UPDATED (after the jump)
to be perfectly frank, i’ve never thought much about ted kennedy. oh sure, i know he was a kennedy, and a drunk, and that a woman died while he was driving drunk. but i knew something about his legislative record (which, according to the interwebs, was pretty good). but in reading gawker’s “assessment” of kennedy, i started to think that kennedy might, in fact, be a perfect example of how the right and the left want different things from their elected representatives.
Edward Kennedy, the last surviving son of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, was the third-longest serving US Senator of all time. He was a drunken degenerate. And he might’ve been the best argument for the US Senate ever elected.
The ’70s? … he divorced his wife, hit the bottle hard, and began fucking around again even more recklessly than before. But he was the very definition of a functional alcoholic, able to achieve bipartisan compromises on important health care legislation by day and then fuck a lobbyist on the floor of a restaurant by night. He destroyed Robert Bork’s chance at being on the Supreme Court, and paparazzi snapped him fucking a girl on his boat.
His most important legacy is the legislation he was instrumental in passing. In the end, Ted Kennedy ended up a much more influential figure in American history than his more ambitious, more driven, probably smarter brothers. … Sadly, he didn’t live to see his longtime dream of national health insurance actually come to fruition. The man’s many, well-documented flaws aside, he was on the right side of history, most of the time, and he did more to actually make America a better place than 90% of the careerists and charlatans who pass through the United States Senate.
And as the undemocratic institution of the Senate (and this celebration of the life of a man who won his seat due to family connections and held on to it for almost fifty years proves the anti-democratic nature of that body) continues to destroy whatever hope this nation has of governing itself responsibly, we’ll miss a man who more often than most tried to show that politics can be about tangibly helping real people.
here’s a man who was, by all accounts–even from his supporters–a tremendous fuck up, a drunk, a womanizer. and yet…he still fucking accomplished things. he pushed for universal health care for 40 years. kennedy was a man who had status, wealth, and power via his family. in some ways, his past and W’s are very similar. but look how differently their stories ended.
in light of all the recent (and not-so-recent) republican sex scandals, i think this bears examination. i’m sure this has been said before (certainly by me), but part of what liberals find so delightfully schadenfreude-licious about republican sex scandals is how much hypocrisy it exposes. these people make morality a central tenant of their politics, making wild claims against their heathen liberal opponents. but then they, too, turn out to be humans with human failings. i think that, being a liberal, it’s easier to just say “well, whatever; he’s still getting shit done.”
obviously, this argument only goes so far. i don’t know that a politician without kennedy’s connections could have weathered the scandals he did. and, barney frank aside (what is it with MA politicians, anyway?), the appearance of mainstream family values is still critical to political success, even on the left. and the left certainly has its share of hypocritical shit bags who do nothing at all to further the best interests of their constituents. but still, i think kennedy’s longevity in the face of very bad, very public failings says something about what we look for in our politicians.
**in her own piece on kennedy, bitchphd says what i was trying to say, only way better:
That last, I think, is why one “forgives” him Kopechne’s death; he seems never to have tried to say anything but that he was entirely at fault there. Yes, he benefitted enormously from the privilege of Who He Was; as Pierce says, if he’d been someone else, he’d have been in jail. But he seems not to have prided himself on that, or to have felt that it was a privilege he deserved but others didn’t. He didn’t turn awareness of his own guilt into the moralizing-others of the evangelical. He wasn’t a hypocrite.
Therein lies the strength of true liberalism, I think. And the defense, if defense is needed, of “liberal elites” as such. The privilege of the elite can and should be the privilege of working to lift others. This used to be what “condescension” meant; now, of course, it means pretending to be polite while subtly asserting one’s own superiority. That’s not what I’m talking about, and I think that genuine liberalism absolutely abhors that kind of patronizing bullshit.
this sort of ties into something else i’ve been thinking of the past couple of days. for all their privilege, for all their drama, for all their tragedies and their scandals, there was this sense–to me, at least–that the kennedys legitimately cared about making the world a better place. in his eulogy of RFK, ted quoted bobby on the matter of their father (a corrupt and powerful political fixer):
“Beneath it all, he has tried to engender a social conscience. There were wrongs which needed attention. There were people who were poor and needed help. And we have a responsibility to them and to this country. Through no virtues and accomplishments of our own, we have been fortunate enough to be born in the United States under the most comfortable conditions. We, therefore, have a responsibility to others who are less well off.”
one of my earliest memories of anything even remotely related to the kennedys is from high school. in american history, while reading about the civil rights movement, i came across a quote from RFK, who was passionately committed to the cause of civil rights. in the early 1960s, when Martin Luther King, Jr., and some other protesters were trapped in a church in montgomery, alabama, and threatened by a violent white mob, RFK (attorney general at the time), personally handled the situation. at one point, he told the governor of alabama, “It’s more important that these people survive than for us to survive politically.”
now, this is hardly a revolutionary comment. of course people are more important than politics. but politicians don’t always play by that rule, i think we can all admit. and even at 16, i was struck by how straightforward, how admirable, how idealistic, how…almost naive this statement was, coming from a politician.
privilege doesn’t have to be bad or condescending. power doesn’t have to be abused. you can come from this kind of long-standing political family–the kind that gets you elected no matter what–and still have ideals, still make a difference. i think that’s a big part of why people speak fondly of “camelot,” why people can look at the bay of pigs or ted kennedy’s various crimes and still think that our country was better off for having had the kennedys.