Remembering Kennedy: A modicum of reality is needed

Sen. Ted Kennedy, Shimon Peres in 1986
REUTER/Jim Hollander
Master politician: Sen. Edward Kennedy speaking with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in 1986.

He didn’t exactly go quietly into that long, dark night, did he? Ted Kennedy fought tooth and nail for what he wanted as long as he could, long past the time when others might have taken refuge in more transcendent thoughts.

In early July, as the brain cancer from which he suffered began its final onslaught, Kennedy wrote a letter to Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts. In it, he urged Patrick to appoint a successor to his Senate seat when the time came, rather than abide by a law of which Kennedy himself was the primogenitor.

That law, enacted by the Massachusetts Legislature in 2004, was designed by Kennedy to prevent then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, from appointing someone to fill Sen. John Kerry’s seat on the much anticipated election of Kerry to oust the despised George W. Bush from the presidency.

On Wednesday, it appeared that Patrick, a Democrat, would indeed honor the provisions of the law, and he ordered a special election to fill Kennedy’s vacant seat. CBS News reported the election would take place between 145 and 160 days from now.

But wait! This morning, Time magazine reported that Patrick apparently has changed his mind. The governor has seen the light and endorsed the idea of changing the law “to make sure that his state maintains full representation — and that Democrats maintain 60 votes in the Senate.” The state House speaker in Boston is eager to comply.

That should come as no surprise. The political landscape of Massachusetts is littered with the graves of those foolish enough to oppose the Kennedy dynasty.

Meanwhile, the crescendo of praise for Kennedy’s life and legacy shows no sign of abating, as befits a man who was the “Lion of the Senate” and the grand old liberal warhorse. The effusions of praise and accolades from around the world are remarkable, not only for their intensity and obvious sincerity, but also for the ecumenicity of their provenance.

Classic Kennedy
Among the more moving tributes — and they were legion — was this from Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who recalled the night Kennedy galvanized the Democratic National Convention last summer in Denver. The Massachusetts senator “passed the torch” of liberal hopes and dreams to Barack Obama, Wallace said, much as Kennedy’s brother had passed that same torch to a new generation in his inaugural address to the nation in 1961.

The convention speech was classic Kennedy: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” What the enraptured crowd did not know, said Wallace, who stood near Kennedy on the podium, was that the senator was in severe pain that night from gall stones, so much so that he had a medicinal drip attached to a vein in one hand to alleviate the agony.

In addition to the unquestioned place Kennedy held in the hearts of liberal activists and Democratic Party rank and file, he was a master politician. He was extraordinarily adept at finding — and imposing — compromises among Senate members with often diametrically opposing views. And that included an ability to tame the more outlandish members of his party’s left wing when the interests of crucial legislation were at stake.

Among Republicans in the Senate, he sought and won their help on a number of fronts by the sheer force of his personality and charm. Among those with whom he worked on key legislation where Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Orrin Hatch of Utah. Both were joined by former GOP senators — Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, in particular — in paying homage to their liberal colleague’s legacy.

That legacy has been celebrated to the nth degree in other quarters History will be the final arbiter. Suffice it to say that the adage applies: One must not speak disparagingly of the dead. There will be no ad hominem remarks, but we will speak honestly about the record.

Vitriolic speech
In addition to the more than 300 laws that bear the imprint of Kennedy’s name, the American political lexicon also has an addition. A verb, to be precise: bork, as in “to be borked.”

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan announced his nomination of the eminent jurist Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. It proved to be a watershed moment, not only for the manner in which future court nominations would be made, but for genuine viciousness with which they would be greeted if the nominees were thought to be insufficiently liberal.

It was a national disgrace, and no one was more deeply involved than Kennedy.

In a particularly vitriolic and irresponsible speech on the Senate floor, he painted a lurid picture of “Robert Bork’s America,” a quasi-fascist police state in which “women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police would break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, school children could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of the government, and the doors of federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is — and is often the only — protector of individual rights that are the heart of our democracy. President Reagan [cannot be allowed to] impose his reactionary vision of the Constitution on the Supreme Court and the next generation of Americans. No justice would be better than this injustice.”

