Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the June 16, 2008 issue of National Review.
The press notices that followed the announcement that Senator Edward M. Kennedy has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor were, quite properly, sympathetic. You don’t kick a man on whom the shadow of death has just fallen.
But the instinct of candor rebels against the constraints of hagiography. Such was the delicacy of some of the encomiasts (among them Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post and Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times) that, with the exception of oblique references to “personal tragedy” and a dynasty’s “tragic epic,” they failed to mention the central event of the senator’s public career. Newsweek’s Sarah Kliff went so far as to express doubt about what the central event was. “Pinpointing the moment that defines Edward M. Kennedy’s 45-year Senate career,” she wrote, “is, to say the least, a bit of a challenge.”
On the contrary, the defining moment is so obvious that probably only a Newsweek reporter could fail to see it. Leave Chappaquiddick out of the reckoning, and the route by which Kennedy mounted to liberaldom’s Olympus appears a bizarre deviation from his family’s traditions. Tell the story with a reasonable respect for the facts, and his progress becomes not only comprehensible but perhaps inevitable. For the fourth and only surviving son of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy, the path to liberal lionhood began on Dike Road on the night of July 18–19, 1969.
The salient political consequence of the drowning (or suffocation) of Mary Jo Kopechne in a 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 was never seriously in doubt. When the sun rose over the channel at Poucha Pond the next morning, it was as clear as anything could be that Ted Kennedy would never be president of the United States. The circumstances of the death were too cruel. John Farrar, the diver who recovered the body in the morning, deduced, from the position in which he found it, that there had been a dwindling pocket of air in the car after its submersion. If help had been summoned in time, she might have lived.
It was one of those incidents (to borrow Joseph Conrad’s words) that show “in the light of day the inner worth of a man, the edge of his temper, and the fiber of his stuff.” In his otherwise self-serving and insincere televised speech on July 25, six days after Mary Jo’s death, Kennedy confessed the weakness of mind that had left him unequal to the emergency. “I was overcome, I’m frank to say, by a jumble of emotions: grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion, and shock.” You can’t succumb to a mental palsy of this kind and expect to remain what the Romans called capax imperii, worthy of the first place.
Ten years after the death of Mary Jo, Kennedy did of course seek the presidency. But his heart was not in it; to his credit, he was not inwardly persuaded by his own excuses. His campaign, lackluster and uninspired, dissolved in an agony of self-doubt. Not until the convention did he manage to give a good speech. By then he was safely out of it, and Carter safely in.
Had Chappaquiddick never happened, Kennedy would have had every incentive to try, as his older brothers did, to arrest the leftward lurch of the Democratic party, which weakened Democrats’ ability to compete for the White House. JFK, eager first to obtain the presidency and afterward to hold it, challenged emerging liberal pieties by taking a hard line in the Cold War, exploiting a phony missile gap for electoral advantage, and proposing tax cuts for the rich. RFK, who cut his teeth in Joe McCarthy’s school of anti-Communism, fought corruption in the labor unions and questioned the efficacy of Great Society welfare programs.
Ted, after Chappaquiddick, had to find another path to glory, one that did not include a sojourn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His choice revealed a certain native shrewdness: Morally debarred from the presidency, he would be the liberal lion that the older brothers — who valued possession of the White House more than they did the whimsies of the Left — could never be.
Ted, after Chappaquiddick, had to find another path to glory, one that did not include a sojourn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His choice revealed a certain native shrewdness: Morally debarred from the presidency, he would be the liberal lion that the older brothers — who valued possession of the White House more than they did the whimsies of the Left — could never be. The older boys were retrospectively endowed with liberal halos, as a concession to their martyrdoms; the kid brother would obtain the same crown in life.
By hewing with so little deviation to the liberal line, Kennedy has been able to maintain his dominance in the party. Only a Democratic president can challenge that dominance. Ted’s fidelity to old-school liberalism has made it difficult for Democratic presidents to emerge. He is not, of course, the only reason for the party’s leftward drift. But he has played a part in exacting pounds of flesh from prospective presidential candidates in the name of the liberal “dream” of which he is one of the party’s principal custodians. In the Democratic lexicon, “pivot” means the effort of the party’s nominee to extricate himself from the bargains he made during the primaries to win over hard-line liberals like Kennedy. The result: Only three times since Chappaquiddick has a Democrat won the White House.
