Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy died last night, as I’m sure you’ve heard already–I heard it as I lay sleepless this morning about 3 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time on the BBC. Interestingly, the Beeb was much more eager to talk about Kennedy’s failures and flaws than the U.S. media I’ve seen and heard so far this morning. NPR has eulogized him with paeans to his legislative record and his family history, and has steered clear of the famous scandals. In an interview with Christopher Hitchens, a BBC interviewer kept pushing him to address Kennedy’s spectacular flameouts and criminal actions–his ill-fated challenge to President Jimmy Carter for the Dem nomination of 1980, and the 1969 car crash that caused the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a young Bobby Kennedy volunteer, at Chappaquiddick on Martha’s Vineyard. Hitchens’s sensible although vague reply was, “we are not entitled to ignore his flaws.”
Kennedy was a very flawed man–but you Christians in the audience, particularly if you’re of the Calvinist stripe, believe that we’re all deeply and essentially imperfect. I lived in Massachusetts in 1994-95 and again in 1996-97, and voted for Kennedy in his rough re-election campaign against the young, handsome, and popular moderate-to-liberal Republican newcomer, Mitt Romney. (This was long before his personal Conservative Revolution of the mid-2000s, but in the 1990s he said he supported abortion rights.) 1994, if you’ll recall, was just 3 years after the Palm Beach rape trial and acquittal of Kennedy’s nephew, William Kennedy Smith. Various witnesses to the events of the night of the rape reported that the Senator was partying hard with his young relatives, and wandering around without his pants on. The Senator was even called to testify. Rumors about Kennedy’s drinking were legion in Washington and Boston as well as Palm Beach. When it looked like Romney could actually beat him, he cleaned up his act, lost weight, and got married again, to Victoria Reggie.
The men in the Kennedy family had always used and abused women as they saw fit, as have wealthy and privileged men throughout history, and they’ve left not just private injuries behind them but several deaths as well. His brother John carried on multiple affairs and sexual dalliances before and during his short Presidency, many of them brutally exploitative. His father carried on affairs while his mother tended to their nine children, and his brother Bobby was also rumored to be a womanizer. His nephew John F. Kennedy, Jr., killed himself, his wife and his sister-in-law in an airplane he piloted in 1999, on the way to a family wedding on Cape Cod, and his other nephew Smith (mentioned above) was tried for a brutal rape. Ted Kennedy alone bears the responsibility for the death of a young woman forty years ago. And yet, as a radical feminist, I happily cast my vote for him in 1994. I wasn’t voting for my Husband, or for my Pope, but rather for my Senator. I cared about how well he would represent my interests in the U.S. Senate, and he was famously and reliably the “liberal lion.” His name and his safe seat gave him the luxury of being true to his beliefs throughout his career, and his 46 years in the Senate made him one of the longest-lived master players and power-brokers in Washington in the past half century.
It would be nice, as a feminist woman who is friends with and related to a lot of women and girls, if our male political allies didn’t treat women in their personal lives as disposable objects or toys for their own pleasure. It would be nice if they stayed home and read a book instead of catting around with women half their age (or less). But, I was better represented in Congress by Ted Kennedy than I have been by the other men and (a few) women who have been my Senators and congresspeople, who although they may be faithful to their spouses don’t stand for the same principles of personal liberty and civic compassion that Senator Kennedy stood for.
UPDATE, later this afternoon: See Knitting Clio for a nice roundup of links–thanks, KC! Here’s Sean Wilentz’s evaluation of Kennedy’s life and political career, and here’s Ted Sorensen’s reflections on “The ‘Kid Brother’ Who Grew Up.” Sorensen is of course himself one of the last remaining survivors of “Camelot.” It feels like the end of a half century of American political history. What do our students know or think about Ted Kennedy, or the Kennedy family in general?
