Well, it appears that Ted Kennedy’s recent medical crisis isn’t immediately life-threatening, so it’s time to put the hagiographies back in storage. The man hasn’t died yet, so telling truths about him falls under “kicking a man when he’s down,” and not “speaking ill of the dead.” And as James Carville so eloquently put it, “when your opponent is drowning, throw the son-of-a-bitch an anchor.”
It’s said that just before you die, your entire life flashes before your eyes. I dunno if that’s true, but when I heard reports that Teddy had been rushed to the hospital, his life flashed before my eyes. And it was not a pretty thing.
Ted Kennedy is the closest thing to a true Falstaffian character in American history. He was never intended for the incredibly prominent role history has thrust upon him, and he’s borne it up as well as can be expected — in other words, not well at all.
Old Joe Kennedy (Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.) had a plan for his family all laid out. His first-born son would be the first Catholic president of the United States, with his second son ready to succeed him. The third would be the helper of the older two. To cement the family legacy, he named his first son after himself: Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. The second and third sons — John Fitzgerald and Robert Francis — were given names to honor Old Joe’s patrician father-in-law, John Francis Fitzgerald.
And then came along Teddy. It was obvious that Old Joe didn’t expect much from him, because he named him after the family chauffeur (and, it is rumored, Joe’s occasional procurer), Edward “Eddie” Moore.
Old Joe’s plan hit a few roadblocks. He managed to achieve several prominent government positions, culminating in Ambassador to England — something that suited the old Irishman just fine. But his respect for Hitler and belief that Nazism would triumph in Europe — and the US jolly well better get used to that inevitability — led to his recall.
No matter. He’d laid enough groundwork; now all his boys had to do was grab some respectable wartime records, and they’d be set for politics. So Joe joined the Army Air Force, and Jack the Navy.
Then came major setback #1: Jack was injured and nearly killed in the Pacific. But Joe managed to spin Jack’s wartime mishap into a tale of great heroism and courage, and Jack became a genuine war hero. Young Joe, possibly motivated by jealousy of his younger brother’s acclaim, volunteered for several highly dangerous missions — and one of them eventually cost him his life.
After the war, the plan proceeded apace — with adjustments made, so that Jack would be the first Catholic president, with third son Bobby as his right-hand man.
But what of Teddy? Was there a place for him?
Yes. Some adjustments would have to be made, and he’d have to grow up a bit, but there was room for him in Old Joe’s grand scheme.
Unfortunately. Ted’s weak character began showing up almost immediately. At Harvard, he was caught paying another student to take a Spanish exam, and he was expelled. Joe arranged for him to serve a stint in the Army (as an enlisted man, not an officer like young Joe or Jack). Rumor has it that Teddy managed to screw that up, too, signing up not for a two-year stint, but four years, and with a strong possibility of going to Korea. Old Joe called in a bunch of favors and got Teddy’s term cut back to two years, and arranged for him to spend it assigned to SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) in Paris. (Oh, the burden that must have been.) Then, when he was discharged, he was re-admitted to Harvard and graduated.
In 1960, he helped Jack win the presidency, and saw Bobby be named Attorney General. That left Jack’s Senate seat open, and Old Joe wanted him to fill it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find a way to bribe or blackmail his way past the Constitution, and Teddy was two years too young to serve in the Senate. So Old Joe did the next best thing — he got Jack’s college roommate appointed to the seat to “keep it warm” until Ted could turn 30 and run for it directly.
Shortly after getting elected for a full term in 1964, Teddy made what is probably his single greatest contribution to America: he was one of the main backers of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. This attempt at immigration “reform” was partly aimed at addressing the problems of illegal immigration — then, a major concern, as there were an estimated 1,000,000 illegal aliens in the United States. Teddy was abundantly clear about just what the measure would — and would not — do:
“First, our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same … Secondly, the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset … Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and deprived nations of Africa and Asia … In the final analysis, the ethnic pattern of immigration under the proposed measure is not expected to change as sharply as the critics seem to think … The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.”
I find myself torn between two possibilities. Was Teddy so stupid that he actually believed that, or was he lying? I find either entirely plausible.
Anyway, let’s fast-forward a few years to the incident everyone knows Teddy for: his little adventure in submarine racing in an Oldsmobile. Specifically, his mother’s.
If Ted could be considered depressed through much of the 60’s, it’s more than understandable. Losing his oldest brother in World War II was bad enough. Then his father has a massive stroke and is rendered speechless and utterly infirm. Then his older brother — the President of the United States — is assassinated. Then his last brother was also gunned down, while seeking the presidency. So by 1969, Teddy had had his share of problems.
But now it was time for the single biggest screw-up of his life, the one that will most likely be the single thing he is most remembered for: Chappaquiddick.
Teddy was hosting a party on the island off Cape Cod for Kennedy supporters and folks who had worked on Bobby’s presidential bid. He left with one of the young ladies, Mary Jo Kopechne, heading for the ferry. He didn’t arrive, though; he drove the big Olds right off the bridge, where it flipped over in the water.
