Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy, 1932 - 2009

by Dick Mac

I grew-up in Boston. Right in the city, next to downtown. I could walk to Fenway Park and Symphony Hall. The Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard Medical School were our neighbors.

We sometimes walked all the way to Coolidge Corner, and a short distance further was the birthplace of John F. Kennedy, the assassinated President. Every Catholic boy in Boston knew where to find that house - it was like Mecca. It's a modest house, really. It doesn't look like the house you would imagine those kids were born in.

The Kennedys were (are?) larger than life in Boston. Almost every adult man I knew had met Jack and Bobby, or had at least shaken their hands. Ted wasn't as famous and people didn't talk much about him.

Until 1969, when everybody was talking about him, and Mary Jo Kopechne, and Teddy's drinking, and the old plane crash story, and the tragedies of that family, and the notion that Kennedys could get away with murder, and they've done so much for the country and the world, and that poor mother and all she's been through, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

That hot Summer day, I was selling newspapers in front of St. Catherine's Church in Charlestown. I knew nothing about Charlestown, but Mr. Keith would pick us up in his van and we'd sell the Sunday paper in front of churches and subway stops. I would usually be busy first thing in the morning and I would only see the headlines. While everyone was in Mass, I would read the paper. And the news was there: Ted Kennedy Drove His Car Off The Tallahachee Bridge. Well, that's how I thought of it because I couldn't pronounce Chappaquiddick yet.

This incident moved Ted Kennedy out of the pantheon of Kennedy gods, prevented him from becoming an icon like his brothers, and likely is the sole reason he was unable to become President.

He had already completed one term as Senator from Massachusetts, and had cut his teeth as a formidable politician by helping to guide LBJ's Medicare/Medicaid programs into law.

Johnson, who had been his brother's vice-president and one of the Senate's all-time best deal-makers, was instrumental in Kennedy's early development as a senator. Ted became one of the Senate's best deal-makers and negotiators. He always commanded respect from both sides of the aisle (which is shown today by the outpouring of accolades for his accomplishments from politicians of every stripe).

Through the 1970s, Kennedy firmly stood his ground as a champion of the underdog. A Roman Catholic who defended the rights of women to make every decision about reproduction, Kennedy withstood the wrath of bishops and cardinals who wanted to count him as one of their own. He never wavered. Not for a second. He never equivocated on abortion rights, not once, not one iota (unlike some so-called liberals of today who like to tip-toe around the issue).

Kennedy spoke out for the rights of women, people of color, homosexuals, the handicapped, immigrants, and all Americans whose voice is not as loud as the billionaires controlling the government and media. And he never wavered, he never gave in.

Kennedy did actively campaign for deregulation of the airline industry, which has proven (like all deregulation) to be a failure. Truth is, like his brothers before him, he was a pro-business liberal. He had no desire to prevent big business from flourishing, and had no intention of allowing the millionaires like himself off the hook by eliminating taxes. He believed that the rich should pay their fair share, which amount is more than the poor should pay, and he was happy to help them make more money, as long as they paid their fair share.

The 1980 presidential election was a low-point in Kennedy's career. I never understood why he made that move, and it proved to be an utter failure. There was a Democrat in the White House, and his entry into the race undermined the already weakened Jimmy Carter. Ten years after Chappaquiddick, Kennedy threw his hat in the ring and seemed well-prepared to answer questions about that crime. Unfortunately, he did not seem ready to answer many other questions and he appeared unprepared to lead the nation out of its crippling recession. Carter won renomination easily, and limped to a dreadful loss to Ronald Reagan.

Kennedy returned to the Senate and back to work helping to steer our government to be a good government. He passed a lot of good legislation during these dreadfully wrong-wing times. He worked with all the Presidents, and all the Congresses, helping to pass and defeat legislation as he saw fit. He was a single voice of good sense during the destruction of America by Reaganomics.

He knew that a pie cut in two does not include three pieces, that you can't give half to the rich as tax cuts, then half to the military for 'defense,' then half to the government budget. Kennedy, unlike Reagan and the leaders that came after him, knew that there were only two halves and he fought to spend those two halves in ways that would strengthen our nation. Sadly, he fought during a time when Americans decided that giving all the money to the rich was more important than spending money to continue building the greatest civilization that had ever existed.

In the early-1990s, I remarked to a friend that Kennedy had become an elder statesman, without anyone really noticing. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton (perhaps the antithesis of Ted Kennedy) was about to put a good whooping on Barack Obama in the race for the Democratic nomination, a physically challenged Kennedy appeared with other Kennedys and endorsed Obama for President.

I believe this is why Obama is President today. Kennedy had become not only an elder statesman, but a king-maker, too.

A friend's cousin was one of Kennedy's aides de camp, and she shared today that Kennedy made 400 phone calls a day. That's more than thirty phone calls an hour in a 12-hour day! Impressive, indeed.

I don't need to give you links to find the articles, editorials, and op-eds about Ted Kennedy. They are everywhere.

Losing him during this current health care debate is disastrous. Stupid wrong-wingers, tricked into fighting against their own best interest (as if Reagan himself was dictating), have dominated the dialog, and Obama doesn't have an ally in the Senate who can make things happen. LBJ had Ted Kennedy when he needed to change the way medicine was paid for in America; but, Obama does not have him for this fight. This is a very big deal. Without Kennedy, I do not believe a health care package worth voting for will ever be developed. There just isn't anyone in the Senate that can make it happen.

The loss of Ted Kennedy is a huge loss.

May God look down on us and be kind, and may God look upon Ted Kennedy's legacy and be pleased.


ckb said...

I think this is my favorite thing that you have ever written. I am going to share it with as many people as I can. Love, -- Gracie

Randy Divinski said...

Rarely do I read something that I am in full agreement with, but this is it.

Two comments:

1. Kennedy ran against Carter in 1980 because he believed Republican-lite was a recipe for Democratic failure. He may have misjudged his ability to get the nomination, but his analysis was correct. (It breaks my heart to think of how much better our world would be if Kennedy instead of Reagan had won that election.)

2. You left out that Kennedy was one of the very few Senators to vote against starting the Iraq War. He considered it one of the most important votes of his career.

Ted may not have been a saint, but I have always been more impressed by individuals with personal flaws who dedicate their lives to service and do so much good. Actually, many a "saint" had a similar life trajectory.

Anonymous said...

I've got a friend who worked for the ACLU and now works for the Brennan Center at NYU. When Senator Kennedy became sick we e-mailed about him. She said, and it is true, that there has been no positive public policy legislation over the last 40 years. We all know that now.

Another thing to keep in mind is that apart from everything else - everything - is that he had two children who had cancer. That must have been horrible.