Alex Massie

The End of an Old Song: Ted Kennedy 1932-2009

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There was plenty to dislike* about Edward Kennedy and some of the opprobrium he attracted was deserved. Some of it was also an honour: Kennedy was worth disliking and, yes, fearing too. He mattered. His death marks the end of an era. Though his son sits in the House of Representatives, Ted Kennedy was the last of the clan to stroll across the national stage. It has become customary to refer to him as the great "Liberal Lion" of the Senate and, for once, that's a fair description. No Senator in modern times has done quite so much. There is scarcely an area of American life untouched by legislation written or sponsored by the Senator from Massachussetts.

That one might disagree with the old man's views on any number of issues ought not to blind one to the seriousness of those views, nor the conviction with which they were held. Whatever else he was, Kennedy was a serious politician. To compare him to the Chuck Grassleys and Arlen Specters of this Senate is absurd. As the Telegraph obituary puts it:

As Senator for Massachusetts from 1962, Kennedy proved both hard-working and effective, with a consistent devotion to liberal causes. The old, the young, the unemployed, the disabled, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, women — all found in him an eager advocate. But not unborn children: unexpectedly for a Roman Catholic, Kennedy approved federal payments for abortions.

Kennedy defended bussing as a means of achieving desegregation in schools. He was an early advocate of legislation to protect the consumer. He helped to make the draft fairer, and then to end it. He was instrumental in the abolition of the poll tax. He played a critical role in lowering the voting age to 18. He led the campaign for the deregulation of airlines.

In the aftermath of Watergate he piloted through the Senate a measure to provide public financing for Presidential campaigns. In 1981 he was to the fore in reshaping the Voting Rights Act of 1965, strengthening the clauses against discrimination. Above all, he fought long and hard, if unsuccessfully, to achieve a national scheme of health insurance in America.

Kennedy’s lengthy experience in the Senate enabled him to become an accomplished wheeler-dealer, with a particular gift for finding Republican allies and persuading them to back his liberal causes. By way of corollary, he himself took a hard line on law and order, calling for mandatory sentencing for street crimes, less judical discretion in deciding penalties, and severe restrictions of parole.

In foreign affairs, Kennedy fought for an early end to American involvement in the Vietnam War (having supported it without question during his brother’s Presidency); prodded successive administrations into perusing arms agreements with the Soviet Union; lobbied for a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty; denounced apartheid in South Africa; and needled the American conscience on famine abroad.

On the other hand, in Britain there's understandable disquiet about Kennedy's support for Irish Republicanism. Nonetheless he was probably right to argue for Gerry Adams to be allowed to enter the US in 1995. At the time that position and argument infuriated me; now I think it a necessary step along the long and pot-holed road to our present imperfect peace in Ulster. (For an Irish perepctive on Kennedy, see Conor O'Clery's piece at GlobalPost)

Most of all, however, there is Kennedy's disgraceful actions at Chappaquiddick and the tragedy of poor Mary-Jo Kopechne's death. Deservedly, that ended Kennedy's Presidential ambitions for a while and still hobbled them during his campaign for the Democratic party's nomination in 1980. The more one reads about Chappaquiddick the more reprehensible Kennedy's actions seem and the more disgraceful it is that his responsibility for Kopechne's death was met with just a two month suspended sentence. It was hardly the first time that the magic fo the Kennedy name had helped him.

I've never much cared for the circus surrounding the Kennedy's, nor for the concept of "political royalty", not least because it's an essentially feudal concept. Nonetheless, the story of the Kennedy boys is remarkable by any measure. And in the end, you know, there may be a case for arguing that the youngest, Teddy, was the most consequential of them all. Jack and Bobby have the fame and the glamour and the tragedy, but Teddy, imbued with the mystique of the name, was the deal-maker whose achievements touched more people. (In itself that's a reminder that we sometimes pay too much attention to the White House and not nearly enough to the Senate and House.)

Kennedy was the vital link between the 1960s when liberalism was in spate and the hopes its partisans have for a new liberal era in the Age of Obama. From a Democratic perspective, Kennedy kept the flame alive and, symbolically at least, passed it on to Barack Obama. Whether that promise will be fulfilled is a different matter and that too is a matter for another day.

But his death marks the end of an old song. American politics is still prone to dynasties but the Kennedy line has been all but exhausted. In  this day and age it seems most unlikely that any other dynasty will inspire such gruesome fascination or purple-prosed fawning. That's perhaps the final, welcome, legacy of Ted Kennedy's death.

Still, whatever the differences and disagreements of the past, today even rock-ribbed conservatives should be generous enough to permit their liberal brethren their day of mourning. For once the old saw is correct: we won't see Teddy Kennedy's like again.

*Coffee Housers have made their feelings very clear on this.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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