The lion sleepsAugust 26, 2009 at 9:54 am | Posted in U.S. Politics | 4 Comments
To borrow from one of the Senator’s most memorable speeches, Edward Kennedy need not be idealised or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. There will not – and should not – be a single obituary which avoids mention of the murky & tragic death in Martha’s Vineyard, and every attempt to pay tribute to his life & work must recognise how starkly this act of private cowardice contrasts with the determination & bravery which marked his public life.
Kennedy was as flawed & tragic a figure as one could find in professional politics. His two brothers were murdered, his first marriage collapsed as his wife battled alcoholism, he survived a plane crash which left him with chronic back pain, and his twelve-year-old son only survived cancer by having his leg amputated. He was known to be a womaniser & heavy drinker, and reports of his sordid & boorish escapades were commonplace among Washington’s gossipy elite.
But if the occasion of his passing does not mean we can excuse or ignore a troubled life, nor can those black marks distract from recognising him as one of the most important and effective Senators in American history. Ted Kennedy was involved in passing (and in many cases authoring) practically every progressive accomplishment in the past fifty years: the Civil & Voting Rights Acts which ended discrimination against African Americans; the Medicare & Medicaid programmes which have provided healthcare to millions of poor Americans, and the S-CHIP scheme which extended care for children. He secured increases in the minimum wage, Family & Medical Leave, and reform which opened America up to immigration from all over the world.
He was perhaps America’s first mainstream advocate for gay rights, consistently supported a woman’s reproductive freedom, was a critic of the wars in Vietnam & Iraq, and of Apartheid in South Africa. He worked to implement the ‘Great Society’ of Lyndon Johnson, and then stood to defend it during the days of Nixon, Reagan & Bush. Very simply, his work helped to improve the material conditions of millions of Americans in a way that very few politicians, past or present, can compare to.
It will be widely mentioned, of course, that his death came before a victory on health care reform, an issue Kennedy described as the ’cause of my life’. But the Senator has still done more than most to make this a success; the committee he chaired has already passed a bill which would expand health coverage, and the delay is being caused by the gutless dithering of Senators in a different committee. If President Obama does finally get a healthcare bill through Congress, that too will have been partly due to his hard work.
It’s never wise to regard modern politicians as heroes. They can be prone to hypocrisy, susceptible to self-interest, and when they get things wrong they hurt not just themselves or their cause, but a vast number of people with whom they have never met. In his private life, Edward Kennedy made many bad decisions and was privileged enough not to suffer their consequences, but that still won’t detract from a record of public service which few will ever match.