Features February 2021
Saint Ted of the Senate
A review of Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932–1975, by Neal Gabler.
When Edward M. Kennedy died in 2009, he was eulogized by President Obama as “the soul of the Democratic Party, and the lion of the U.S. Senate—a man who graces nearly one thousand laws, and who penned more than three hundred himself.” Many agreed that Kennedy, after serving forty-seven years in the Senate with many legislative victories to his credit, deserved to be recognized among the greatest figures ever to serve in that body, on a level with the likes of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Robert A. Taft.
Neal Gabler, the author of this new biography of the youngest son of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., endorses this assessment, even after considering the many lapses and indiscretions that would have brought down other public figures not named Kennedy. Catching the Wind, largely based upon already published sources and documents, takes the story from Edward M. Kennedy’s birth in 1932 through 1975, a low point for the senator when, following the deaths of his brothers, the successes and then the failures of liberalism in the 1960s, and his own personal scandals, he was uncertain whether he had any constructive role left to play in public life.1 The author plans a second volume, no doubt as sympathetic and detailed as this one, that will plot Kennedy’s career from 1975 to his death in 2009, a period in which he discovered a new role as one of the Senate’s more effective legislators.
Kennedy was left to carry the liberal flag more or less on his own as the country turned in a conservative direction.
The author views Kennedy much like the tragic hero of the ancient Greeks—a man with noble aims (promoting liberal policies), brought down by moral flaws and episodes of poor judgment. This provides an overall theme for the biography, for (as Gabler argues) the rise and fall of Kennedy’s political fortunes during the 1960s mirrored the fortunes of the liberal cause during that period. Liberals sacrificed their “moral authority” as spokesmen for the poor due to the violence and disorder that engulfed the country by the end of that decade, while at the same time Kennedy lost his own moral authority due to his reckless conduct in 1969 in the notorious incident at Chappaquiddick. When the dust settled in the 1970s, Kennedy was left to carry the liberal flag more or less on his own as the country turned in a conservative direction. This is the larger story that the author tries to illuminate through Kennedy’s career: “the shift in the nation’s political tectonic plates from liberalism to conservatism.”
The glamour later attached to the Kennedy name obscures the difficulties and setbacks “Ted” Kennedy experienced while growing up in the middle of a large and highly ambitious family. Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the family patriarch, had his own political goals in the 1930s as an fdr ally, but soon projected them on to his two eldest sons, Joe, Jr., and John, leaving Ted and brother Robert as afterthoughts. His family shuffled him around from school to school during his early years, from Bronxville to Palm Beach to Boston and even to London, where his father was ambassador to the Court of St James. Kennedy found it difficult to make friends at these schools, as classmates ridiculed him for being awkward or overweight or not too bright. Within his own family, he was judged a “lightweight” in comparison to his older brothers, who glided effortlessly through schools and other youthful challenges that the youngest brother never was able to manage. These experiences, according to the author, left young Kennedy with feelings of insecurity that lasted into adulthood and which he sought to overcome by diligent work and attention to details.
Kennedy eventually found his footing at Harvard, where he made friends, passed his courses, and played on the football team, until he was expelled in the spring of his freshman year for cheating on a Spanish exam—in the first of several moral lapses that marked his conduct over the years. He enlisted in the Army and served for nineteen months in a series of administrative and non-combat jobs, even as military action escalated in Korea—much in contrast to his older brothers, who volunteered for dangerous assignments during World War II (Joe, Jr., was killed in 1944 in one such assignment). The stint in the Army opened a path for readmission to Harvard, where he completed his undergraduate education in 1956. When he applied afterwards for admission to the law school at the University of Virginia, he encountered opposition from faculty members who pointed to the cheating episode at Harvard, plus his mediocre grades, as reasons to reject him. It required external intervention from family and a full vote of the faculty to overcome the opposition to his application. In spite of that controversy, Kennedy performed reasonably well as a law student, graduating in 1959 with plans to use his degree as a pathway into politics.
At that time, Kennedy was far from the liberal he later turned out to be.
In 1962, Kennedy, now just three years out of law school, ran for the Senate seat vacated by his brother when he was elected to the presidency. Time magazine featured him on its cover during that campaign. He won the contest handily for the seat now deemed a family inheritance, campaigning mostly on state and local issues. At that time, Kennedy was far from the liberal he later turned out to be. He was just thirty years of age, after all, barely old enough to hold that seat. His father and brothers were Democrats, not because they were liberals but because the Protestant elites in the Northeast controlled the Republican Party and would not allow the Irish to advance. Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., was a tough conservative and anti-communist; and John F. Kennedy said more than once that he was not comfortable with liberals. As the youngest in the family, Ted Kennedy did not receive the political education that his father imprinted upon his older brothers. He entered the Senate as something of a neophyte, lacking strong views and looking to his brother in the White House for political direction. Naturally, veteran members of the Senate mocked him as a lightweight (that phrase continuing to dog him) riding into office on his family’s name.
