The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Ted Kennedy
They say never speak ill of the dead. Good advice, but neither should we whitewash those ills. The good and the bad must be weighed when taking the full measure of their lives.
Ted Kennedy, by any measure, led an extraordinary life enduring both triumph and tragedy leaving indelible mark on American political history. There is his place in the Kennedy legacy a story better told elsewhere, his role as the “liberal lion” of the Senate duly earned for his unapologetic liberalism, and Kennedy’s amazing legislative skills, which forged bipartisan consensus on some of the most significant legislation over the last 50 years. Of course, one should not mistake his bipartisan flair for a political virtue, as some of those bipartisan accomplishments—No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D come to mind—are examples of particularly bad legislation. Instead conservatives should look to forgotten pieces of Kennedy’s legislative achievements liberals would rather bury with him.
The one aspect of Kennedy I admire most was his compassion, compassion not as a political ideal but as a personal virtue. From all accounts his compassion crossed ideological boundaries. Kennedy offered solace and advice to the late conservative columnist Robert Novak when he learned of Novak’s similar malignancy. There was a genuine sincerity to his compassion that endeared him to friend and foe alike.
Kennedy’s personal failings were well known, but to his credit he righted himself and learned from those failings to make himself a better man. However, as Prof. Vatz mentioned earlier, his explanation and self serving “apology” for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick remain unsatisfactory.
For all the progressive hagiography surrounding the “liberal lion” we cannot forget Kennedy was a ruthless politician—as were his brothers. Politics aint bean bag as they say, but his speech on the Senate floor vilifying Robert Bork was beyond the pale:
Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, children could not be taught about evolution.
The “liberal lion” was not above pulling petty political tricks either. Rick Snider a sports columnist for the Washington Examiner experienced this first hand:
I crossed paths once with Kennedy where I learned a valuable lesson about covering politicians — nothing is as it appears. I was a college sophomore working for the school paper when word came that Kennedy would appear on campus for a campaign stop in his 1980 bid for president. The staff huddled for hours working on one question we expected to ask. Instead, Kennedy took three questions from people so obviously planted in the crowd that even a 19-year-old like myself walked away knowing the whole thing was a setup.
Neither was Kennedy immune from the hypocrisy of liberal politics. There is gaping chasm between his rhetoric and his actions. While railing against tax breaks for “big oil”, Kennedy ensured tax exemptions for oil companies owned by his family. An ardent supporter of the estate tax, Kennedy created a vast web of trusts and foundations to shield his family’s wealth from the IRS.
There is also another ugly chapter in the Kennedy epoch that should outstrip Chappaquiddick, if only the mainstream media bothered to notice. Kennedy, a sitting US Senator actively pursued collaboration with the Soviet Union to undermine Ronald Reagan’s defense policy during the Cold War, and influence the 1984 election. The proof of this comes in the form of a memo from KGB chief Viktor Chebrikov to Andropov.
In 1983 Kennedy conveyed an offer to Soviet General Secretary, Yuri Andropov through his law school chum and confident John Tunney. Kennedy’s offer was to help the Soviets burnish their image in American public opinion to ostensibly ease tensions during a particularly warm period of the Cold War. Kennedy was concerned about the deteriorating US-Soviet relationship. The cause of the decline, in Kennedy’s opinion, was not Soviet actions, but rather with Ronald Reagan’s “belligerence.” Kennedy cited in particular, Reagan’s placement of Pershing missiles in Europe and the MX missile and SDI programs. From the memo:
According to Kennedy, the current threat is due to the President’s refusal to engage any modification on his politics. He feels that his domestic standing has been strengthened because of the well publicized improvements of the economy:inflation has been greatly reduced, production levels are increasing as is overall business activity. For these reasons, interest rates will continue to decline. The White House has portrayed this in the media as the “success of Reaganomics.”
Naturally, not everything in the province of economics has gone according to Reagan’s plan. A few well known economists and members of financial circles, particularly from the north-eastern states, foresee certain hidden tendencies that may bring about a new economic crisis in the USA. This could bring about the fall of the presidential campaign of 1984, which would benefit the Democratic party. Nevertheless, there are no secure assurances this will indeed develop. The only real potential threats to Reagan are problems of war and peace and Soviet-American relations. These issues, according to the senator, will without a doubt become the most important of the election campaign. The movement advocating a freeze on nuclear arsenals of both countries continues to gain strength in the United States. The movement is also willing to accept preparations, particularly from Kennedy, for its continued growth.
Kennedy’s offer contained two proposals.
1. Kennedy requested a meeting with Andropov “to arm Soviet officials with explanations regarding problems of nuclear disarmament so they may be better prepared and more convincing during appearances in the USA.”
2. Organize “televised interviews with Y.V. Andropov in the USA. A direct appeal by the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the American people will, without a doubt, attract a great deal of attention and interest in the country. The senator is convinced this would receive the maximum resonance in so far as television is the most effective method of mass media and information… Kennedy and his friends will bring about suitable steps to have representatives of the largest television companies in the USA contact Y.V. Andropov for an invitation to Moscow for the interviews. Specifically, the president of the board of directors of ABC, Elton Raul and television columnists Walter Cronkite or Barbara Walters could visit Moscow. The senator underlined the importance that this initiative should be seen as comingfrom the American side.”
Why this despicable episode in Kennedy’s Senate career has been largely ignored is a travesty unto itself.
Progressives will look longingly upon Kennedy’s legacy and redouble their efforts to fulfill his “dream”. However, that dream (centralized government run by enlightened technocrats solving poverty, hunger, and all society’s ills, leading us to the sunny uplands of history) is a relic the post-World War II era, fossil remains reminding us of the perils and failures of collectivization—a utopian vision, which ultimately leads to real human suffering. Conservatives well know that you can’t immanentize the eschaton, i.e., change human nature. That goal however, is central to the progressive project and the animating cause of Kennedy’s dream.
In the end Ted Kennedy was human just like the rest of us, susceptible to both the better and darker angels of our nature. Dealing with the problems in personal life he understood that we are all flawed creatures cut from the crooked timber of humanity. But, he never translated that understanding to his politics, perpetuating progressivisms fatal flaw. If only he had practiced the progressive mantra of making the personal political.