It was the siren cry that unleashed a torrent of shocking abuse by liberals and left-wing activists on a man whom columnist George Will viewed as “the most intellectually distinguished nominee since Felix Frankfurter.” No allegation, no matter how baseless, ignorant or malicious, was spared in smearing Bork. His wife was falsely accused of being a Holocaust denier, and even his movie-rental records were purloined for evidence of salacious viewing habits (it turned out he particularly enjoyed Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals and Cary Grant; bummer).

The usual suspects in Hollywood eagerly joined the fray, with tens of millions of dollars spent on vituperative TV spots and demagogic full-page newspaper ads. The results were predictable. After Bork’s nomination went down in flames, the Washington Post, which had opposed Bork, commented in an editorial that “the campaign against him did not resemble an argument so much as a lynching.”

It was that, in spades. And it set the stage for the gruesome episodes that have followed. All of this can be laid fairly at Kennedy’s doorstep, for it was he who unleashed the whirlwind and it was he who turned his back on his own oft-stated belief that ideology should not play a role in the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee.

This is not an attempt to bork Kennedy; others are all too happy to handle that vulgar task. As a man, he had many fine attributes, as well as the love of a devoted family. Yes, give praise where it is due, honor his memory, but leaven the paeans with a modicum of reality. He was, ultimately, a politician, not a saint.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 08/27/2009 - 09:23 am.

    Oh to just imagine the mayhem if the Bork nomination had taken place in today’s 24/7 newscycles on 247 cable channels, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, talk radio, etc.

    SCOTUS nominations are often the “mixed martial arts” of politics: intense, emotional and bloody (figuratively) in a condensed period of time with millions of parrots jabbering from all sides.

  2. Submitted by Reggie McGurt on 08/27/2009 - 10:02 am.

    This is remarkably similar to the Power Line post that the Daily Glean linked to yesterday. Glad everyone’s got their talking points in order. As the Glean pointed out yesterday about Power Line, this article’s premise is that Kennedy introduced “hard-ball scare tactics to America’s otherwise genteel political arena with his opposition to Bork.”

    Also you write: “That law, enacted by the Massachusetts Legislature in 2004, was designed by Kennedy…”

    How would a U.S. Senator “design” a state law? Just curious where that information came from. The article makes the (unsubstantiated) claim twice.

  3. Submitted by Michael Ernst on 08/27/2009 - 11:12 am.

    ‘The convention speech was classic Kennedy: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”‘

    What speech were you listening to?

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/27/2009 - 11:20 am.

    For every wordsmith, his own catharsis I suppose?

    …and I do sincerely thank the writer for his reminding this reader of Ted Kennedy’s “Bork” speech.

    I will copy and tack up T.K.’s words in a prominent place; not to forget the fine, “vitriolic” verbal affirmations of one beloved senator who did not seek “ecumenicity of their provenance” for his political positions but honored ‘teleological suspension’ of the same…like the separation of church and state.

  5. Submitted by John Moses on 08/27/2009 - 11:54 am.

    Kennedy not only helped to destroy Robert Bork but also tried stop the appointment of another fine judge named Clarence Thomas. Thankfully he failed with Justice Thomas who withstood some of the most vulgar attacks ever weathered by a Supreme Court Nominee.

    He was a life long politician if that’s something to be proud of. I for one will not miss him.

  6. Submitted by jon Schumacher on 08/27/2009 - 12:45 pm.

    a couple of responses:

    I agree Kennedy was no saint, but there are few of those and even a cursory review of the officially recognized would probably result in most if not all being thrown out. He fought hard for those who are least powerful, that alone gives him cred with me even if his tactics weren’t always praiseworthy. Perhaps Mr. Bonafield would be willing to share his personal criteria for sainthood with us so we could better appreciate his point.

    Secondly, using only George Will’s opinion on Bork’s qualifications and character seems a bit weak, no matter your political leanings.

    Finally, re Mr. Moses’ comment about whether being a lifelong politician is something to be proud of, my Websters defines politics as the “policies or affairs of government.” Spending your life trying to make government work for those who most need it seems like a pretty worthy pursuit. Government is us, politicians represent us. If we want better representatives we need to stop disrespecting words like government and politician. Democracy doesn’t work without them.

  7. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 08/27/2009 - 12:46 pm.

    The effort Ted Kennedy led against Bork was startling similar to the effort the conservative Senators tried against Sotomayor. The difference, of course, is that almost none of them can make a decent speech and none of them had the political skill of Ted Kennedy. Not even close; MLB vs. AA farm league.

