NPR logo National Review Online: Kennedy, Unsentimentally


National Review Online: Kennedy, Unsentimentally

The Kennedy brothers John F. Kennedy, left, Robert Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy, right, at Hyannes Port after John returned from the Democratic National Convention where he received the party's presidential nomination. AP hide caption

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The Kennedy brothers John F. Kennedy, left, Robert Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy, right, at Hyannes Port after John returned from the Democratic National Convention where he received the party's presidential nomination.


He may have sometimes seemed like a gin-soaked anachronism from The Beautiful and the Damned who somehow wandered into 21st-century America, but Edward M. Kennedy is a permanent rebuke to F. Scott Fitzgerald and his assertion that there are no second acts in American lives. Kennedy's life was a string of second acts: Expelled from Harvard for academic dishonesty, he was readmitted to the good graces of the Ivy League under a gentlemen's agreement; politically marginalized after leaving Mary Jo Kopechne to die of asphyxiation in his sinking Oldsmobile, he was readmitted to the good graces of the Democratic party under a gentlemen's agreement of a different sort; frustrated in his desire to follow his brother to the White House, he reinterpreted his relegation to the legislature as a heroic political stand. Senator Kennedy proved to be a political immortal, and no scandal, hypocrisy, or failure of vision could threaten his career. Indeed, even mortality has not ended his influence, and Democrats already are positioning themselves to use his passing as a platform to further one of the worst of his initiatives, a government takeover of the health-care industry.

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As a member of the modern American aristocracy, Senator Kennedy believed that he had a mandate to use his power to do good for the least well-off among us, and that cast of mind is, at its core, admirable. Among the better achievements of his life, Kennedy lent moral support to important civil-rights and voting-rights legislation. Unhappily, he mistook power for wisdom, and he very often left things worse than he had found them. He meddled in Northern Ireland to no good end, contributed mightily to the politicization of the federal courts, sought to regulate and restrict political speech, appeased the Soviets, contributed to the American defeat in Vietnam, and attempted to apply the Vietnam template to Iraq. A child of privilege, he worked energetically to deny school-choice scholarships to poor black children in Washington, D.C. His ideas on taxes, immigration, and social welfare were reliably counterproductive.

On the issue of health care, long dear to him, Senator Kennedy was a serial fumbler, and much of the maddening modern American health-care bureaucracy, with its welter of HMOs, PPOs, and tangled intersections of the public and the private, has its origins in Kennedy's legislative imagination. In a much-noted 2001 presentation, Senator Kennedy denounced HMOs as condemning unfortunates "to second-rate care from the doctor who happens to be on the plan's list." Unmentioned was the fact that the modern HMO regime was brought into existence by Senator Kennedy, who shaped the 1973 legislation that created it.

Senator Kennedy was famed for the power of his oratory. Another way of saying that is to note that he was a gifted artist whose medium was slander, and he found his canvases in Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. Powerful a speaker as he was, it is not clear that Senator Kennedy's rhetoric was powerful enough to sway the hardest hearts, including his own. Consider this: "Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain right which must be recognized the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old." A beautiful sentiment, beautifully expressed and callously ignored when the political winds changed and he felt himself compelled to denounce the "back-alley abortions" that would be necessitated in "Robert Bork's America." Like many of the most powerful Democrats Jesse Jackson and Al Gore come to mind Senator Kennedy left behind his pro-life convictions when they became a political burden. This is an especially painful failing in Kennedy, whose family has traded on its Catholicism so profitably.

He was a man of intense personal charisma, and he needed all of it. After a Good Friday drinking bout with the Kennedy boys ended in rape accusations against his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, the man who fancied himself the liberal conscience of the Senate found himself described in the formerly friendly pages of Time magazine as a "Palm Beach boozer, lout, and tabloid grotesque." He seems to have found a rock in his late-life marriage to his second wife, Victoria. Senator Kennedy promised to reform himself and acknowledged that, "I am painfully aware that the criticism directed at me in recent months involves far more than disagreements with my positions. . . . I recognize my own shortcomings, and the faults in the conduct of my private life. I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them."

His brother, President Kennedy, became a national icon because his untimely death invited the question of what he might have been. Senator Kennedy, much longer lived, also invites the question of what he might have been. Driven to do good, he could not, because he was hostage to his own defects, personal and ideological. His best impulses deserve to survive him; his worst ideas and legislative agenda do not. RIP Edward M. Kennedy, 19322009: May he encounter the divine mercy that both the greatest and the least of us will require at the end.