Ted Kennedy was never one of my heroes. Like most people of my generation and those that came after, the three principal things I knew about him were these: He was the younger, still-alive brother of two really great men who’d both been assassinated; he drove a girl off a bridge; and he screwed up big-time in his one shot at the presidency, in 1980, in the process helping to bring about the Reagan era.
Beyond all that, we younger folks knew that liberals loved him because he was the next best thing to royalty, and his heart (and political positions) were always in the right place. We also knew that conservatives loathed him because, well, they didn’t like the idea of Democratic royalty (and, by the way, did I mention he drove a girl off a bridge?).
All of us on both sides always knew Kennedy was there, the embodiment of an extraordinary legacy who forever seemed to be grasping for his fair share of it, and coming up just short. But without a scorecard of Senate votes, we couldn’t help but wonder what, exactly, he was accomplishing all these years – apart from courting tabloid drama, getting his name bandied about by right-wing jackasses scraping for a direct-mail buck, and presiding over one family funeral after another. Such is the burden of being a senator – even a high-profile one – rather than a president.
I had the honor of meeting Kennedy twice – once in a Senate meeting room during the fall of 1989, when I was covering hearings that would help decide the fate of the National Endowment for the Arts, and again during the summer of ’96 at the 25th-anniversary gala for the Kennedy Center in Washington, where I worked at the time. Our first meeting came at one of his lowest points — he was becoming notorious for his post-divorce carousing and he was clearly drinking too much; it showed all over his face, from his red cheeks to his bulbous nose. The second time he was in much better form, accompanied by his second wife Vicki and flush not with booze, but with the recent success of his legislation to raise the minimum wage, the vanquishing of the “Contract with America,” and Bill Clinton’s pending re-election. On both occasions, though, he was gracious and thoroughly indulgent of a commoner who didn’t quite know how to approach a Kennedy.
With all of that in mind, I must admit that I often respond perversely to news of death and tragedy — and yesterday morning was no different. I like to blame this on my friend and Popdose colleague Bob Cashill, who many years ago dismissed the death of a prominent actor or director (I forget who) by saying, “He was good; now he’s dead.” But it’s unfair to blame Bob, really; after all, I was the one who couldn’t stop myself from snickering at the horrified looks on my classmates’ faces when we heard Reagan had been shot, and I was the one who (much later) offended my work colleagues by inexplicably breaking into song as we were evacuating our building at the United Nations on 9/11.
Anyway, when I heard from a friend about Kennedy’s death (“Teddy’s dead” was all she had to say) my first response was to remember a Jerry Seinfeld bit, about how the newspapers in New York should combine the obituaries with the real estate listings so that apartment hunters would know where to look in a tight market. I immediately thought of a Kennedy obit in that spirit: “He leaves behind a wife, three children … and a prime seat in the United States Senate, whose new inhabitant might make the difference in determining whether 45 million Americans acquire access to affordable health care.”
Callous, perhaps, but reflective of Kennedy’s massive role in keeping universal health care alive as an issue in times both dark (the Reagan and W. years) and … slightly less dark (Hillarycare). In his infirmity his presence already was sorely missed this year, as what began with a near-consensus on the need for major reform has devolved into a foolish debate dominated (this month, anyway) by town-hall screamers and “death panels.” We’ll never know whether Kennedy’s participation might have helped forge a quicker compromise, if not with the Republicans then with the Blue
Ball Dog Dems; whether he might have been able to salvage some of the reforms that lesser liberals have already pissed away; or whether he could have stilled the Idiots of August. But a guy can dream, can’t he?
Speaking of which, my second thought about Kennedy yesterday was roundabout, but, thankfully, a bit more respectful. It was of the famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech given on April 3, 1968, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would be assassinated the next evening (a fate in which he would soon be joined by Ted’s brother Bobby). It wasn’t the classic conclusion of that speech that resonated in relation to Teddy; instead, it was a clause that King likely included as an afterthought, a throwaway: “Longevity has its place.” It seems to me that, if and when they light an eternal flame over Ted’s grave next to Jack and Bobby’s at Arlington Cemetery, that phrase might make a fitting epitaph on the stone in front of it.
For while Ted’s life was not nearly as mythologized, nor his death nearly as tragic as his brothers’, he may have been – and I’m going out on a limb here – the best of them. Certainly, he was the most accomplished. And, with a few very famous exceptions, he might have been the bravest.
I noted before that, without a scorecard, it was often difficult to see beyond Teddy’s foibles to his achievements. Well, here’s the scorecard of his Senate leadership: the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended quotas based on national origin; the creation of the National Teachers Corps; the National Cancer Act of 1971; the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974, which set contribution limits and established that public-financing check-off box we all ignore on our tax returns; Title IX, which established the goal of equality for women’s sports; the safeguarding of the Voting Rights Act and the provision of funding for AIDS research through the Ryan White Act, both in the face of Reagan- and Bush-administration onslaughts or indifference; the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986; the COBRA Act, which extended employer-based health care for workers who had lost their jobs; leading the opposition to Judge Robert Bork; the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, which created AmeriCorps; the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) of 1997, all of which helped chip away at the universal-health-care goal that had been squandered by the Clintons; and the No Child Left Behind Act, on which Kennedy accepted George W. Bush’s demands for mandatory testing in exchange for increased school funding that Bush never provided.
There’s a profound contrast between his brothers’ undistinguished records on Capitol Hill and the reams of legislation Ted was instrumental in passing. And it’s not just a matter of longevity; Jack and Bobby were on missions of personal ambition that didn’t involve getting their hands dirty with legislative minutiae, while Ted was – first by necessity, but eventually because he recognized it as his calling – a brilliant negotiator and an unparalleled advocate for the causes that were dear to him.
Ted, even more than his brothers, came to the Senate with a reputation as a substance-free playboy, but over many years he earned a gravitas that was forged, ironically, in response to his greatest personal failures. A blunder like Chappaquiddick might have forced many men – even many Kennedys – from public life entirely (seen William Kennedy Smith lately?), but Ted chose to press on and remain in public service despite his own shame, the brickbats of his opponents (not to mention many friends), and his obviously diluted national prospects. It’s worth remembering that he was the only Kennedy of his generation ever to lose a campaign. Two of them, in fact – in addition to the 1980 Democratic nomination, he lost his position as Senate Minority Whip in 1971, ensuring that he would never again rise above the position of committee chairman.
Each of those defeats presented a form of adversity his brothers never had to face, but each time Ted responded not by shrinking in dejection, but by immersing himself deeper into the legislative morass. He frequently had difficulty maintaining the balance between his work in the Senate and his personal foibles – and at times his tabloid-friendly behavior was painful to watch. But by the mid-’90s, with his personal life settled and his ambitions for higher office in the rear-view mirror, it had become impossible to ignore the mountainous record of achievement he had – and I apologize for this metaphor –pulled from the wreckage of his scandal-plagued past.
Yes, Ted Kennedy carried the burden of his family’s legend and expectations uncomfortably, and no, he didn’t live a particularly heroic life. His failures were huge ones, and it is perhaps a mark of our nation’s sense of fairness, as well as his own lack of his brothers’ charisma, that Ted was never fully able to charm his way past Chappaquiddick. But history will record that Ted Kennedy adjusted to his peculiar lot in life, worked his ass off for many, many years, and created a legacy of his own that is very much worth treasuring. Longevity, indeed, has its place.