Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The final end to Camelot?

Ted Kennedy has, as pretty much everyone knows by now, passed away, and there is no end to the tributes for the great "liberal lion." A typical one comes from Robert Reich:
America has had a few precious individuals who are both passionate about social justice and also understand deep in their bones its practical meaning. And we have had a few who possess great political shrewdness and can make the clunky machinery of democratic governance actually work. But I have known but one person who combined all these traits and abilities. His passing is an inestimable loss.

Most Americans will never know how many things Ted Kennedy did to make their lives better, how many things he prevented that would have hurt them, and how tenaciously he fought on their behalf. In 1969, for example, he introduced a bill in the Senate calling for universal health insurance, and then, for the next forty years, pushed and prodded colleagues and presidents to get on with it. If and when we ever achieve that goal it will be in no small measure due to the dedication and perseverance of this one remarkable man. We owe it to him and his memory to do it soon and do it well.
I don't really have a lot to say about Ted Kennedy in particular. The whole Kennedy family mystique has always eluded me; I never found them as good-looking or effective or impressive as the common wisdom would tell us, but they seemed to fill some niche in America that people desired. We're starting to see some dispassionate looks at the legacy of JFK, finally, and it would appear that, whatever his potential may have been, the reality was somewhat more disappointing. RFK was a master of rhetoric, but he didn't really accomplish much either.

But Teddy, he's the one who rolled up his sleeves and did the work and stood as a beacon of hope. And that may all be true, at least to some people.

My point, actually, is about the expectations we have for people in politics and how different they are from those in any other walk of life. Look at the Reich quote above; we're supposed to commend Kennedy for fighting for universal health insurance for 40 years, for fighting the good fight.

But, bottom line, he didn't get it done. He spent 40 years under Democratic and Republican presidents, within Democratic and Republican Congresses, and it hasn't happened. He was undoubtedly sincere about wanting it to happen, he introduced bills and talked up the issue and cared about the people who needed it, I'm sure, but, in the end, we don't have it.

I can't think of another field of endeavor in which results are so severed from perception. If you worked in a company and spent 40 years never quite getting your product out the door - well, you wouldn't work in that company for 40 years. On the other hand, if you happened to be in a division that got lucky, you'd be lucky too. But it would all come down to what you had been perceived as accomplishing, not to the effort you had made, no matter how noble.

That's not true in politics. You can truck through 40 years, making speeches and showing you care, and, when you pass on, you'll be hailed as a success despite a lack of provable results. Whatever symbolic role Ted Kennedy filled (and symbols do matter, so I am not trying to deny the power of that), the reality is that very little of his effort in health care (and other issues) came to fruition. That doesn't mean he shouldn't be admired for trying; it does mean we should try to temper our awe, just a bit.

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