Kennedy soon discovered that he liked the Senate, with its traditions and rules and distribution of powers among members and committees. His older brother, now President Kennedy, had been a member of the Senate for eight years, but skipped meetings and missed votes, and spent much of his tenure plotting a run for the presidency. Ted Kennedy, by contrast, though dismissed as a dilettante, worked diligently on legislation and committee assignments, studied the issues and avoided publicity, and established good relations with the senior members and committee chairmen who controlled the Senate. He even got along with James Eastland, the reactionary Mississippi Democrat who chaired the judiciary committee (of which Kennedy was a junior member). Naturally, the novice senator supported the program of the Kennedy Administration, including a civil rights bill, which southern Democrats like Eastland usually managed to bury. But Kennedy, like his brother in the White House, was astute enough to see that he came into office at a moment when liberalism was ascending across the country.
The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 gave new momentum to the civil rights cause and his administration’s legislative program, though it cut off Senator Kennedy’s influence with the White House and left him bereft of political direction. The two surviving Kennedy brothers, Edward and Robert, responded to that event in different ways—Robert turning himself into a wounded and sentimental liberal speaking for the poor and dispossessed; Edward focusing more intently upon legislative goals in the Senate. Ted Kennedy cooperated with Lyndon Johnson when Johnson sought to capitalize on the assassination by promoting the late president’s civil rights agenda, even as Robert Kennedy resented Johnson for usurping the family’s rightful control over the presidency.
Kennedy viewed all three of these bills as monuments to his late brother’s commitment to civil rights.
Ted Kennedy spoke eloquently in 1964 on behalf of the Civil Rights Act, worked to break the Southern filibuster, and led the bipartisan coalition that passed the bill in June of that year. He fought on behalf of President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act and supported amendments to eliminate the poll tax as part of that larger bill. The conservative coalition in the Senate killed those particular amendments, but the Supreme Court stepped in the next year (1966) to declare the poll tax unconstitutional. Kennedy, in perhaps his most significant legislative achievement, was the floor manager in 1965 for the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which repealed the national quota provisions of the 1924 Immigration Act and subsequently opened the United States to large-scale immigration from Asia, South America, and Africa. Kennedy viewed all three of these bills as monuments to his late brother’s commitment to civil rights.
Kennedy voted reliably for Johnson’s domestic agenda but (after 1966) gradually broke with the administration’s policy in Vietnam, calling for diplomacy and negotiations, along with a reduction in military forces, to end the conflict, much like other liberals of that era. When Robert Kennedy announced his campaign for the presidency in 1968, fighting for “the soul of the nation,” as the author puts it, and to end the war in Vietnam, the younger Kennedy reluctantly signed on, fearing that his brother’s candidacy would split the Democrats but also dreading the possibility that it might provoke another assassination attempt. In the event, that is what happened when on the evening of the California presidential primary, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed, a sacrifice (as the Kennedys believed) in the struggle for civil rights. Robert’s death thrust Ted Kennedy forward as the leader of the family and focus of its political ambitions. Democratic leaders urged him to pick up Bobby Kennedy’s fallen standard and carry it forward in a campaign for the presidential nomination. But Kennedy, shaken by the second assassination in the family, chose to wait for a future opportunity to pursue the presidency, increasing the odds that Richard Nixon would be elected that year to succeed Lyndon Johnson.
After Nixon’s election, Kennedy settled into the role as leader of the Democratic opposition, the “shadow president,” as his biographer describes his new position in Washington. Kennedy hoped to save the liberal agenda from “the depredations of the new president” and to protect the “poor and the powerless” from Nixon’s neglect. Kennedy won election in 1969 as majority whip in the Senate, defeating Russell Long, one of the Senate’s “old bulls,” with the plan to use that post to solidify his role as leader of the opposition to Nixon. Nevertheless, Nixon, ever devious, outmaneuvered the liberals by proposing mild reforms in healthcare, the environment, and welfare instead of calling for the elimination of those programs altogether. Nixon proposed a domestic agenda of “progressive light” that appealed to moderate voters and complicated Kennedy’s efforts to oppose him. Despite those successes, Nixon was preoccupied with Ted Kennedy, following his moves step-by-step, frequently proposing measures to counter them. Gabler argues that it was Nixon’s obsession with Kennedy that eventually led to Nixon’s downfall via the Watergate scandal.
