Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Uncle Teddy

I know that it is unfashionable to speak ill of the dead or those we fear are dying, that it somehow seems inhuman to be realistic about someone who is suffering or no longer here to defend himself.

But that attitude leads us into some terrible conundrums, as we extol the steadfastness of Senator Jesse Helms at the same time we ignore that his convictions were all from ignorance and hate, simply because he does what we all must in the end do, and that is end.

And so we all grow weepy-eyed last night as the great liberal lion (and aren't the media in love with that phrase?) emerged from the wings in Denver to give a speech, literally climbing out of a hospital bed, defying doctors' orders to sing the praises of Barack Obama. This followed a Ken Burns film that showed Teddy sailing away with children and grandchildren, passing along his love of the sea to more generations of Kennedys in a sailboat that probably costs about 4 or 5 average American family salaries, paid for with Papa Joe's money that was earned in only slightly more reputable fashion than was the Capone fortune.

The "analysis" that came afterwards, the "greatest living Senator" and "one of the five greatest of all time," was predictable to anyone who has watched the pre-obituaries that have been rampant since the senator's diagnosis of a brain tumor. And I am willing to believe that Kennedy has done a lot of the things for which he's given credit, that he has remained the principled liberal while being willing to "reach across the aisle" and work with people in the other party.

Yet we should remember a few things. We should remember that the rise of the Republican Reaganauts, which is the place where that party began to part ways with its moderate wing and, in many ways, lost its mind and soul, came about in no small part because the lion chose to challenge a sitting president of his own party in 1980. His personal ambition paved the way for the last 28 years, which actually made the fulfillment of Teddy's own philosophy impossible.

We should remember that his accomplishments are far more philosophical and aspirational than they have been real. That he bravely continues the fight for universal health care doesn't conceal the reality that he has been in the Senate for 46 years and has not gotten it done; that may be as frustrating to him as can be, but he still gets to travel about the country seeking out the best possible treatment for his own affliction. There are quite a few American citizens who get the same diagnosis and are told to go home, get their affairs in order, and say goodbye.

We should especially remember Chappaquiddick. There are people I respect enormously who chalk up any mention of this to the vile gasbags of right-wing talk radio, but I think we excuse this incident at our own peril. The primary thing is that a young woman never had a chance to live her life, to raise a family, to be a 68-year-old delegate at this week's convention, and "the family" treated this incident as an impediment to their own ambitions. And the refusal of the senator to see that this would forever bar him from the office his father was so desperate to make a family legacy delayed his ascension to the spot he now holds in so many hearts.

We have for so long elevated the Kennedy family to national symbol, something that has invited the polarization that has prevented much of their agenda from being realized. They, as now embodied in the failing senator, may well be everything that their most fervent supporters have believed they are...but it is unlikely. Their very iconography has interfered with the real business of providing leadership, and has distorted the very real legacy they will leave.

As in all classic heroic sagas, the weaknesses of the hero prove to be his ultimate downfall. So to for Ted Kennedy, and those weaknesses were so unnecessarily evoked. Remembering that, even at this time in his life, is not inappropriate, it is simply to try to take the full measure of the man. Not to do so is dishonest.

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