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It’s interesting, in passing, how badly the Catholics and Calvinists got along over time, given their somewhat differently similar beliefs in the depravity, and even more differently, in the redeemability of the human species. I was literally raised on Kennedy politics, and my decidedly non-Irish, non-Catholic (and in many ways non-political) father practically invented the political demographic niche category of “Kennedy-Clinton Republican.” Seemed to have been a generational thing, with respect to Jack, anyway. Except for the 1980 Pennsylvania primary, though, I never got to vote for a Kennedy, because I had broken away from the tribe to support Eugene McCarthy in 1968. And I was even pretty much hating Bobby when he died, for being a politico who wouldn’t run until he saw he could win. I wonder if Clean Gene ever wild-catted around like that?
My friend Rev. Sandie Richards (First Methodist Church of Los Angeles) had this to say on her Facebook page today: “Ted Kennedy’s life reminds us that we can accomplish great things, even when we have big flaws.”
Not a bad lesson to take from his example.
Kathie–exactly. I should note that Kennedy had a considerable leg up on most people, coming from a family of great wealth, but I’ll give this to the Kennedys: they believed that those who had much to give should give it.
The family lost three sons because of its commitment to public and national service. Now, people don’t even ask the rich to pay their fair share of taxes, let alone to risk their children’s lives.
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My heart is sad today.Senator Kennedy epitomized the best of my home state: intelligence and drive constantly used on behalf of those who needed a Kennedy’s help the most. People of color. The sick. The disabled. Low-income children.
I am weary of talk of Kennedy’s flaws. Of course, newspaper obituaries have to discuss his whole life. But Kennedy cheated in college when he a freshman–perhaps 60 years ago. Chappaquiddick happened 40 years ago. Two issues here: first, I think that after so long it’s time to forgive old mistakes. Second, as historiann says, he was an extraordinary senator. His political legacy outweighs his personal failings.
Cheating on a college exam nearly 60 years ago? That’s a dead horse. But Chappaquiddick and Palm Beach were about dead or raped women, so I’m all for keeping his life in context there.
I don’t know if I think his political legacy outweighs his failings. I think they go some way to atone for them, perhaps. I’m more comfortable evaluating the man separately from his public career.
Would we say that Strom Thurmond’s political legacy outweighs his failings? Do Robert Byrd’s? We don’t shy away from commemorating the openly and nakedly racist ideas and affiliations when remembering these men or talking about their political careers, so I don’t think we should leave out the women whose lives were altered (or ended) when they came into contact with men in the Kennedy family.
I think the Kennedys are a great example of how privilege works; it doesn’t matter if your heart is in the right place, privilege makes you dangerous to non-privileged people. The U.S. has a storied history in this regard — Thomas Jefferson, great legacy, dangerous to non-whites. Kennedy men, great legacies, dangerous to non-men. And this is true even if parts of their legacies have been really helpful to non-privileged people. In his life, personally horny and privileged as hay-ell Jefferson kept his own offspring as slaves because he could. In his life, personally intoxicated and privileged as hay-ell Kennedy caused the drowning death of a woman and never got charged with it because he could. Not to mention the legions of women the Kennedys went through in glorious high-cad style b/c they could, or the daughter that the Kennedy patriarch had lobotomized because he could.
I felt genuinely sad hearing that Ted Kennedy died, and I am genuinely grateful for his legacy as a legislator. If only privilege would start to look a bit peaky! But it seems to be in the pink of health.
Kathleen, I think this is exactly correct:
“I think the Kennedys are a great example of how privilege works; it doesn’t matter if your heart is in the right place, privilege makes you dangerous to non-privileged people.”
Well said. This is what I was edging up to I think, but you beat me to the punch, and then some!
Hmmm. Can you offer examples of other privileged people who were dangerous to non-privileged people? Al Gore, son of a senator? Privileged; not dangerous. (I’m trying to think of others. I went to high school with some kids of super-privilege. So far they’ve eluded the news, except for a few well-known writers known solely for their writings.)
