Friday, August 28, 2009
The Romans had a rule for those who would comment on departed foes: “Speak nothing but good about the dead.” So with the passing of US Senator Ted Kennedy, a man whose politics and personal life pressed the boundaries of that ubiquitous and respectful euphemism, “imperfect,” what to say?
Must we overlook his excesses in remembering one of the most significant American politicians of the last half-century? While he is celebrated as the “Lion of the Senate” by those who admired him, as well as opponents who are being polite, perhaps it is fitting to consider Kennedy’s career more fully.
Since Kennedy’s death, we have been reminded that on July 18, 1969, Mary Jo Kopechne died when the senator drove a car carrying the two of them off a bridge and into a tidal channel at Chappaquiddick, in his home state of Massachusetts. Rather than report the incident at once, Kennedy spent precious hours doing damage control with consultants as Mary Jo fought for air in the submerged vehicle. In the wake of Kennedy’s own demise, some say it is in poor taste to mention her – but why? What makes her life less valuable than his?
Mary Jo would be 69 today, had Kennedy evinced nobler priorities. Instead, she died in that river while he went on to be “lionized” in the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest deliberative body.” Perhaps, as his defenders suggest, the incident at Chappaquiddick did not define Kennedy’s life – but it certainly defined hers.
In the political arena, Kennedy’s career is often conflated with the Camelot mystique of his older brother, President John F. Kennedy. In reality, their policies were very different. While Ted was an unrepentant advocate of government intervention and income redistribution, JFK’s tax cuts exceeded even those of Republican White House successors like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
In foreign policy, JFK was a strong anti-communist who understood and articulated America’s unique responsibility to defend freedom in the world. Ted, meanwhile, adopted every tenet of the isolationist Left, from supporting the “Nuclear Freeze” that would have given the Soviet Union permanent military supremacy, to opposing the 1991 Gulf War.
As to communism, Ted’s campaign to de-fund the government of South Vietnam in the 1970s was the most significant move, in human terms, of his career. Millions were murdered in the aftermath. To his credit, Ted sought to help Vietnamese refugees, known as “boat people,” who after years of bombing and war only took to the seas as the Northern communists approached. But with a little foresight, this tragedy could have been prevented.
When a third brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1968, Ted eulogized him in words adapted from another unapologetic leftist, George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘why not?’” It was a magnificent, timeless address, suggesting a talent and intellect that one mourns in contemplation of what this man could have been.
Different as they were, I hope Jack, Bobby and Ted are happily reunited in Heaven. Brothers are brothers and anyway, politics, like life, is one big best guess.
Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.