Barack Obama’s moving eulogy for Ted Kennedy has invited comparisons between the two men. In the wave of Kennedy nostalgia that is sweeping the US, it is tempting to dub Obama the Kennedy of his generation. The two certainly share glamour, charisma and the devotion of their party. Arguably, it was Ted who put Obama in the White House by endorsing him in the 2008 Democratic primaries. Obama has returned the favour by adopting his legislative agenda and is now trying to force through Congress Ted’s vision for a national health insurance programme. Given the moral impetus that Kennedy’s passing will give the bill, he may yet succeed.
In sum, it is tempting to suggest that Obama’s ‘audacity of hope’ reflects a new commitment on the part of American liberals to the ambitions and style of the Kennedy era. If this is true — if Obama truly is trying to ape Camelot — then he could be making a terrible mistake. For the death of Edward Kennedy marks the end of a political era, not the beginning of a new one.
Ted Kennedy lived in the shadow of his brothers. This was tragic on a personal level, but it also produced an anachronistic politics that poorly reflected the real demands of its time. For a start, Jack and Bobby Kennedy were not the knights in shining armour that the Camelot myth suggests. Jack was a philanderer and was so wracked with disease that he lived on crutches. As a president he was markedly unsuccessful at getting his legislative agenda past Congress, in part because his vision of an activist American government was so divisive. It was only when he was assassinated in 1963 that his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was able emotionally to blackmail a strongly Democratic Congress into building a Great Society. It was also Jack who put America in Vietnam. His commitment to ‘pay any price’ and ‘bear any burden’ in the cause of freedom was eventually paid in over 58,000 American lives.
Jack’s brother Robert, who entered the senate in 1964 and ran for the presidency in 1968, was no less contentious a figure. Robert was radicalised by the Vietnam war and his somewhat tardy discovery of racism and poverty among his New York constituents. But while his heroic battle for the presidency has been lionised by liberal historians, it was far more controversial than popular memory suggests. Robert’s only consistent support came from ethnic minorities and national polls showed him being beaten by every one of his major opponents throughout 1968. Although footage of him being pawed at by fanatical supporters seems exciting when viewed today, at the time it terrified Americans worried about rising crime, inflation and civil strife. The moment when Robert Kennedy entered the annals as a liberal martyr was the very moment when he abandoned the centre ground and, with it, mainstream America.
Ted inherited Jack’s charisma and Robert’s liberal philosophy. For a few short months he seemed destined to become president, but it all came to an end on Chappaquiddick Island. Chappaquiddick, his collapsing marriage and his alcoholism all reflected the agony of trying to live up to an impossible standard of sobriety and idealism — especially in an era of declining press deference. Watching this young man attempt to solve all of America’s problems with one photo-op after another was an experience that rested somewhere between tragedy and farce. On one occasion Ted was invited to Alaska to witness the plight of the state’s Eskimo population. He obliged, taking in a long tour of the icy tundra that was full of good intentions and liberal spirit. But on the way home, exhausted and bored by a week of taking tea in igloos, he got drunk on the plane. The senator charged up and down the aisle cheering ‘Eskimo Power! Eskimo Power!’ and made a very public pass at an air hostess. The attendant press corps gleefully reported the incident in every gory detail.
The problem wasn’t just Ted’s weak personality. America changed in the 1970s and the Kennedy brand failed to adjust. After the nightmare of Vietnam, the embarrassment of Watergate and the disappointment of the Great Society, Americans lurched to the right. Evangelicalism flourished and voters began to coalesce behind the Moral Majority. In contrast, Ted was often accused by his conservative critics of embodying the worst instincts of what one historian called ‘the aimless, indulgent liberalism of the 1960s’. While he maintained a regular attendance at Mass, he largely turned his back on the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. As late as 1972, he was still publicly opposed to abortion. But when feminist and pro-choice activists began flooding his state machine and tearing up the Democratic primaries, he switched with the wind. By the time he declared for the presidency in 1979, he was totally out of touch with the once devoted, blue-collar, Catholic constituency that had put him in the Senate.
But it wasn’t just Ted’s morals that put him out of step with middle America. His vision of an ever-expanding federal government was increasingly unpalatable too. Americans have always resisted centralisation and bureaucracy, but in an era of inflation and spiralling taxes they were particularly unprepared to pay for Kennedy’s expensive national health insurance programme. It seemed strange to many Americans that the liberals’ solution to debt and fiscal chaos was yet more spending. In 1980, Ted was beaten by the moderate Democrat Jimmy Carter and Carter was in turn beaten by the conservative Republican Ronald Reagan. America had rejected the politics of the 1960s. And yet the Camelot myth endured and liberals became so blinded by the idea of the Sixties as an era of moon-shots and civil rights that they came to believe that the dream of social reform had been not dispelled, but simply deferred.
But perhaps the most powerful reason why Obama should avoid comparison with the Kennedys is that they belong squarely on the wrong side of the culture war that has been raging in American since the 1960s. The right has largely succeeded in depicting liberals as East Coast snobs, schooled in a European ideology that seeks to use the state to destroy the family and uproot faith and traditions. It is a remarkable feat to associate the champions of the underprivileged with decadence and largesse, but the Kennedys have become the poster-boys for this campaign of demonisation. In 1980, Jimmy Carter dubbed Ted Kennedy ‘FRK’ — ‘Fat Rich Kid’ — and there was something about Ted’s corpulence and wandering hands that suggested his liberalism was born of self-indulgence. In 2004, John Kerry hoped that the fact that he shared Jack Kennedy’s initials might guarantee his election. In fact, comparison with the greatest Kennedy of all was used by his opponents to confirm his image as a wealthy frat boy who hoped to buy the presidency.
Culturally, 21st-century America belongs far more to the meritocratic, populist politics of Sarah Palin than it ever did to Ted Kennedy. Obama should remember that it was really his outsider status that won him the presidency, and not the machine politics of the Kennedy family. More importantly, he should consign the Kennedy ambitions of the 1960s to the dustbin of history. They were never terribly popular to begin with.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 5, 2009