When I woke the morning of August 26 and heard the news of Ted Kennedy’s passing, I was saddened, but had no intention of writing about it. I was content with posting a retrospective video on my Facebook page as a symbol of my grief (video clip, embedded below). However, a comment on that video from a conservative friend got my blood up. The comment was in reference to the tragic episode in the life of Ted Kennedy known as Chappaquiddick, and was my motivation for writing the following:
Kennedy’s detractors have always sought to hang Chappaquiddick around his neck as if one tragic event could define him. I always felt that, if they were to be honest with themselves, conservatives would admit their disdain for Sen. Kennedy has always been grounded in the view of him as the personification of liberalism in America. As such, Ted Kennedy embodied both; everything conservatives despise, and most of the qualities prized by progressive Americans. It boils down to competing definitions of what it means to be a liberal.
Teddy’s older brother John F. Kennedy identified the difference in a September 1960:
What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”
Teddy, himself, put his finger on it during his eulogy for his brother Robert in 1968:
This is the way he lived. My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it…
As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:
“Some men see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not.”
I heard that last phrase countless times following Ted Kennedy’s death, and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it. It denotes a sense of optimism which is, sadly, scarce in today’s political climate.
Like his brothers, John and Robert, Teddy came to be viewed by segment of conservatives as traitor to his privileged class in the same way FDR was during the New Deal. Over his 46 years in the U.S. Senate, Edward M. Kennedy was a champion of the less-fortunate, playing significant rolls in the passage of the Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, to name a few.
But these are examples of Kennedy’s legislative efforts intended to combat discrimination, difficult for all but the staunchest conservatives to attack after their passage. This, perhaps, explains why Chappaquiddick is the first arrow out of the quiver when conservatives attack him. It is the easy route.
Parallels are found within the present national debate over health care reform: the primary focus of Kennedy’s public life. Opponents of reform have sought to inspire fear, poisoning the public discourse with misinformation. Why? Because arguing the issue on the merits would be much more difficult.
Also within Teddy’s eulogy of his brother, he described those who would choose the easier path:
The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.
Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live…
As I read, and reread Teddy’s eulogy my anger over the Chappaquiddick comment subsided. It did so because the words he chose to honor his fallen brother remain true today.
History shows us that the American ideological pendulum has always swung from conservative to liberal and back, but the mechanism itself, the fulcrum if you will, inevitably has moved in a progressive direction. It has, and will continue to do so, no matter how one decides to define the terms involved. Thus, optimism and empathy, inevitably, will always triumph over pessimism and apathy.
In closing, I feel it is important to note that not all conservatives, much to their credit, do not pursue the easy path. Indeed many conservatives have chosen to remember Ted Kennedy fondly, recognizing his commitment to bipartisanship throughout his tenure in the U.S. Senate (to hear Nancy Reagan’s touching recollection of Kennedy, click here). Whether or not this will translate into legislation providing health insurance for all U.S. citizens remains to be seen.
Regardless, those who seek to define him by a four-decades-old tragedy do so at the peril of their conservative ideology. They should consider growing up, in my opinion. Thanks in part to Edward M. Kennedy, progress will happen whether they want it to or not.
The following clip is from the 2008 Democratic National Convention and was created by Ken Burns. To see the famed documentary film maker’s emotional recollection of Ted Kennedy and his final speech at that same event, click here. Additionally, if you are so inclined, please sign the Care2 Pledge to Honor Ted Kennedy.
Image from Flickr.com user: xavierla, by way of creativecommons.org