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.
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.
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.