Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Danger of a Long Life: Ted Kennedy

Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse, for all its cynical abandon, does have the advantage of avoiding the messiness of a life lived long. Anyone dying young never has to worry about making the difficult choices that a long life offers. When we think of a long life, we usually think about opportunities and enjoyment, not the trials, tragedies and challenges that everyone encounters in that life.

Ted Kennedy lived fast at times in his life. He did not die young. I can’t vouch for the quality of his corpse but in his last appearances he appeared to face death with a stoic calm. Rather than his physical corpse, he leaves us with a corpus of work, to be debated, assessed and revised. The immediate aftermath of his death brought encominia galore about the Senate’s liberal lion. For a few days, Liberal has not been an epithet. Even Republicans speak highly of Kennedy these days.

But every action has an opposite reaction. Kennedy is not yet in his grave and the counter stories are making their way out. The Washington Post gives space to conservatives who denigrate and despise Kennedy’s accomplishments (often to their disadvantage) and will forever excoriate his many failings. If they are honest, they will also remember him fondly as the caricature Liberal boogey-man whose mere name was a guaranteed fund raiser for their causes.

An equally harsh view is Muhammad Cohen’s, a long-time Kennedy supporter, who remembers that Kennedy’s liberalism did little to prevent or even hinder the wholesale dismantling of the New Deal-Great Society reforms that enhanced economic justice, worker protection and social and economic opportunity for the ordinary Americans. Kennedy’s personal failings left him sidelined in the fight to prevent Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court. Cohen dreams of a Kennedy that Should Have Been. The Kennedy that lived was a disappointment.

Unlike his brothers, Ted Kennedy lived long enough for his transgressions to catch up with them. John and Robert both had their weaknesses but their achievements and early deaths strongly counterbalance any negative memories which are often overlooked by most Americans. Ted had plenty of time and often the poor judgment to make serious mistakes in an age where few public figures can escape scrutiny. No matter how you look at his life, those shortcomings will be there.

The conservatives critique Kennedy for doing nothing with his wealth and privilege (one “Thurston Howell III”, according to one conservative) even as they promoted him for years as the Great Liberal Threat. Cohen says Kennedy failed as a leader for the causes he championed. I tend to side with Cohen when I look at the changes wrought by the conservative restoration of the past three decades; Cohen is right that Kennedy didn’t stop it. Unlike Cohen, I don’t see those changes as Kennedy’s personal political fault, but rather a failure of liberal and progressive leadership at all levels to articulate a meaningful vision of their America to challenge the conservative utopia that is always just a few more tax cuts away.
Ted Kennedy goes to his grave a flawed man. So do we all. The difference is that his life, flaws and all, are writ large.


Among the many photos of Kennedy's life, I saw one of him meeting with Vietnam Veterans Against the War in April 1971. For many reasons that resonated with me personally. The photo was on Slate but I cannot locate it there or anywhere now.

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Blogger atuuschaaw said...

Great Read! We are all...most definitely flawed!

Yep, history is our best and our worst critic! Even though the business union structures supported him, he was not as well thought of by some of the more member run democratic union structures. A matter of one hierarchy supporting another hierarchy...the lords of the law. Ted definitely had a colorful life, and he could have been much worse. As compassionate human beings, I think we should give credit where credit is due and recognize we as a people can even learn from "his" mistakes.

I am of the opinion that Kennedy's death removes a little more of the chinking which has been the mortar holding together the John Wayne political era. The people have been steadily moving forward, they are much more educated now, and with the advancements in knowledge transfer...they will never be as naive as they once were. These days it seems to take great effort to distinguish between the good guys and the bad. I swear, it just is not as easy as it once was. The lawmaker's hats have all started looking like old gray knockoff stetsons! I'm thinking our political structures and their law makers have not really changed all that much...I'm thinking my eyesight has just gotten much better! :-)

1:32 PM  

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