedy delayed reporting an accident which took the life of his passenger, Kennedy might well have become President in 1976. Of the three Kennedy brothers, Teddy was the best at reading other people, understanding how others think, what they want, and knowing what to say. He was a natural politician, using empathy to build tremendously successful strategies. Many people believe that if Kennedy had been active this summer like he had in the past, the health care bill would be far more likely to pass with much more of what the President wants.
Kennedy’s politics were clearly liberal, but he was a certain kind of liberal. He was not an ideological zealot driven by theory or special interests. What made him special was his empathy. He truly understood and cared for average folk and what they were going through. He saw his role as helping those who lacked power, and could not stand up to large corporate or even governmental interests. He was a true humanist liberal, driven by principle and compassion rather than ideology.
To be sure, one doesn’t have to share Kennedy’s views on politics and government to be an empathetic humanist. His view on life and government led him to define his compassion in terms of promoting governmental programs, such as health care reform. Ironically, his biggest failure may have been his refusal to go along with health care reform in the Nixon era, believing that a better bill would come along later. It never did, and in retrospect many regret the failure to act when it was possible back in the 70s.
There are of course those on the far right who are so used to hating Kennedy that they’ll not recognize how he was motivated by the best of intentions, how he struggled to overcome personal tragedies and flaws, and how widely respected he was by colleagues on both sides of the aisle. They’ll demonize him in death, just as many on the left were unable to let Strom Thurmond live down his early segregationist days. Those people don’t know what being human means, they are too wrapped up in politics and their own biases.
Kennedy was a good man, a great politician, and a fallible human being whose life was defined by triumph and tragedy. His two brothers were assassinated, and at one point many seemed certain Ted would be too. (To bad for all those Nostradamus enthusiasts who claimed as a ‘true’ prediction a claim that three brothers in America would all be assassinated). He was iconic, seemed larger than life near the end, and his early 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama helped assure Obama would defeat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Preisdential nomination.
One gets that sense that Kennedy got to see the “liberal promised land” in being able to witness the election of Barack Obama, the first black President. When Kennedy first joined the Senate in 1962, the civil rights movement was young, and the idea of a black President virtually unthinkable. When Irving Wallace wrote The Man in 1972, he had to create a wild set of circumstances whereby a black Senate pro tempore would become the President in a succession crisis. Kennedy witnessed the voting rights act and civil rights movement achieving its greatest advance. He also saw a new generation of youth activism and liberalism in the support generated for Obama in 2008. Sure, it may not last — but for Kennedy his last memories would be of Democratic optimism and a sense of change for the future. Even if it doesn’t come to pass, Kennedy no doubt died believing it would.
There are few politicians of Kennedy’s stature left on either side of the aisle these days. He was a fierce partisans who didn’t take politics personally or believe the opposition to be evil. Kennedy could rail against the Iraq war without making it seem like he hated President Bush or Vice President Cheney. He symbolized respectful opposition.
There is much being written about his accomplishments, stories about his life, the tragedies, the controversies, and his strength. To me, Kennedy will always represent the traditional liberal notion of government being there to help the average person deal with problems made difficult by poverty, powerful corporate actors, or social injustice. That traditional notion has been questioned in recent years. Does government help actually create dependencies that hurt people? Do bureaucratic costs override the good being done? Those are legitimate questions. But, whether one judges Kennedy’s politics right or wrong, few can doubt that he believed that he was fighting to help real people solve real problems.
A legend has passed away, ending an era that spanned John F. Kennedy’s rise in the fifties to Ted’s consequential endorsement of Obama. There are others from the Kennedy family in politics, playing often influential roles. But the Kennedy brothers are akin to political mythology, so potent and symbolic are their stories and lives, as well as the frailties in their personal affairs. And, of course, many wonder what would have happened if Robert Kennedy hadn’t been killed during his Presidential campaign — how would history have been different?
Adieu, Senator Kennedy. You have left your mark, and perhaps helped make the world a better place. You will be missed.