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Reflections on Ted Kennedy

Posted on August 26 2009 3:25 pm
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When I traveled briefly with the press corps covering Ted Kennedy’s abortive run against Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic Presidential nomination, one of the stops was in Los Angeles for a campaign speech to MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.  The Kennedys had considered this constituency to be in their pocket since 1968, when Bobby made Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers part of his coalition and cause.  On this particular evening in 1980, therefore, Teddy talked to his Hispanic audience as if they were family. At one point in his speech, he even tried a few sentences in Spanish, but they came out deformed by the Massachusetts accent.  As the audience snickered, I heard someone in the press section behind me say in a scornful stage whisper, “Well, what do you expect?  He couldn’t even pass Spanish at Harvard.”

The faint undertone of skepticism that defined coverage of Kennedy twenty nine years ago (this was, it must be remembered, the candidate who became tongue-tied and incoherent when Roger Mudd lobbed him the softball question of why he wanted to become President) was based not only on post-Watergate cynicism about politics, but also a sense  that Teddy was too small a man to occupy Camelot, a mythic structure whose foundation had been very intentionally laid by Jackie after Jack’s death and enlarged in grand epic style after Bobby’s assassination. In part, Teddy was undone by the success of the Kennedy machine in making JFK and RFK into something more than mere political figures: heroes who had not only died for America’s sins but perhaps in fact been killed not so much by lone, crazed gunmen as by America’s dark nativism and the large conspiratorial forces pulling the levers behind the scenes.  Who could follow such acts?  Who could be more than Rosencranz and Guildenstern in the presence of such epic drama?

The reporters covering Teddy’s doomed run in 1980—an effort that his brother-in-law Steve Smith, political consigliere of the Kennedys since they stormed the White House in 1960 and came to regard it as their own private property, considered hopeless from the beginning, a looting of the family treasury that would produce little more than “therapy” for the younger brother who had always been the dangling modifier of the Kennedy narrative—derisively played “Hail to the Chief” on kazoos when he made an appearance.  But they were also protective, not so much of Teddy himself, perhaps, as of the Kennedy Dream which was then a-borning.

There might be scoffing in the back of the Kennedy campaign bus, but there was not much in the way of investigative reporting on Chappaquiddick, an event so filled with craven irresponsibility that it was a prima facie case not only for unfitness for office but also for a felony charge never made.  (It was left to a  journalistic outsider, Leo Damore, would finally do he work on the death of Mary Jo Kopechne that the mainstream press should have undertaken.)  Other aspects of Teddy’s career were also elided.  The revolving-door sex that made his wife into a haunted creature, and the recreational drugs (according to a book later published by top Senate aide Richard Burke) that made his personal life look more Caligula than Camelot.  And more damning even than this, the fact that in spite of  his much ballyhooed “adoption” of his brothers’ fatherless children, Teddy was a figure of moral chaos whose own excesses gave the younger Kennedy males tacit permission to turn Hyannis into a sort of homegrown version of Lord of the Flies.

This journalistic safe conduct pass offered tenuously in 1980 is today a sort of active collaboration.  And this is why The Last Kennedy is now widely eulogized as The Last Lion.  It was never Teddy himself who was off limits to the press, but the Kennedy Dream itself whose shaky curator he became and which he made inseparable, in his most significant accomplishment, from the Liberal Dream.  The moral of his tale is taken to be that his failure to become president benefited the country because it allowed him to shape a generation of humanitarian legislation in the Senate.  Personally flawed, perhaps, but possessed of a certain defaced magnificence.  So at the end of his days, the media helped Teddy acquire his own minor myth as tribune to the underclass that in time may, with careful tending, warrant him a place in the unique political afterlife occupied by his brothers.  And perhaps this myth, in time, will get the clear-eyed examination that it deserves.

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