Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ted Without Tears

All the coverage made me start to rethink the Kennedys. I remembered my warming to Jack Kennedy way back in 1960 and then how Bobby Kennedy's run in 1968 stirred feelings that real change could occur. I'd grown up imbued with the brilliance of Adlai Stevenson--and seen how little it seemed to count for. By contrast, the Kennedys were the essence of realpolitik and it took them all some time to move away from Old Joe's quasi-fascism. Bobby had staffed the Democratic side of McCarthy's committee, which made him only slightly better than Roy Cohn. Jack's first act in office was to reappoint J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles. But change they did and with it they brought excitement and hope. Ted's career in the Senate was the culmination of that change.

A friend reminded me that campaign positions are inevitably tempered by the realities faced when in office. But I suppose what I admired in the Kennedys in the end is their willingness to fight. Clinton, for example, made it all too clear he could be rolled and sometimes I fret that Obama makes willingness to compromise seem an act of weakness. Ted Kennedy had the voice and the ability to make the change happen. None of the legislation he moved through was perfect but it all was a start. It's wildly clear, of course, that he didn't always make the right choices: I'm referring here to his refusal to accept Richard Nixon's health care proposal, which would have given us a far better start than any of today's plans. Was I enamoured of all of his famous compromises? Hardly--we suffered from a generation of get-tough criminal justice policy because he cut a deal with Strom Thurmond to pass the notorious S. 1 bill; even then, though, it may well have been true that had he not taken the lead, the result would have been even worse.

I got to know how capable his staff could be when I was at the prison rape commission. He was one of the key sponsors--there were four and it was truly bipartisan. His staff stayed on top of us to make sure things were moving and, in fact, I realized we needed to hire a legislative liaison to maintain the flow of information. He was one of the key people who had managed to get this statute passed during a Republican administration and Congress. Strange bedfellows in politics were plentiful here--Christian human rights crusaders, Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship, the advocacy group Stop Prisoner Rape, as it was then known.

Part of the magic of the Kennedys was the star quality. Yes, he worked hard as a legislator but there have been others equally driven. When he appeared, the murmurs--there's Ted Kennedy--began to hurtle around whatever the venue was. It seems that everyone in both Massachusetts and D.C. had a personal story to tell of his under-the-radar performance as well. Did I know that he read to a class at a public school on Capitol Hill every week or so, an activity with no political gain possible for him? No, but my daughter went to school with and was a close friend of his stepdaughter, so on the big day when we went over to one of her friend's houses to take photos of the girls in their new prom dresses, there among the other picture-taking dads was Senator Kennedy.

In the end, he was a gloriously complex man, who, in my view, managed his celebrity magnificently to produce measurable legislative accomplishments and to give a strong joyous push for progressive cause. In the old labor phrase, no matter what he did in a particular situation, you never needed to ask which side Ted Kennedy was on.

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