    I do love how if one side does something, it’s evil. If your side does it, it’s heroic. It was either correct in both cases or it was wrong in both cases.

  8. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/27/2009 - 01:01 pm.

    Justice Thomas, the inert, unspeaking, unquestioning justice whose opinions run far out in right field even when compared to Roberts, Alito and Scalia; who seems as if he would declare the bill of rights and every subsequent amendment unconstitutional if he could manage it,… a “fine judge.”

    Was that sarcasm?

  9. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 08/27/2009 - 01:06 pm.

    “He was, ultimately, a politician, not a saint.”

    And Ted Kennedy will be the first person to acknowledge that. I don’t know of any other politician who has admitted his frailties, and rehabilitated himself to worthy causes and with unparalleled passion! Above all, I think, he was a realist and his successes were a result of that. But, history will judge.

    “In a particularly vitriolic and irresponsible speech on the Senate floor, he painted a lurid picture of ‘Robert Bork’s America,'”

    Good for Ted, and good for America. If somebody had done that about Adolph Hitler before he rose to power, the world would have been spared so many griefs!

  10. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 08/27/2009 - 03:18 pm.

    Despite all the vitriol about Senator Kennedy, this man reached the bottom and gradually redeemed himself.
    You’ve all heard of redemption, haven’t you? Redemption doesn’t mean forgetting–it means doing the best you can, every day, to redeem yourself for your shortcomings and sins.
    Over the years he worked hard to do his best for his Massachusetts constituents and the country. He was always reaching across the aisle (and various Republicans have talked about this) to try to get something done.
    Clarence Thomas “another fine judge”! Are you thinking of the same Clarence Thomas I am thinking of? Is it a vulgar attack when the charges are true–as many of believe, still today. Is this the same Clarence Thomas who has fallen off the edge on the right?
    It’s too bad Senator Kennedy failed.

  11. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/27/2009 - 03:33 pm.

    Bork would have added not true conservatism, but a really extreme right-wing voice to the bench INSTEAD OF reasoned respect for the constitution.

    Thomas lied to get his appointment. See “Blinded By the Right,” in which reformed right-wing journalist David Brock reveals that he helped smear Anita Hill, the accuser who told the truth about Thomas. Thomas’s denial was then accepted and Anita Hill humiliated.

  12. Submitted by Dave Thul on 08/27/2009 - 05:01 pm.

    He may have redeemed himself, but the last year of his life stands in direct contrast to the health care bill that now bears his name.

    ‘Ted Kennedy fought tooth and nail for what he wanted as long as he could, long past the time when others might have taken refuge in more transcendent thoughts.’

    I’m too young to remember Camelot or Chappaquiddick or even the Bork nomination. But I can the the irony in a man who fought tooth and nail and spent large amounts of money to live one year more in order to pass a bill that advocates not fighting and not spending.

  13. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/27/2009 - 06:57 pm.

    Just a brief sidebar…over at the London Review blog, Indigo Thomas has made a fair assessment why Kennedy, irregardless of present reminders of his imperfections, is respectfully remembered as a great statesman and well worthy of that respect. A back-handed tribute in some ways, but Thomas’s is a fine tribute none the less. Even grants one the right to be obnoxious in a public place and dance an Irish jig in T.K.’s honor.

  14. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 08/27/2009 - 08:40 pm.

    In 1973 President Nixon ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire the special prosecutor investigating Nixon for Watergate. Richardson refused and resigned. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who would have taken Richardson’s place, also refused to fire the special prosecutor and resigned. Nixon then turned to a man who, unlike Richardson and Ruckelshaus, was completely devoid of ethics and who carried out the order to fire the special prosecutor. That man, of course, was Robert Bork.

    In addition to his lack of ethics, Bork’s legal positions were ridiculously offensive. Kennedy’s role in leading the charge to defeat Bork should be considered one of his triumphs. Its pretty sad that Bonafield’s “modicum of reality” is just warmed over right wing dishonesty regarding the Bork nomination. Not that Bonafield is probably too interested in facts anyway, but six Republican senators voted against Bork.

    What is really sad, though, is that Bonafield uses the occasion of Kennedy’s death to drudge up this garbage. Kennedy certainly had his faults, but the man had a lot more class than Bonafield ever will.

