Friday, August 28, 2009

A Difficult Hero: Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009

I will miss Ted Kennedy. I will miss him for many reason; his leadership on so many good liberal causes, his support of Obama, his example of lifelong dedication to public service.

But Kennedy was a man of contradictions, some of which he only really resolved late in life, and those made him a difficult hero. He was a rich populist; a politician who fought for "the people," he was never really one of them. Born into high expectations, he achieved what few other Americans ever have, a status of legend, but he never reached his highest goal, the presidency. An eloquent and passionate speaker, in almost any other family in history he would be renowned as a great orator; but compared to his brothers, he was merely excellent; there are no great quotes from him that are embedded in the American cultural consciousness.

His family embodied the idea that with great power comes great responsibility; he, John, and Robert all accepted the burden of great responsibility. But the same family also seemed to believe that the same power granted rights and privileges that normal people did not have. In this sense they avoided responsibility. If they accepted responsibility in the political realm, they seemed to feel they could avoid it in the personal realm, giving themselves license to behave erratically, licentiously. If they worked hard, they seemed to think, then they were to be excused if they played hard, as well.

Ted Kennedy lived long enough that the vices he shared with his brothers - in his case, wine and women - caught up with him in a way that it never did with John or Bobby, but only, in their cases, because they, tragically, did not live long enough. We will never know if John's dalliances would have ever become a scandal; probably not. My grandfather, a conservative Republican, used to say that the only difference between LBJ and Nixon was that Nixon got caught. That was a crucial difference between Teddy and his brothers; he got caught.

But the most important difference was that he lived long enough to outgrow the burdens, expectations, and demons that he inherited with his name and his wealth. He was never as charming as John or Bobby, despite his intellect, political instincts, and oratorical abilities. But by acknowledging his limitations, i.e. that he would, at best, only be a senator, never president, he embraced his own abilities, and became a master of his domain like few others in history.

The ability to craft legislation is a difficult skill for the populace to appreciate, not least because it is hidden so well from even the most attentive eyes. We know more about what goes on in Congress today, with constantly updating blogs, but that also builds our sense of frustration, since we can witness the legislative process, but we are limited in our ability to influence it. So we must trust those who are so intimately involved with it.

Among all the accolades to Kennedy there runs a constant stream of testimony to his ability to shape legislation. That's great and wonderful, but I have to take it on faith. I can't see direct evidence of that, like I can see a home run being smashed, or like I can watch a great performance by an actress onscreen. I can see the results of the legislation after it has passed, but it takes a fair amount of effort and attention to detail to make the connection. Until all the eulogies, I doubt I could have listed any of Kennedy's signature legislative achievements.

But if I take evidence of Kennedy's great legislative ability on faith, it is a variation on my faith in American democracy itself. Which is both constantly being tested and constantly being rewarded. Damn those Founding Fathers; why did they have to make democracy such hard work? Couldn't they have made it easy? Of course not; democracy is no easier or harder than simply living on planet earth. Ted Kennedy knew how to get the most out of democracy as he knew how to get the most out of life. It's not a facile comparison; it is at the core of who he was.

Ted Kennedy was a man who inherited from his older brothers a tradition of soaring rhetoric, but learned how and why to sweat the details of American democracy. Then he learned how to sweat the details of the details, and then to connect those details to the big picture. He was born to wealth and privilege, and enjoyed it for himself, but worked much harder than he had to for people who had so much less than he did. He was a Harvard-educated, old-fashioned northeastern liberal intellectual when that was in style, and then when it went out of style. Then he survived long enough to see another Harvard-educated liberal intellectual become president.

He was a flawed man in a flawed system. If he achieved any kind of redemption, it was because that is possible in our system. Our failures as a country are a source of our guilt, but our successes as a country are a source of our salvation. And the same is true of our failures and successes as individuals. Ted Kennedy had sources of guilt in his personal life, but he found redemption in his political life.

He was a man capable of changing himself and a man who changed the country, working in a system that simultaneously creates opportunities for reform and demands respect for tradition.

I will miss Ted Kennedy, now most of all, when his goal of universal health care is so close, and his skills are so urgently needed. Conservatives will miss him, since they are now short one iconic liberal bogeyman for their scare-tactic fundraising letters. Too bad for them!

To borrow one of his brother's great phrases, when Ted Kennedy passed the torch to a new generation, he could be justly proud that he had kept it burning so well for so long.

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