Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted, 1932-2009

This morning a colleague asked me, jokingly, whether I thought Ted Kennedy was in Purgatory now, negotiating his way into Heaven.

“Probably,” I replied. “And no doubt he’s moving across the aisle to gain some bipartisan support in Hell.”

Kennedy was the last of the great old liberals from the sixties—men of influence who combined New England staunchness and moral authority with a rascal’s love of booze and pussy. Clinton adopted some of the style, but braked on the content. Obama has dry-cleaned and polished the style and taken it to a whole new level—and, in the process, achieved politically what Kennedy never even got close to (the Presidency, namely), but it remains to be seen whether Obama can or has the will to make comparable strides on the content of Kennedy’s classic American liberal ideals.

Kennedy was an eloquent and reliable ally in the fight for civil rights for all—blacks, women, disabled, gays, immigrants—whose great mission, universal health care, is once again on the table up in Washington—and once again being hammered by special interests with bottomless pockets, and by fearmongers and their all-too-willing herd who seem to need fear and histrionics the way junkies need smack.

He was the center of cruel personal speculations—many of them justified—and he became a reliable punchline on late-night TV. His political savvy could look downright oily from a distance—but colleagues spoke of his humility and character even while he was still alive—and that’s something, at least. He certainly was able to “nudge” along improvements in the American healthcare system, such as funding for AIDS research and care, even while failing to make the sweeping reforms that he promised … and that are needed still.

He could work with Republicans and conservative Democrats without losing his liberal credentials—or, depending on your point of view, the stench of socialism. Many a Republican won elections by relying, at least in part, on the herd’s intense conniptions at the mere mention of Ted Kennedy’s name. And he was the Kennedy even fellow liberals felt safe in publicly disrespecting.

Rest in peace, old man. We may never see you or your brothers’ likes again. Still we can find a little comfort in the hopes stirred by your chosen successor, President Obama, and in the fortitude and quick wit of your fellow Massachusetts statesman, Barney Frank—quite obviously, the heirs apparent now to the right wing’s ineluctable and bottomless hatred, if perhaps not to your fortitude and political longevity.

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