ted kennedy 1932-2009
I have a very particular take on the death of Ted Kennedy, who was the last Democratic presidential candidate that I worked for as a student (in 1980) and the second to last (the other being Bill Clinton) that I worked for, at all. I concur in the encomia being given Sen. Kennedy as a legislator, leader, and ideological symbol, particularly in his last decades when age and a fortuitous second marriage appear to have turned his life around. But he and his family also caused enormous and to some degree irreparable damage to progressive causes in this country, and I think that story needs to be told, as well.
To understand what I mean, it is necessary to think back to what liberalism meant 40 years ago. Last year our faculty hosted Peter Edelman, one of the "best and brightest" of the original Kennedy era [although associated with RFK more than his brothers] and currently a law professor in DC. He is also famous as the husband of Marian Wright Edelman, and for leaving the Clinton Administration rather than support an essentially conservative welfare bill.
What struck me about Edelman was two things. First--while plainly very liberal--he was both earnest and open-minded in his presentation, taking seriously questions from liberal, radical, and conservative faculty members with equal aplomb. Second, and perhaps more memorably, he was something of a square, even a stuffed shirt, looking like he stepped out of Mad Men except for a few additional lines on his forehead. It is difficult to remember that this was once the universal face of liberalism: earnest, committed, but not in the least culturally threatening, making one feel that liberal policies were nothing but the logical extension of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and other leaders of the past. Had I listened to him long enough, I would have been ready to sign up.
The Kennedys changed all that, and Ted Kennedy most of all. It is not just his personal behavior which, it must be noted, did not change after Chappaquiddick but only his early 60s when he married a much younger woman. It was the cult of personality that attached itself to him, to the Kennedy family, and (if to a lesser extent) to Clinton and Obama after him, so that progressive or liberal politics became defined less by clear ideological guideposts than by personal loyalty to one or more charismatic leaders.
This combination of self-indulgent personal behavior and cult-of-personality politics--which are of course closely related--convinced a sizable portion of the American population that the Democratic Party was simply outside the cultural mainstream, a party of spoiled children (and adults) that was unworthy of their support under virtually any circumstances. I still remember campaigning for Kennedy in New Hampshire in the winter of 1980 against Jimmy Carter. Some people would welcome you to their homes and tell you their memories of JFK and RFK which at that point were only a decade or two old. But others would slam the door in your face, as if to say, he is so counter to my understanding of myself and my family that there is nothing even to talk about.
I think that we see the good and the bad parts of this legacy in today's politics. There is plainly a great deal of idealism in the Obama Administration . . . together with a leader who, unlike Kennedy or Clinton, appears to have grown up in his first rather than second half-century. But there is also a powerful distrust of government and political leaders, and the sense of an unbridgeable gap between sides, with a substantial portion of the country--a third, 40 percent, the precise number varies with time--that has more or less permanently identified liberalism with the undermining of traditional values and a threat to the moral order. There are obviously many causes for this, but the lack of personal integrity on the part of Kennedy and his heirs--and the sneaking suspicion among many that there was a link between their personal and political indulgences--were an important part of the glue that held it together. That too is Ted Kennedy's legacy, and worth remembering as the country moves on.