Wednesday, August 26, 2009
I knew when the brain cancer was announced last year that Senator Kennedy would not be with us much longer, but the news this morning still came as a shock. Kennedy was one of the rare larger-than-life figures in U.S. politics, and it is hard to believe that he is now gone.
One can easily find a detailed list of his legislative accomplishments on the news Web site of one’s choice. Television today will certainly be dominated by remembrances and testimonials. As for me, I would like to recount the four things I will always admire him for.
The first is his presidential candidacy in 1980. Kennedy and then-President Carter were both Democrats, but when faced with an ineffectual leader who was unsympathetic to his political vision, Kennedy did the right thing: he mounted a primary challenge. It was something I wish we would see far more of. An elected official should always have to answer to his or her constituents, and that should never be trumped by questions of party loyalty. To those who claim that Kennedy’s challenge cost Carter reelection and opened the door to Reagan, my response is to study the history more closely. Reagan did not lead in the polls until after the debate between him and Carter. He was also dogged by the third-party candidacy of John Anderson, a rival for the GOP nomination. Anderson ended up getting nearly seven percent of the popular vote, and in a normal political year, that would have sent Reagan down in flames. Carter’s loss was Carter’s loss. All Kennedy did was admirably act on a basic principle of representative government.
Kennedy’s greatest moment for me was his leading the charge against the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. A crank who had shown himself to be an unprincipled toady during the Watergate scandal, Bork never should have been allowed on the federal judiciary in the first place. Stopping his ascendancy to the Supreme Court was of paramount importance. An hour after the nomination was announced, Kennedy delivered an incendiary speech denouncing Bork. He demanded, in no uncertain terms, that the Democratic Party stand foursquare against the nomination for the good of the country. Which they did, and Bork’s nomination was defeated. Kennedy’s actions were a textbook study in political leadership: Take a stand on principle, and define the debate on one’s own terms.
The defeat of Robert Bork will always be the triumph I most admire, but his “Where Was George?” speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention will always be the moment I most enjoy. It was a hilarious, masterly delivered polemic about George Bush the Elder’s evasions about his involvement in the Reagan Administration’s litany of scandals. The best tribute to the speech I can think of is to show it, but it is unfortunately not available online. It was brilliant in its simplicity. Kennedy recited one Reagan scandal after another, ending his broadside of each with the refrain, “Where was George?” The crowd in the convention hall caught on immediately, and before the speech reached its halfway point, they were reciting the question for him. The evening ended with the question—and accompanying laughter—echoing in one’s brain.
The only downside of this terrific oratory was that it led to Kennedy keeping his political head down after Bush the Elder was elected President. Bush made no secret of how much he resented Kennedy for the speech. Looking back, it is fairly obvious that, for political reasons, the Democratic leadership did not want to antagonize the notoriously thin-skinned Bush by reminding him of it. (Kennedy was heavily involved with the negotiations over the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, but he had to deal with Bush through proxies.) Kennedy exited the political limelight, and other Senators, such as Russ Feingold, Bernie Sanders, and the late Paul Wellstone, eventually assumed the roles of spokespeople for the liberal perspective in the Senate.
But Sanders, Feingold, and Wellstone will always walk in Kennedy’s shadow, and that brings me to the fourth—and most important thing—for which I admire him. He was the standard-bearer for the legacy of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. Sadly, he often found himself fighting a rear-guard action against the efforts of Reagan and the GOP to roll back those programs and their accomplishments. But for all of that, he still managed to extend and refine them in many ways. Examples include the Family and Medical Leave Act, COBRA, and the aforementioned ADA. No one fought harder to make this country work, and not just for the rich, but for the vast majority of its citizens. He once said, “Sometimes a party must sail against the wind.” He did that when circumstances demanded it, and despite opposing winds, he was occasionally able to sail further than any legislator had before.
He was a great leader, and he will always be remembered.
Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009. Rest in Peace.