Kennedy’s role as shadow president was short-lived, as things turned out, because the accident at Chappaquiddick in July of 1969 nearly wrecked his career and discredited any idea that he could continue as the moral leader of the Democratic Party. Gabler describes the episode in detail, eventually accepting Kennedy’s explanation that he accidentally drove his car off a wooden bridge in the midnight darkness and into a pond below, and that he fled the scene (leaving his female companion to drown in the car) in a disoriented state of mind. Kennedy accepted blame and received a suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident, which the author claims was standard punishment for that kind of violation. Days later Kennedy issued a televised apology to the voters. The voters forgave him—apparently—because they continued to re-elect him for decades afterwards. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s conduct in that situation (as the author writes) left a stain “that no amount of penance could erase.”
Gabler ends this installment of the biography with a telling scene that occurred in Boston in 1975: Kennedy wading into a crowd of white ethnics (mostly Irish) protesting a court ordered integration scheme to bus students between predominantly white and black areas of the city. Kennedy was caught on the horns of a dilemma: on the one side, the protests of those working-class voters who had propelled the Kennedys into power; on the other, his commitment to black voters, civil rights, and school integration. Kennedy remained silent on the issue, and in any case refused to side with the parents. He fled the scene—or, rather, he was chased from the scene, pursued by protesters: “You’re a disgrace to the Irish,” some called out. “Teddy’s no longer welcome here,” a bartender said afterwards, recognizing that Kennedy would sell out the interests of those white working-class parents in favor of liberal moral goals. This episode, which was repeated in cities around the country, reflected the breaking-apart of the old coalition between blacks and working-class whites that was a key element of the post-war Democratic Party. The tried and true formula of the 1960s—the appeal to the poor, the black, and the dispossessed—now lost its moral authority among those ethnic voters. This, as much as any other factor, ended the era of liberal reform that began in 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy to the White House.
This biography, once completed, is likely to serve as the authoritative account of Ted Kennedy’s long political career in the Senate. Nevertheless, it must be judged as another installment in a series of Kennedy “hagiographies” that began in 1965 with the publication of Arthur Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days and Theodore Sorensen’s Kennedy and has continued to the present time through many histories and biographies of the Kennedy brothers that burnish the legend of an enlightened family fighting to save the nation from its darker impulses. In this universe, Kennedy failures are understood as tragedies or lapses or the fault of others, while similar failings by Republicans or conservatives are the result of dark or sinister motives. The Kennedys represent the morally enlightened side of America, and so their failures must be excused, while Republicans like Richard Nixon appeal to “the darkness of the electorate,” in other words, to the “bad” America populated by reactionaries and bigots. This author goes so far as to write that Richard Nixon caused the collapse of liberalism in the 1970s because he exploited divisions in the country—even though he acknowledges that those divisions were created in the first place by liberal policies on crime, welfare, and race.
Liberals indulged their moral sensitivities about race and poverty but expected others to absorb the costs.
Gabler also acknowledges that liberals lost their moral authority in the 1970s—exemplified by the busing controversy in Boston—though he is not specific about what that means or how it happened. It is not complicated: liberals indulged their moral sensitivities about race and poverty but expected others to absorb the costs through busing, rising crime, and social disorder. Ted Kennedy and the federal judge who ordered the busing program in Boston lived in exclusive suburbs or sent their children to private schools and were never going to bear the burdens of the policies they supported. Others would have to pick up the tab—which was perfectly fine with Senator Kennedy and other liberals who supported those programs across the country in the 1970s. That is how moral authority is lost—when people call for policies that they know they will not have to pay for. Busing, moreover, was a complete failure, as it promoted white flight from the public schools and left them even more racially segregated than before.
This author mentions the tragic deaths of John and Robert Kennedy and chalks them up as episodes in the struggle for civil rights—but never mentions the circumstances of the assassinations or the names of the men who committed those crimes. Is this a deliberate omission? That is question worth asking—for the facts of those assassinations cut against the civil rights interpretation of those events. President Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, a committed communist who had defected to the Soviet Union but returned to the United States disillusioned with Soviet communism but newly committed to Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba. He (probably) shot President Kennedy because he learned in 1963 that the Kennedys were plotting to overthrow or assassinate Castro. Robert Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian national living in the United States who was angry with Kennedy because he supported the sale of fighter jets to Israel and was sympathetic to Israel’s cause in its regional conflicts. Neither of those events had anything to do with civil rights, instead having their origins in foreign policies supported (justifiably) by the Kennedy brothers. Were John and Robert Kennedy slain due to their support for civil rights? No—but that is an aspect of the Kennedy legend circulated over the years and promoted in this biography.
