I was barely five when Jack Kennedy died in Dallas. When Pope John, that other liberal icon of a relatively conservative Ireland, died a few months later my mother reports that my first reaction was to ask her who shot him?. Today, I doubt any of my kids will even have noticed the passing of what was once Irish Americas first family.
Ted Kennedy’s life and career were acted out within the penumbra of his brothers unworldly aura of saintliness and flecked with both huge failure and considerable success.
The Daily Telegraph spare no blushes with a vivid report of what happened that fateful night in 1969 when as a still relatively young Senator he drove his car off the bridge at Chappaquiddick and led to the tragic drowning of his companion Mary Jo Kopechne. His desertion from the scene, permanently separated him from any mythical notions of Camelot.
His 1979 attempt at the Whitehouse was doomed almost as soon as he declared his hand against President Carter with mere mention of his dark past, despite previously high poll ratings. Nevertheless, even his political opponents accept that his prodigious career in Congress (from 1962 until last night) was hugely impressive. David Lightman quotes historian Al Felzenberg:
…the more effective Kennedy became, the more conservatives and comedians kept stinging him. “Conservatives have raised more money in direct mail from criticizing Ted Kennedy than anyone, until the Clintons came along.”
Paradoxically, it was the conservatives who lent on Kennedy to ‘make things right’ in the current health reform debate that saw Congress head into recess without agreement:
Kennedy could typically work the telephones back to Washington for several hours a day as his energy permitted, and when the bill was finally reported July 15 after a marathon series of markups, he was described as almost giddy, laughing on the phone.
But Republicans complained that without Kennedy, Democrats were less willing to make the concessions needed for true compromise. As Senate action stalled before the August recessand the national debate swung wildly at the grassroots levelKennedys absence was felt more sharply.
He was the quintessential public man, and he died in public, plotting who should succeed him even as his terminal illness kept him out of sight and away from the work he loved so much.
Whoever gets Ted’s seat will directly influence the fate of Obamas healthcare legislation.
Kennedy was once described as the best politician in the family by his older brother Jack. Yet his life was pockmarked with the kind of inferior human qualities that would spell the end of any politician in a modern era when character matters more than any ability to actually do the job.
No doubt, as Conall notes, his was a pivotal role in directing President Clinton’s attention to the old sore of Northern Ireland’s interminable troubles: no doubt also informed by Clinton’s own pressing need to divert attention from his not inconsiderable troubles at home, and his urgent search for legacy.
In comparison to his older brothers, Teddy Kennedy had little talent for showmanship or statesmanship. But his virtues were of a frequently traduced Machiavellian kind which are nonetheless essential to the free running of the democratic wheels of state. And in the process, he may have done some service to at least one small part of the world. Even if we barely know it.