  15. Submitted by John Roach on 08/27/2009 - 10:03 pm.

    Robert Bork is one of the founders of the Federalist Society. His views on the law are fringe right. This is well documented, and he is quite proud of his positions and his record. His close analogue on the court is Clarence Thomas.

    Apparently by giving a single speech, Senator Kennedy enabled us to protect gay couples from criminal prosecution, uphold a woman’s right to control her own body, and allow universities to consider race as one of many factors in admission, among other things.

    Two Justice Thomases on the court instead of a Justice Kennedy and a Justice Thomas would have eliminated all of these things.

    Good job, Senator Kennedy, we owe you even more than we thought.

  16. Submitted by Jon Larson on 08/28/2009 - 06:41 am.

    This essay is an example of why I consider Republicans beneath contempt. They have no shame.

    I am a Lutheran preacher’s kid. Grew up in small towns. Went to a LOT of funerals because I could sing. I know much more about funerals than is reasonable.

    1) Even when a funeral is expected–like when a 77-year-old is dying of brain cancer–they are still rushed affairs because so much happens in a short time. Whatever happens is the result of a family trying to do its best under time constraints. Not surprisingly, not everything goes as smoothly and gracefully as everyone would want.

    2) Because the above is true, funerals must be above criticism. This is just basic good manners. As a preacher’s kid, I heard more than my share of funeral “post mortems” but they were always conducted in a “how can we prevent THAT disaster in the future?” But one must NEVER criticize a well-intentioned funeral in public or directed AT the family.

    3) And above all else, until the body is in the grave, it is just beyond barbaric to trash the dead. If the guy was a jerk and the public record needs an update, there will be plenty of time once the funeral is over.

    The Republicans have become amazingly tasteless in these matters. I was so upset over the trashing of the Wellstone funeral, I actually had one of stress-induced heart attacks and wound up in the Mayo Clinic. Out of consideration for my ticker, I am going to try to avoid reading the sort of vile drivel like Bonafield just wrote, but since I accidentally read it, I only wish to ask him one of my mother’s favorite questions: Were you raised in a barn?

  17. Submitted by Herb Stupp on 08/28/2009 - 04:55 pm.

    Michael Bonafield has struck precisely the correct note in remembering Sen. Ted Kennedy. Yes, honor his memory, pray for his soul, and wish for safe passage into old age for all the Kennedys, especially given their tragic history.

    But how can Bonafield (as one commenter wrote) be showing “no class,” merely by QUOTING Kennedy in his now-infamous attacks on Judge Bork ??

    When conservatives pass on, the media never hesitate to include their supposed flaws with their virtues, in reviewing their lives.

    Yet all the 24 cable news channels and other media are presenting only fulsome praise for Kennedy’s legislative record, with an occasional mention of Chappaquidick.

    Ted Kennedy became a master at pushing the liberal-left agenda through his knowledge of the Senate, its culture and its rules. That he was a controversial figure is being omitted from most of the coverage of his life.

    Hence, Michael Bonafield’s column, while respectful and including condolences, was entirely necessary.

  18. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/29/2009 - 01:18 pm.

    I don’t know if there is a more famous or more effective piece of senatorial political rhetoric than Edward Kennedy’s famous attack on Robert Bork. What was shocking about it wasn’t the lurid quality the author above attributes to it, but that it sharply and eloquently said something that was pretty much close to being true. Certainly a lot closer to truth than what most politicians say on a day to day basis. And if you read the author’s comment above, the truthfulness of Kennedy’s comment is the one aspect of the speech he doesn’t attack while pretty much blaming everything else he can think of on the senator.

    Robert Bork was and is a brilliant man. But I always have a sense that “brilliance” when used with respect to a judge carries an ironic tone, suggesting a certain lack of humility, even empathy, necessary for a good judge whose job is after all to depend on the law as created by others rather than to show off his own intellect, which usually happens at the lawmakers expense.

    Not everyone is fit to be a judge, and that includes a lot of people who are smarter than many judges, and who in fact might be better people than many judges. I think it has been the judgment of history that Robert Bork fell somewhere in the last two categories.

  19. Submitted by mark griffin on 09/04/2009 - 02:03 pm.

    I did not agree with hardly anythng Ted Kennedy stood for, but his passing makes me sad as it seems be end an era of some sort. So much grief in one family. May he rest in Peace.

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