Teddy — despite his bad back from a 1964 plane crash that broke it — escaped the sinking car and swam for shore. After going back to the party and notifying his lawyers about the crash (who went to the scene and attempted to rescue Mary Jo while Ted watched), he went to an inn, chatted briefly with the clerk (establishing that he was there at 2:25, two hours after the crash) and went to bed. In the morning, he reported the accident to the police — two hours after the car had been discovered by fishermen, and after the police had already recovered Mary Jo’s body.
(An excellent, highly-detailed account of the whole incident can be found here.)
Teddy’s presidential possibilities pretty much died with Mary Jo. He ended up pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and had his license suspended for two months. The Kennedy family power couldn’t make it all go away, but they did manage to minimize the personal cost to Teddy.
A few months later, Old Joe finally died. He’d lived just long enough to outlive three of his sons, and see his fourth and last son utterly destroy any chance to fulfill Old Joe’s dream of a dynasty.
Teddy cruised along for several years, and then in 1980 he figured enough time had passed and he couldn’t avoid his “destiny” any longer — and he ran for president, challenging incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. He was a long shot to begin with, but he was completely and utterly sunk when CBS’s Roger Mudd ambushed him with a truly low-down, deceptive, unfair question: “why do you want to be president?”
EDWARD KENNEDY: Well, I’m – were I to make the announcement to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country that it is – has more natural resources than any nation of the world, has the greatest educated population in the world, the greatest technology of any country in the world, the greatest capacity for innovation in the world and the greatest political system in the world. And yet I see at the current time that most of the industrial nations of the world are exceeding us in terms of productivity or doing better than us in terms of meeting the problems of inflation, that they’re dealing with their problems of energy and their problems of unemployment. It just seems to me that this nation can cope and deal with its problems in a way that it has in the past. We’re facing complex issues and problems in this nation at this time, but we have faced similar challenges at other times and the energies and the resourcefulness of this nation, I think, should be focused on these problems in a way that brings a sense of restoration in this country by its people to – in dealing with the problems that we face, primarily the issues on the economy, the problems of inflation and the problems of energy and I would basically feel that it’s imperative for this country either move forward, but it can’t stand still or otherwise it moves backward.
Never in the annals of human history has so little been said at such length by such a large, small man.
In what has to be one of the must humilating moments in political history, Kennedy got his clocked cleaned by a president who would go on to lose 44 of 50 states.
Since Teddy finally got that out of his system, he’s been content to just cruise along. He divorced his wife, earned a stupendous reputation as a boozing womanizer, then got remarried (but don’t you dare question his status as a good Catholic, and especially don’t bring up his staunch opposition to Church doctrine on abortion and birth control!) and focused on being the best darned Senator and family man he can be.
And that latter part has been especially taxing. It seems that the younger generation of Kennedys has largely chosen to follow Ted’s example (and who can blame him? At least he’s still alive!) and indulge in all sorts of vices and peccadilloes. Like alcoholism. Drug addiction. Drug overdoses. Car crashes that leave a young woman crippled for life. Fireworks mishaps that nearly blow off children’s hands. One nephew is a convicted murderer. Another barely escaped a rape conviction from a night out partying with Uncle Ted. Another was caught nailing his underage babysitter.
Today, Teddy is seen as the “lion” of the Senate, and a champion of liberalism. And now that he’s hospitalized with unexplained seizures, there is a huge rush to canonize him, to whitewash his lifetime of reprobation and sweep his multitude of sins under the carpet.
Sorry, but I’ll pass.
I don’t hate Teddy Kennedy. Part of me wants to, but I find myself more pitying him than hating him. He never had a chance to be his own man; he was shacked into his father’s grand plans for over 37 years, never given the chance to find his own way in the world and do what he wanted to. He eventually managed to convince himself that his fate demanded public service, and he’s done the best he can (albeit incredibly wrong-headedly and championing so, so many of the wrong causes and ideals, wreaking great harm on the nation in the process), but it’s really not his fault that he never grew up and became his own man. Instead, he’s now a fat, old, drunken sot who has convinced himself that this was his destiny, that this was the course his life was fated to take, that he has lived his life well and served his nation to his fullest.
I suppose it’s never too late to hope for a change of heart, that he might some day realize the tremendous damage he’s done to this nation, that he might actually own up for the first time to his own responsibilities and be a man.
But I sure as hell don’t bet on it actually happening.
Nor do I expect him to resign his office for reasons of health. Teddy has chosen to make the Senate his life; I strongly suspect he has absolutely no idea what he’d do without his office. He has chosen to define himself as “Senator Kennedy,” and the only way he’ll ever give up that identity is when he dies.
And at that point, the beatification will commence in full, and literally dozens of buildings, schools, projects and other government projects will be named in his honor.
I intend to call out sick for at least one of those days. My stomach will be in full churn mode.
I might even have to get drunk — for the first time in my life — just to get through it all.