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Wednesday, August 26, 2009  

Requiem for a Dream

Ted Kennedy picked an ironic time to die. Just as Republicans are gearing up once again to thwart the culmination of his life's work--universal access to health care--they are at the same time using the popularity of Medicare, a Ted Kennedy program par excellence, to do it. This illustrates a paradox that defined Teddy's career in high tide and low--that real progress is difficult to accomplish, but once gained, is very, very hard to undo.

I'm too young to remember Ted Kennedy as anything but a blustery and almost self-parodic elder statesman. He apparently only got his disastrous personal life together after his second marriage in 1991. He was fond of talking in his speeches about the race to the moon, and it sometimes sounded as if he were trying to address anyone who might still be up there. Some of his pet projects, even for this dyed-in-the-wool liberal, aged better than others.

Yet he had to be the responsible, long-serving public servant his brothers were denied the chance to be. If what sentimental liberals see in the tragic lives of John and Robert is great promise snuffed out too soon, what we see in Teddy is something more complex: unknown, perhaps unexpected brilliance and devotion unfolding over years and decades of labor.

His achievements--and rare is the American life not touched in some positive way by his legislation and advocacy--are enough to mark him as a great one of his age. But my own attachment to Ted, which by now surpasses whatever feelings I have for his brothers, comes from the fact that he had to endure the withdrawing roar of the liberal era. He had to keep running in Boston's neighborhoods after the civil rights backlash was well under way. He had to outlive the Irish working class's love for his family. I came to admire Ted most particularly through this episode in J. Anthony Lukas's great Common Ground. It concerns a protest by residents of Charlestown against the busing of black students to Charlestown high school in 1974. Only four years earlier, Teddy had been honored by the Townies at their annual Bunker Hill Day celebration. Charlestown was the home base of his grandfather, John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald. His Knights of Columbus sword still hung in one of the Town's taverns. But race had curdled their affections. And Teddy decided to speak, as they had asked, at their rally:

Mrs. Rita Graul, one of [segregationist school superintendent Louise Day] Hicks's principal lieutenants, had just produced two figures in chicken masks--"the white chicken, Senator Kennedy," and "the brown chicken, Senator [Edward] Brooke [who was the first black senator since Reconstruction]." All of a sudden, there was Kennedy himself.... There was a brief but heated discussion over whether to let the Senator speak. Ultimately, Kennedy advanced to the microphone, but when the crowd realized who he was they booed and jeered:

"Impeach him. Get rid of the bum!"
"You're a disgrace to the Irish!"
"Why don't you put your one-legged son on a bus!"
"Yeah, let your daughter get bused, so she can get raped!"
"Why don't you let them shoot you, like they shot your brother!"

Kennedy's face tightened and his fist grasped the microphone more closely, but each time he tried to speak the clamor grew. Some in the crowd chanted, "No, no, we won't go." Others sang "God Bless America." Then, slowly at first, more quickly as the idea caught on, the crowd turned row by row to face the Federal Building named for his brother, the late President. Kennedy abruptly left the platform and started across the plaza toward his office, a few women pursuing him, shouting further insults. Then out of the crowd sailed a ripe tomato, smashing on the pavement, splattering his pin-striped suit. "Ahh," sighed the crowd. Another tomato and several eggs rained down on him. Kennedy quickened his pace, head down, With the object of their resentment in full flight now, the pursuers closed in. Screaming with rage, one woman with a tiny American flag in her hair flailed at the Senator, striking him on the shoulder. He stumbled, then righted himself and hurried on. An elbow caught him in the ribs. A man aimed a kick at his shins.

Imagine it. Here was a man quite understandably haunted by the specter of assassination daring to stand up to a hate-filled crowd, and on behalf of racial justice. How many of our ashen time-servers in today's U.S. Senate would dare such a thing? How about Kennedy's own rough contemporaries, people like George Bush (either one) and Dick Cheney? Say what you will about Chappaquiddick and anything else, this took both moral and physical courage that was not in abundance either then or now.

And of course the story ends not with a rousing liberal lion winning the crowd over with his passion and ideals, but with a hasty retreat. The dream of a white ethnic-African American progressive alliance, under the leadership of a plutocrat like Ted Kennedy, really never did come about. The promise of RFK in Indiana in 1968, that the white and black working classes could share the same ideals and rally to the same champion, was just not to be. So Ted, quite honorably, fought long and sometimes lonely battles for the old ideals from his perch in the Senate. We're a better country for much of what he did, and we'd be better still if we bring his last bill home.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:53 PM
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