Too, if we define “privilege” not as “super-elite family” but as “affluent or comfortably middle-class family, elite education,” I suspect many posters on this list are privileged. Are we ourselves dangerous to the nonprivileged? I try, professionally and otherwise, to be helpful, not hurtful.
Ignatz, do you follow the blog University Diaries? Margaret Soltan, the blog author, provides daily examples of people who meet the criteria for “privileged people who are dangerous to non-privileged people.”
Doctors who put their names on research they never participated in.
Overpaid university administrators who find ways to raise tuition while simultaneously hiring overpaid coaches and using adjunct instructors in lieu of tenure-stream faculty.
People who run (or invest in) online universities that charge high tuition for a mediocre education.
These are just 3 general categories. The blog is full of names to attach to them.
I didn’t read Kathleen as making that argument in all cases and at all times–maybe that’s because I wouldn’t make such an absolute argument. One example occured to me, from American literature: Jim and Huck were never really on the same raft now, were they?
When John Kennedy Jr. was killed–or rather, when his poor decision/piloting killed his wife and sister-in-law, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Bessette family. They had raised two lovely daughters to adulthood, and had every reason to think that it was smooth sailing from there on out. And then, one day, one plane ride, and all of the children in one family are gone.
This is not the best example of privelege destroying people–but just think: if Carolyn had married some schlub, she would have flown coach on Continental, and the Bessettes might still have their daughters and grandchildren.
Ignatz has a point not refuted in Historiann’s latest post: Several Kennedy men were particularly dangerous to women, much more so than other rich pols who served in the Senate like Al Gore, Herb Kohl, Mark Dayton, Jay Rockefeller, Jon Corzine, on and on. (Laurence Leamer’s “The Kennedy Women” and “The Kennedy Men” are good sources.) I revere Teddy for all the amazing work he did, but it’d be fine with me if the curtain has rung down on Camelot.
Some have referenced the parable of the talents. It’s true that Kennedy built his two or five talents up, and earned us all a return — but it took a long time. When he was at Harvard, or doing military service, or running for the Senate the first time, it would have been crazy to defend that privilege on the grounds that 50 years later, he would look like one of the greatest public servants in the country’s history. Instead, he was taking up space that would obviously (I think, based on what could be known then) have been better occupied by someone ready to try hard.
Sure, this one aristocrat redeemed his presumption, but how many do?
Vance and LadyProf–good points. I didn’t mean to “refute” Ignatz so much as qualify my read of Kathleen’s earlier comment. But I might suggest that we may know know all of the damage that privileged men do to others–because one element of their privilege is that they can make evidence and information disappear from the public record.
Vance asks how many aristocrats redeem themselves. I think that’s a great question, and my answer is “probably not many.” The Kennedys of JFK, RFK, and EMK’s generation came of age when it was “cool” to go into politics and public service. Now, it seems like so many of our “leaders” are the sons (and occasionally, the daughters) of that generation. It’s no longer the thing to do public service or politics–it seems like the Reagan era opened the door for the rich to be merely rich, and hang the rest of us!
So, I gotta hand it to the Kennedys, even if much of their service was impelled by their corrupt old dad’s ambitions. They gave a lot back, which I don’t see a lot of Ritchie Riches from Richistan doing now. Most can’t even be bothered to pay fair taxes, let alone risk scrutiny and failure on the campaign trail.
This isn’t a contribution to the interesting discussion here, I just wanted to gently point out to historiann that the Bessettes actually had three daughters. The third, who I believe was the killed SIL’s twin, was not on the plane, and survives. Of course that fact in no way minimizes the tragedy to the Bessette family.
I think we need to hold our judgement about the next generation of privilege. I have taught at several private colleges whose students are committed, at least for now, to the ideals that Sen. Kennedy espoused. Do they often have flaws (womanizing, partying)? Sure.
