Center Field: A life of tragedy and redemption

Even if Obama's health care efforts fail, Kennedy will still sparkle as a legendary figure.

Gil Troy (photo credit: )
Gil Troy
(photo credit: )
Senator Edward Moore "Ted" Kennedy was the perfect hero for post-modern America - a flawed, tragic figure who lived long enough to achieve secular sainthood. He fascinated both readers of the National Enquirer and viewers of CSPAN. A living legend from America's mythical star-crossed family, he was the poor little rich kid, blessed with wealth, fame and power, yet unsettled due to his own character flaws and to the violent deaths of three brothers and one sister. Yet, eventually, Kennedy seemed to achieve the serenity that had eluded him. The turning point in his life came in 1980, when he suffered the first major Kennedy loss in presidential politics. Ted Kennedy, the crown prince of Camelot, the Democratic Party's great white hope, ran against the Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter and lost. Ted Kennedy in the 1970s was drinking too much, womanizing too much, wallowing too much. He was the junior Kennedy kid, the screw-up, dwarfed by his martyred brothers' outsized reputations. Ted Kennedy lacked the press protection afforded politicians just a few years earlier, and was responsible for a young woman's death. In a scene that would have been deemed too far-fetched for a novel, Kennedy had driven his car off a bridge in Chappaquidick Island, off Cape Cod, the Kennedy family playground, late one night in July 1969, after a reunion with the "boiler-room girls" from Bobby Kennedy's campaign. His companion in the car, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. His failure to report the incident until the next morning suggested that Kennedy had been drunk and carrying on with the dead woman. In addition to being dogged by Chappaquidick, Kennedy could not explain why he was running. In a moment that would become a classic American fiasco, in November 1979 newsman Roger Mudd, a Kennedy sycophant, asked the senator why he was running for president. Kennedy sputtered "I have great belief in this country, that is - there's more natural resources than any nation in the world, there's the greatest educated population in the world." Such drivel, combined with all his baggage, sank Kennedy's campaign. The humiliating nine-month slog through the presidential primaries served as a kind of penance for Kennedy, somehow focusing him. In July 1980, Jimmy Carter was renominated at the Democratic Convention, but Ted Kennedy won liberals' hearts and America's forgiveness. Kennedy's concession speech wowed everyone. Endorsing a "fair prosperity and a just society," Kennedy uttered the liberal battle cry so identified with his dead brothers. Kennedy thundered: "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die." Kennedy's "dream shall never die" speech resonated through the 1980s and 1990s, as he became the liberal lion, crusading for civil rights, labor, welfare, equal access to education and - his Holy Grail - health care for all. While reconciling with the press and public, Kennedy also mastered the Senate's intricacies, becoming a valued member of that exclusive club, to which he had belonged since 1962. And while many conservatives hated his demagogic attacks, he also earned Republicans' respect. His across-the-aisle friendship with conservative Orrin Hatch symbolized his civility, his new maturity. KENNEDY EVEN cooperated with George W. Bush. Together, the Harvard Democrat and the Republican Yalie, both once-spoiled scions of legendary dynasties, produced the landmark "No Child Left Behind" education legislation, combining liberal largesse with a conservative commitment to standards. As a result, by the time Kennedy was diagnosed last May with the brain tumor that ultimately killed him, he was revered as one of America's greatest senators ever and the grand old man of American politics. Although too young to fight in World War II, Kennedy hailed from the Hubert Humphrey-Alan Cranston school of passionately pro-Israel liberals. These progressives understood the Holocaust and Israel's founding from up close. Kennedy's consistent support for Israel and his enthusiastic attempts to free Soviet Jewry were "givens." They were not taken for granted, but these stances were too central to his identity and worldview to be abandoned. Today, alas, much of that friendship with Israel, among many Democrats, is less assumed, less assured. Kennedy's leadership in fighting for Soviet Jewry was particularly impressive because too many of his allies on the Left were too sweet on the Soviet Union as the workers' paradise. Ted Kennedy was not snookered. Kennedy dominated Massachusetts politics. He supported Soviet Jewish human rights because it was the right thing to do, not because he needed Jewish votes. In working with the conservative president Ronald Reagan to save Soviet Jews, Kennedy made this issue like so many others, bipartisan, universal. That Kennedy died as his latest protégé, President Barack Obama, is pushing health care reform is novelistic, like so much else in his life. If Obama succeeds, and particularly if the emotions surrounding Kennedy's death help pass the legislation, Kennedy will have one final sweet success to his credit. If Obama's efforts fail, Kennedy's legacy will still sparkle, as a legendary figure who inherited his brothers' aspirations, and fulfilled so many of them; as someone who could have been defeated by life but instead redeemed himself by seeking to help others. The writer is professor of history at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction is being published this month by Oxford University Press.