Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The death of a dynast in Massachusetts

Of the demise of Senator Edward M “Ted” Kennedy, we are told that the “Lion of the Senate” has passed. We are told of his effectiveness as a senator, and his bipartisan spirit. We are even reminded of the promise of the Kennedy name, a branding effort unlike any seen before or since.

Yet we are compelled to look at the complete record. As the surviving son of the odious Ambassador Joe Kennedy, Edward Kennedy had a promise and a plan to fulfill. His eldest brother had been a war hero who died in service of his country in World War II. The next oldest would become president, but was cut down in assassination by “some silly little Communist.” The next brother was an attorney general and a senator from New York. He, too, seemed destined to become president (even as he threw away his anti-Communist credentials to appeal to the Democratic Party’s left), before he, too, was assassinated.

By this time, Edward Kennedy had succeeded to his brother Jack’s senate seat in Massachusetts. A family ally was kind enough to hold it for him until Kennedy came of age. Kennedy seemed destined to return his family to the White House until he drove off the Chappaquiddick Bridge.

According to Kennedy, he made repeated attempts to rescue his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. When his efforts failed, Kennedy fled the scene of the accident and did not report it for ten hours. It is believed by the diver that found her, Kopechne survived the crash and an air bubble in car was able to keep her alive for at least two hours. Kennedy only reported the accident after it was discovered, and after his aides convinced him to do so. Kennedy was charged with the minimum, fleeing the scene of an accident, and was given the minimum sentence, two years suspended. His name and reputation saved him personally, but he would be unable to run for president as planned in 1972.

In the late 1970s, Kennedy was considered as a candidate for president again, openly rebelling against the incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter. Like his brother Bobby, Kennedy attacked the president on the left. However, Kennedy’s campaign fell short of unseating Carter as the party’s nominee. The turning point was when Kennedy was asked why he wanted to be president and he could not give a coherent answer. How does one say that it was the family business, and his by right? So he continued in the senate, pursuing a liberal agenda even as America turned to the right.

The low mark of his senate career was during the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Shortly after Bork’s nomination, Kennedy slandered Bork in remarks that could only be forgivable if they were uttered by a Kennedy:

"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, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is -- and is often the only -- protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy... President Reagan is still our president. But he should not be able to reach out from the muck of Irangate, reach into the muck of Watergate and impose his reactionary vision of the Constitution on the Supreme Court and the next generation of Americans. No justice would be better than this injustice."

Just as his initial election to the senate was carefully managed, Kennedy attempted to manage the choice of his successor. In 2004, Kennedy supported a law that required a special election in the case of a senate vacancy. However, that was under a Republican governor, and the possible vacancy was the seat held by Senator John Kerry. As Kennedy’s health deteriorated, he changed his position to support temporary appointment to senate vacancies by the governor. Perhaps his best legacy was the reminder that dynasties ill serve republican virtue.

His life was one of unlimited potential, much of it wasted. In his public life, he does not leave much of a track record of bettering his country. In his private life, he offered little worth emulating, and much to be shunned.

If there are positives, it must be said he believed in public service for those that were able, and that many of his colleagues liked and respected him. In the last years of his life he seemed to find happiness in marriage to his second wife, Vicky. To her and the Kennedy family, a nation offers its condolences.