The old Kennedy flame goes out

One would be hard pressed to say that Ted Kennedy’s death was a more bitter pill for the country than the deaths of his brothers before him—John, the young president whose assassination gave Americans a hard warning about the violent age they were about to enter, or Robert, the presidential aspirant seen as the last leader in the United States who could have helped the nation transcend that violence.

Nevertheless, the heavens have somehow conspired to make this Kennedy death, however expected it might have been, nearly as heartbreaking.

It’s not just that the great cause of the last 40 years of his life, reforming the US healthcare system, sits at a perilous juncture.

The tragic irony of the timing is even greater, because we see in the very healthcare debate that so needed his input the precarious state of the institution to which he devoted his life, and which he shaped and influenced more than probably any other senator in history.

The US Senate has rarely been a force for progress. Originally, senators weren’t even directly elected.
They tended to be men who, at the very least, would look after the interests of the railroad, mining and sugar industries, and preferably were members of families with those interests.

Then, in the mid-20th century, something different started to happen. As access to higher education became more widespread—and with the idea of public service not yet thought of in terms of the cost of not being a lobbyist or corporate lawyer instead—a different breed of person started entering the Senate.

These people were not old-money Wasps, but middle-class men from different walks of life: frontiersmen who taught themselves Mandarin Chinese, like Montana’s Mike Mansfield, or war veterans who wanted only to continue to serve their country, like Phil Hart of Michigan.

On this scale, Kennedy was something of a throwback. He was certainly patrician, coming from one of America’s wealthiest families. But Kennedy money wasn’t old Wasp money. Old Man Joe, whatever his faults, taught his nine kids to remember the penury from which the family had risen.

And from the experience of being Catholic in the early 20th-century US, they took the lesson that discrimination and exclusion had to be fought.

In 1958 and 1960, more men in the Mansfield-Hart mould were elected to the Senate. The trend culminated in Teddy’s own class—the class of 1962. Now, suddenly, the Senate was no longer dominated by millionaires and racists. The Senate could help remake the US—and itself.

It joined the side of progress and passed piles of legislation—starting with civil rights but hardly ending there—that changed the country.

No one was more central to this historic change than Kennedy. He left his imprint on more legislation than any senator in the history of the chamber.

He forged the famous alliances with dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. I doubt that any senator passed more pieces of bipartisan legislation than Kennedy. He was just damn good at his job.

In a way, I think it’s a positive thing that he never became president. The controversy would have been too great after Chappa­quiddick.

It may well be that someone who has done something like that—not only Mary Jo Kopechne’s death but also the family’s shameful delay in contacting the authorities—doesn’t deserve to be president.

And his one great run at it, in 1980, represented a sort of nadir in his career.

Jimmy Carter may have deserved a primary challenge from his left, but he didn’t deserve Kennedy’s ungraciousness at that year’s convention when the senator snubbed the president on stage during the convention’s final night.

But more than that (and more sympathetically than that), who can seriously doubt that, if Kennedy had been president, these eulogies might have been written years ago?

I have a wispy memory from childhood: my family was at a friend’s house. Teddy was on TV giving a speech—I think it was a convention; whether 1968 or 1972 I can’t quite say.

A woman who was a friend of our host’s was watching from a chair and I was on the floor. I remember how she shook her head sadly and said: “If he runs, they’ll just shoot him too.”

He escaped the assassin’s bullet—and believe me, there were years when one couldn’t be sure he would. Now age and disease have taken the Kennedy who did live “to comb grey hair”, to invoke a line of Yeats’s that he used at the funeral of his nephew, the ex-president’s son.

An era of Senate history passes with him. The present mess proves that the time when broadly bipartisan agreement could be reached on major legislation—as in the 1960s on civil rights and healthcare—is long gone.

It would be nice to think that his death might encourage his mourning colleagues to try to recapture that old spirit. But it would be naive. His passing will surely, however, steel pro-reform forces to get something accomplished in his honour.

There are and will be more Kennedys, but the Kennedy era is over. Teddy was imperfect enough for some Americans to say: amen to that.

Let them. The rest of us know what a dramatically better place the country is because of him.—

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