The account of the Chappaquiddick incident in this biography amounts to a whitewash of Ted Kennedy’s conduct on that occasion. The author claims that it was an accident (which it was), that Kennedy panicked in the aftermath and thus failed to report it (implausible), and that the suspended sentence he received was standard treatment for those convicted of leaving the scene of an accident (wrong). Some claimed that Kennedy escaped from the sunken automobile via an open window on the passenger’s side, so that he had to climb over his companion on his way out. Kennedy, moreover, had multiple opportunities to report the accident after he escaped from the automobile, and thus perhaps to save his companion. One house, lights on, was just a hundred yards away; several others were within a half mile of the accident scene. He walked past all of those houses (and the Edgartown Fire Department) on his way back to the original party house to describe the accident to his cousin and a friend, and perhaps to discuss how to handle it—not the sign of a person in a state of panic. They urged him to call the police. Instead, he fled (once again) back to his hotel, where he was thinking clearly enough to change clothes, speak to guests in the lobby, and make several telephone calls to friends and aides before retiring for the evening. Some said he was creating an alibi to claim that Mary Jo Kopechne was driving the car, or that he was buying time to recover from an evening of drinking, or concocting a strategy for dealing with the accident. He was at breakfast in the hotel restaurant the next morning (eight hours after the accident) when he learned that the police were on the scene and had determined that it was Kennedy’s car in the water—and that Kopechne had drowned.
Might she have been saved if Kennedy had reported the accident? Perhaps. In any case, he pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a suspended sentence, which was something of a joke because no one, except perhaps a Kennedy, receives a suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident in which someone has died. Such cases are typically treated as felonies, for which the guilty are sentenced to jail time—as should have happened here.
It remains a puzzle as to why so many people claim that liberalism is an enlightened doctrine, or that liberals are on the side of the angels, in view of the wreckage they have inflicted on the nation since the 1960s. Welfare case loads and violent crime tripled or quadrupled in major cities across the country during the 1960s, courtesy of policies promoted by Senator Kennedy. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said at that time, the reaction of many liberals “was not to be appalled by the disorder but almost to welcome it.” Public schools have collapsed in major cities since that decade, largely due to the power of teachers’ unions promoted by Kennedy and fellow liberals. As soon as the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, they perverted it into a system of quotas that continues to this day; and in much the same way they turned the environmental movement into a campaign against industrial society. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, Kennedy’s great legislative achievement, opened the United States to uncontrolled legal and illegal immigration from third world countries, dividing the nation and turning immigration into a heated political issue. Absent opposition from conservatives, liberals led by Ted Kennedy would have succeeded long ago in turning the United States into a modern-day dystopia. They may yet succeed in that campaign, oblivious to where they are headed.
Several weeks before he died in 2009, as Gabler reports in his introduction, Kennedy sent a touching letter to Pope Benedict XVI imploring the Pope to pray for him as he entered his final days. The letter, which was personally delivered by President Obama, read in part:
Most Holy Father,
I am writing with deep humility to ask that you pray for me as my own health declines.
I want you to know Your Holiness that in my nearly 50 years of elective office I have done my best to champion the rights of the poor and open doors of economic opportunity. I have worked to welcome the immigrant, to fight discrimination and expand access to health care and education. Those are the issues that have motivated me and have been the focus of my work as a United States senator.
This letter surprised many of the senator’s supporters who assumed that, as a secular liberal, he had little use for the Catholic Church and its conservative teachings. Family members maintained that, despite departures from orthodox doctrine, he remained a sincere and observant Catholic. But what is most interesting about the letter is Kennedy’s assertion that personal salvation can be achieved through liberal politics rather than through individual acts of contrition and charity. Whether or not this is true, Kennedy believed it, as do many others today who view liberalism not as a set of policies to be tested against their consequences, but as a religion or a church that divides the good from the bad, the moral from the immoral, and the enlightened from the unenlightened. That is a key theme running through Kennedy’s life and through this biography—and a good statement of what was wrong with Kennedy’s career and the kind of politics he championed.
1 Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932–1975, by Neal Gabler; Crown, 928 pages. $40.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 6, on page 4
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