Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Quick Thought on Ted Kennedy
I think it's fair to say that in the drama of American public life in the second half of the 20th century--the decades that history will remember as the zenith of American global pre-eminence--four men stood above all others at the intersection of ideas and influence, variously wielding power and building movements. They were, in no particular order, Ronald Reagan, Ted Kennedy, William F. Buckley Jr., and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Very, very few matters of importance over the last thirty years of the century in particular happened without one or more of these men playing a central role. With the probable exception of Moynihan, whom I consider the most idiosyncratic of the four in his journey from New Frontiersman to Nixonian adviser and Cold War hawk to latter-day neoliberal and who viewed himself as a public intellectual freed from the constraints of democratic pandering or even consistency, they're all remembered as partisan leaders par excellence--the president who gave the "Reagan Revolution" its name, the "liberal lion of the Senate," and the "father of modern conservatism." There are nooks on the left where Reagan is still loathed, and crannies on the right where Kennedy remains reviled.

But what strikes me in the wake of Kennedy's passing on Tuesday night is that the caricatures never captured the essences--the men never changed themselves to fit the masks of public perception. Rick Perlstein's remembrances of Buckley painted the National Review founder as an excessively generous and warm fellow, as does his protege-turned-rival-turned-friend Garry Wills. The personal friendship between Kennedy and Reagan was illustrated by Nancy Reagan's classy statement released Wednesday, and the tributes from partisan Republicans of today such as Orrin Hatch (who wrote a song for his late friend) and John Boehner offer more evidence that the political was not personal.

This isn't to paint the Good Old Days in sepia hues. The fact that all four of these figures were white men is almost enough in itself to point up a failing of their era, and it's possible verging on likely that each of the four committed at least one misstep at a key moment in their careers that would relegate them to the sidelines in today's world: certainly no public figure could endure Chappaquiddick today, nor Buckley's championing of segregation in the late 1950s. But that these men and others like them (check out this list of the Senators who were in office when Ted Kennedy took his seat in 1963) were generally able to leave their differences in the world of "just business," and as such often able to overcome those differences to make policy, suggests that we have lost something precious and useful. Republican Senators like Hatch and John McCain both have remarked that Kennedy's ability to "reach across the aisle" would be useful right now as the Senate struggles with the question of health care reform. It's easy, and probably at least somewhat correct, to dismiss this as disingenuous and self-serving on their part. But that doesn't mean there isn't a grain of truth to it. I've written here a few times this summer that we're in uncharted territory as far as trying to enact major reform in a deeply polarized climate; with Ted Kennedy leaving the scene, his former colleagues find themselves that much more dug in.

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