by Victor Davis Hanson
By now almost everyone has weighed in on the legacy of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who passed away this week after a year-long struggle with a cancerous brain tumor. Liberals eulogized that Kennedy’s legislative legacy is unquestioned and has now transcended partisan bickering. In their postmortem acclamations, Kennedy was recognized as a larger-than-life senator who charmed his Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle for nearly a half-century, while astutely pushing through legislation aimed at protecting the weaker, the poorer, minorities and the most vulnerable through constant expansion of federal entitlements and civil rights. In his honor, several senators have vowed to enact healthcare reform in his spirit and his name.
Conservatives acknowledged, even envied, Kennedy’s political skills — especially his astounding 47-year Senatorial tenure — and good ol’ Irish schmoozing in Senatorial corridors. But they pointed out that Ted Kennedy was wrong on many of the key issues of the last five decades — school busing, the nuclear freeze, welfare reform and the surge. He was left behind not only by the Reagan revolution with its emphasis on smaller government and lower taxes, but also by Clinton’s balanced budgets and acknowledgment that the “era of big government is over.”
But there was another, less remarked upon legacy of Ted Kennedy that has had effects on the country in general, and the Democratic Party in particular. There had always been a tradition of noblesse oblige among America’s blue-blood liberals. But Ted Kennedy redefined the notion of the aristocracy simply helping the poor, and took it to cynical ends in the manner of a Roman tribune. He assumed that almost none of his own humanitarian rhetoric applied to himself, almost as if godly intentions gave him a sort of exemption from moral behavior.
So Ted Kennedy railed against the special treatment accorded Richard Nixon through Gerald Ford’s presidential pardon: “Is there one system of justice for the average citizen and another system for the high and mighty?” Yet Kennedy himself serially cheated in college — and expected his family influence to mitigate punishment. Reckless driving and intoxication were accepted indulgences without many consequences. His explanations for the Chappaquiddick fiasco — where he was going, how he crashed, where he went and whom he contacted while his passenger was drowning — were not just mendacious, but surreal. No matter — a clear case of involuntary manslaughter for the “average citizen” was reduced to a traffic violation for the “high and mighty.”
Kennedy’s often loud liberal advocacy strangely seemed not to include any reference to the tragic death of 28-year-old Mary Joe Kopechne. Later he would morbidly jest about the ongoing spate of Chappaquiddick jokes. Indeed he counted on supporters to Trotskyize Kopechne out of the Chappaquiddick narrative altogether.
Thus last week’s eulogies often referenced Chappaquiddick either in terms of the pain it caused Teddy or, more creepily, as a eerie sort of noble sacrifice of Kopechne’s that ensured Kennedy’s long liberal career. Confidant and adviser Ted Sorensen wrote in Time of the incident, as if Mary Joe had not existed, “Both a plane crash in Massachusetts in 1964 and the ugly automobile accident on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969 almost cost him his life, and the Chappaquiddick incident ultimately ended his bright prospects for still higher office.” And on the Huffington Post, Mellisa Lafsky speculated that Kopechne would have thought her death might have been considered a noble sacrifice worth the subsequent half-century Kennedy Senate term: “Who knows — maybe she’d feel it was worth it.”
When it looked as if John Kerry might be elected president, Ted Kennedy and other liberals helped changed Massachusetts law to ensure that then Gov. Mitt Romney would not choose Kerry’s successor. Then again, when it looked like Ted Kennedy could not continue in office, he wrote to the legislature and governor asking for a complete reversal — that the law be changed back so liberal Gov. Deval Patrick could chose a like-minded successor and avoid the risk of a general election. This Kennedy sense of entitlement to pick and choose officials by appointment is quite astonishing: When Hillary Clinton was named Secretary of State, it was for a while thought that Caroline Kennedy — no political experience, herself an infrequent voter, uniformed about current issues — should be acclaimed a New York senator by virtue of her name and heritage.
In similar fashion, Kennedy often felt that his own Utopian ends justified a rather crude means of achieving them. His demonization of Justice Robert Bork achieved McCarthyite status: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions. Blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, school children could not be taught about evolution.”
He said of Ronald Reagan at the time, “He should not be able to reach out from the muck of Irangate, reach into the muck of Watergate and impose his reactionary vision of the Constitution on the Supreme Court and on the next generation of Americans.”
Thousands were killed and tortured by Saddam Hussein at Abu Ghraib; despite harsh interrogations, no one perished when it was used as an American wartime detention center. No matter, again. Ted Kennedy opposed the war, and that meant almost everyone and everything were fair game. So George Bush’s military was to be now the moral equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s homicidal secret police: “We now learn,” Kennedy thundered, “that Saddam’s torture chambers reopened under new management — U.S. management.”
What has most hurt the leadership of the Democratic Party was its transformation into a ruling aristocracy, with entitlements of wealth and privilege that insulated it from the effects its advocacy of high taxes and government mandates have had on others less refined and blessed. But well before John Edwards, Al Gore, John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi sermonized one way while living quite another, Ted Kennedy had already mastered that paradoxical art. And if we object to the recent Supreme Court confirmation circus that by convention now impugns the integrity of our nominees, if we feel shrill ad hominem outbursts have no place in American politics, then we must confess once again that Ted Kennedy was there at the beginning of a return to such invective.
The Kennedys have achieved great things, and tragically suffered much for their ambitions and public service. But Ted Kennedy himself too often assumed that desired liberal objectives meant most behavior and methods were excusable to achieve them. And all of us will pay for that legacy for decades to come.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson