Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Dearest Kennedy

There was some irony in Edward M. Kennedy's life. Of the four boys Joseph Kennedy and his wife bore, he was the last to be considered for an office of public trust. First, Joe, Jr. was the great hope, but he death on the battlefield opened an opportunity for "Jack", who had no such aspirations. Yet, the second son did well, if also with some of what me might call tabloid flamboyance - marrying a beautiful, intelligent debutante, engaging in many lurid affairs, having a public record of negligible consequence - that ended in a bloody mess on the streets of Dallas. John Fitzgerald Kennedy's closest confidant, his brother Robert, took upon his shoulders the mantle of heir-apparent, even as Republicans and Democrats managed together to agree that never again should a President appoint a close family member to his Cabinet, never mind that as Attorney General, and previous as special counsel to a Senate committee, Robert Kennedy had served not only well, but showed a greater grasp of the rough and tumble of politics than his older brother.

Again, an assassin's bullet brought to a screeching halt the hopes of another Kennedy in the White House. Edward seemed outclassed in every way by his now-deceased older brothers. Not long after the loss of Bobby, Teddy found himself embroiled in scandal, driving his car off a bridge, an accident that took the life of Sarah Jo Kopeckni who may or may not have been pregnant.

The 1970's were an ordeal for Kennedy. By most accounts, he squandered the main chance between booze and women. His quarrel with President Carter over many issues - Kennedy was far more liberal than the conservative southerner in the White House - played a major role in Carter's defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1980 (I remember the day Carter was quoted, before the primaries, as saying that if Kennedy ran, Carter would "kick his ass"; he did, a lot of good it did him). Kennedy thought about running in 1984, but bowed out, yet he gave a great, rousing speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, a year of such events.

In 1992, he helped Bill Clinton out, again at the Democratic convention, by intoning again and again, "George Herbert HOOVER Bush", a great line indeed. In his final appearance at a Democratic convention, last year, he offered his help and support to Barack Obama.

Yet, there was more to Kennedy than his relationship to his older brothers and great speechifying. He was a master legislator, helping to craft many pieces on health care, labor rights, and other issues over the years. He was the first Senator to come forward, after a careful and close reading of both the opinions and writings of federal Judge Robert Bork, and announce his intent to vote against his confirmation to the US Supreme Court.

He was vilified by the right, caricatured by Tom Clancy as a drunken serial rapist, and his personal demons were the fodder for intrusive photographers (I once saw a photo that purported to be Kennedy, naked atop a young woman, sporting in a small boat tied alongside another larger boat off the coast somewhere) and gossip mongers. While such behavior is unseemly, it had little relevance to his public career. He fought the good liberal fight even as it went out of fashion. He ran against a sitting President of his own party on principle. He offered his aid to many politicians. His Senate staff, by all accounts, was one of the brightest, most thorough, and most efficient.

This marks the end of an era in US history, and we should all mourn with all the Kennedys and their various straggling relations. We should also uphold his legacy by doing what we can to make this country a little bit better, a little more compassionate, and dedicated to public service for its own sake, as not just a privilege but a duty as free people.

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