With the exception of the anomalous Carter, no Democrat succeeded in negotiating the gauntlet Kennedy helped set up until the Nineties, when Bill Clinton rose to power. Clinton won the White House, but he failed to re-orient the party; its soul continued to belong to the senior senator from Massachusetts. Kennedy, though he was not the head of the party, prided himself on being its “conscience.” He worked assiduously to undermine reformist efforts inspired by the success of moderates like Clinton and Tony Blair. In 1995, John Kerry — anxiously contemplating a presidential run of his own — expressed doubts about raising the minimum wage. “Supporting this will make small business unhappy with us,” Kerry said. Kennedy shut him down. “If you’re not for raising the minimum wage,” he shouted, “you don’t deserve to call yourself a Democrat.” The Democratic party remains stuck in a McGovernesque time-warp in part because Kennedy likes it that way.
Unsurpassed, by his brothers, in the grosser political arts — glad-handing, backslapping, horse-trading, tear-shedding — Kennedy is at the same time the dimmest, the least intellectually developed, of the four Kennedy boys. He was, and remains, the baby of the family. In aging he has reverted to type, his bloated old-man’s form erasing the handsomeness of his youth and recalling the little fat kid he used to be. Ted was the one who got into trouble — at Harvard (where he was caught cheating on a Spanish exam), at University of Virginia law school (where he was cited for reckless driving), on the Vineyard. If his stolid, unimaginative liberalism was partly inspired by a desire for a legacy and the urge to forestall potential rivals, it is also the faithful reflection of a man who lacks the mental agility that characterized Jack and Bobby.
Yet it would be unfair to portray his politics merely as an expression of guile and vainglory. It is not unlikely that Kennedy conceives his work as tribune of the plebs as a form of penance. It is characteristic of the liberal to regard public service as more ennobling than other kinds of labor — so ennobling, indeed, as to constitute a kind of shrift. Why the exercise of political power should be considered a walk to Canossa is a little mysterious; but judging from the press notices prompted by his cancer diagnosis, many appear to accept Kennedy’s legislative contrition at face value. Implicit in their portrayals of Ted as a heroic figure, a preux chevalier on Capitol Hill, is the belief that the (unheroic) stain of Chappaquiddick has been effaced. “He has done more for the health care of others than just about anybody in history,” Barack Obama said. The New York Times, in its panegyric, cited one Kennedy aficionado who compared his hero’s efforts to those of the Roman warrior Horatius Cocles. “There’ll never be another Ted Kennedy,” Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, was quoted as saying. “He’s sort of Horatio at the bridge. He’s been such an outsized figure, so influential, so effective.” The metaphor of the bridge was unfortunate, but there can be little doubt that, in the eyes of the Times, Kennedy has atoned for his sins.
In January, at a rally at American University, he anointed Barack Obama the fifth Kennedy brother. It might have been his last act of public penance, the final expiation of the “awful curse” which, he said after Chappaquiddick, seemed to hang over “all the Kennedys.” Why Barack? He’s black, and thus fulfills the Kennedy religion of civil rights. He also redeems Jack’s notorious tardiness in that area. He is, finally, one of the few senators who are (arguably) as undeviatingly of the left as Ted himself. In inducting Obama into Camelot, the liberal lion found a cub.
How much Kennedy cares for the egalitarian world his laws have made is an open question. Like the other grand seigneurs of our politics — the Roosevelts, the Stevensons, the Rockefellers — Ted is, in his personal culture, distinctly ancien régime. When the demands of the new culture threaten his patrician prerogatives, he is quick to show his claws. Wind farms in Nantucket Sound might be good for the environment, but they would spoil the sailing out of Hyannis Port. Kennedy opposed them. His theoretical devotion to the meritocracy led him to make a stink about the favoritism shown to “legacies” in college admissions, but when it comes to who should succeed him in the Senate, he has reportedly said that he would like his second wife, Louisiana native Victoria Reggie Kennedy, to represent the voters of Massachusetts. Nepotism is acceptable when the only thing at stake is a Senate seat.
Something more than hypocrisy is at work. Chappaquiddick has left its mark. In pursuing so single-mindedly a politics of absolution, in working so feverishly to pass laws that help the little people (to atone for his own failure to help Mary Jo), Kennedy has lost sight of the consequences of his effort. Only when his policies happen to inconvenience him does he understand that lawmaking is not simply a form of private therapy.
Which is not to say that his knee-jerk liberalism is insincere — only that he adheres to it uncritically and unreflectively, in the way the reformed drunkard holds to his twelve steps. Examine the books, speeches, and position papers of Jack and Bobby, and you find a thoughtfulness, a capacity for constructive argument, that is missing from Ted’s state papers. There is evidence that the older brothers even wrestled with the rights and wrongs of public questions. Teddy, by contrast, is not interested in justifying rationally a politics he embraced less from reflection or ideological conviction than from the realization that it offered a convenient path to rehabilitation. Ideology requires intellectual exertion; therapy does not.
As he prepares to leave the stage, Senator Kennedy will be remembered, not only as a lion of the progressive cause, but also as one of the age’s foremost practitioners of the politics of aristocratic self-absorption.