One area of difference with the Kennedy generation is that my students don’t equate public service with national government service. To many, politics is “tainted” (I was hoping Obama might be able to change that a little), so they look to serve with NGOs, local governments, community projects. This may not be so bad, either. State and local governments need talent to remain viable.
I now teach in my state’s public university system (and not the Research I). Students here are also engaged in service to their communities but in far smaller numbers than at my previous institutions. However, the campus is far less conscious of social justice issues. I asked my students if the bookstore sells clothes made in sweatshops or if the coffee shop offers fair trade options. They didn’t know. At my previous schools, there were student protests over these issues.
I can’t say for certain that the values these young people have now will hold once they begin collecting paychecks. The cynic in me says that there is quite a bit of “following the leader”. Social justice is cool right now. Maybe some of it will stick.
polisciprof and perpetua–thanks for the additional information & corrections. I’m really glad to hear that the Bessettes have another daughter, and I hope she lives to a happy and healthy old age.
I hear what you’re saying, polisciprof, and you’re right that public service is a broader category than politics. I too teach at a public uni, and have taught at elite private schools, and you’re right that there is a social consciousness on some Eastern private campuses that I don’t see as prominently at my Western Aggie school. (It’s there, but it’s such a big school and there are so many other organizations/affiliations that compete with each other here.) But as you point out, sometimes liberal public service grooviness is more about fitting into campus culture than it is about a genuinely held set of values.
I remember what a high school teacher of mine said about the 1960s once, when some of us 1980s high schoolers were complaining about our era and generation and romanticizing the political commitments of the 60s. She said, “it wasn’t all that noble. It was just what was fashionable, and most of us were just trying to fit in.”
I just thought of another example of an aristocrat who amply redeemed himself: FDR. And yet he had at least one affair too. (By the way, an excellent new biography by Kirsten Davis just appeared about Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor, whose ideas and work lay behind most of FDR’s innovations.) And I hear that Gandhi slept with underage women. Ugh.
I might qualify Kathleen’s statement: men in power may be dangerous, especially to women. Privilege provides easier access to power (and women)–but I think privileged families often pass on a sense of noblesse oblige that may stop their kids from screwing up.
One more point, in response to one of Historiann’s: privileged men used to be more able to sanitize the public record (think FDR and JFK). Tabloids and the mainstream media expose some of their misdeeds now.
Ignatz–that is true! I bet John Edwards wishes he could go back in time…
I personally don’t care about marital continence (or lack thereof) in my political leaders–it’s more when the behavior strays into criminal and/or deadly risk-taking. I don’t think FDR is someone who needed to “redeem himself,” or, at least not for having a girlfriend on the side. (Maybe for turning away those Jewish refugees before the war started?)
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More than “it would be nice”: we should demand better behavior. OTOH, my father was correct when he castigated a vote I cast for Nader as “wasted on an innocent.” My father never suffered any illusions concerning Nixon’s character, but his crookedness was part of his appeal as a politician if you liked his direction. Unlike Nixon, the Kennedy’s all sought to move this nation in a direction that would be beneficial. Ted Kennedy will be missed, despite his flaws, just as his brothers are missed despite theirs. We need a few more committed liberals, but let’s vet them before they get promoted to the national stage.
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Those people who are saying that Robert F. Kennedy did not run until he saw an opportunity of winning, well then what else he could have done? In politics, one can only mould society according to one’s ideals if one is at some high position. What he wanted to do required the seat of presidency. Why was he killed? Because he was a threat to those who were stealing from the poor and dividing America. He ran when he thought was the right time.
About his womanising, there are no confirmed records or authentic sources. Don’t go for the rumours about Monroe, or Jackie or any other actress or of any worker, Bobby was really a decent husband who only loved his wife. Those are plots for his character assassination. I think with the media spinning stories any which way they want people should know what is the truth. One more fact about Bobby, his arch-rival was not only Lyndon Johnson, but Edgar Hoover as well. They spread those stories to end his political career.