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Remembering the Real Deal

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Posted on Aug 25, 2009
Kennedy
AP / Charles Dharapak

By Robert Scheer

The light has gone out, and with it that infectious warm laugh and intensely progressive commitment of the best of the Kennedys. Not, at this point, to take anything away from the memory of his siblings—Bobby, whom I also got to know, was pretty terrific in his last years—but Sen. Ted Kennedy was the real deal.

Unable to move with his brothers’ intellectual alacrity, sometimes plodding in impromptu expression but smooth and skillful while reading from a script, the youngest Kennedy made up for his shortcomings early in his Senate career by resolutely working the substance of issues. His principled determination, plus his capacity to truly care about the real-world outcomes of legislation for ordinary people rather than its impact on his or anyone else’s election, became his signature qualities as a lawmaker. But for those same reasons, he also wanted legislation passed, and his ability to work with the opposition, as he did three years ago with John McCain on immigration reform, now grants him a legacy as one of the nation’s great senators.

Oddly enough, for one born into such immense familial expectations, he was a surprisingly accessible and down-to-earth politician in the eyes of most journalists who covered him. I think of him as always authentic and never oily. As opposed to most politicians, the offstage Ted Kennedy was the more appealing one.

Although he excelled as an orator, never more so than delivering the speech that Bob Shrum crafted for him at the 1980 Democratic convention but which was informed by Kennedy’s own deeply felt passion, it was in his less choreographed moments that he was at his best. I spent quite a few hours over the years interviewing him on subjects ranging from health care to nuclear arms control, mostly as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and while his grammar could be troubling, his sentiments never were.

Not once in those interviews did I find Kennedy to equivocate or slide into the amoral triangulation that defines almost all successful politicians. They position themselves, but he took positions, and, as in the case of health care reform, he would end his life fighting for those causes with his last breath.

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I would put Kennedy alongside my other hero, George McGovern, as the most trusted standard-bearer of the Democratic Party’s too-often-sabotaged liberalism. I just could never imagine either of them ever selling us out. Indeed, I haven’t felt quite so sad about the passing of a political leader since the day when people started bawling all over the Bronx with the news that FDR had died. In a political world dominated by bipartisan cynicism, there are few touchstones of integrity for the common folk, and Kennedy was one of them.

Lest I be accused of surrendering to the emotions of the moment, let me quote from a column I wrote in January of 2008 when the Democratic presidential primary battle hung in the balance:

“It should mean a great deal to progressives that in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination Sen. Ted Kennedy favors Sen. Barack Obama over two other colleagues he has worked with in the Senate. No one in the history of that institution has been a more consistent and effective fighter than Kennedy for an enlightened agenda, be it civil rights and liberty, gender equality, labor and immigrant justice, environmental protection, educational opportunity or opposing military adventures.

“Kennedy was a rare sane voice among the Democrats in strongly opposing the Iraq war, and it is no small tribute when he states: `We know the record of Barack Obama. There is the courage he showed when so many others were silent or simply went along. From the beginning, he opposed the war in Iraq. And let no one deny that truth.’ ”

Hopefully, it will be added to Ted Kennedy’s legacy that he was right about Obama, just as he was consistently right on every major issue that he dealt with as a senator. Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama was critical to our current president’s historic nomination and election, and it is therefore fitting that the favor of that all-important endorsement be returned with a significant reform of the ailing U.S. health care system.

In the first year of the George W. Bush presidency, I wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times entitled “Bush Could Really Use a Fireside Chat With FDR,” stating: “This is a president who never learned that it is possible to be a leader born of privilege and yet be absorbed with the fate of those in need. … Not so Roosevelt, a true aristocrat whose genuine love of the common man united this country to save it during its most severe time of economic turmoil and devastating war.” Kennedy wrote a note thanking me for the column, adding, “I can think of at least fifty on the Senate side of Capitol Hill that could benefit from a good fireside chat as well.” 

That’s also a worthy epitaph for Ted Kennedy: Born of privilege, and yet absorbed with the fate of those in need.

     

Click here to check out Robert Scheer’s book,
“The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street.”


Keep up with Robert Scheer’s latest columns, interviews, tour dates and more at www.truthdig.com/robert_scheer.



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Purple Girl's avatar

By Purple Girl, August 26, 2009 at 4:28 am Link to this comment

A tragic hero, but a hero nonetheless.
The car accident, The drinking, the womanizing and the family’s sorted legal issues over the las few decades can not over shadow the good he did as a senator.
He was the voice and champion of the poor, the outcast and the maligned.He recognized that Our Founders did not intend for any person to be excluded from those declarations of Humanarian ideals.
No hero is perfect, their shortcomings and mistakes stand as testiment of their human frailties which they have overcome to be the champion of others.
Teddy is the Dems “Gipper”, it’s time we win Real Healthcare Reform to honor this Great American Hero!

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By nRkiSt, August 26, 2009 at 4:17 am Link to this comment

Word up, prole.  I have a personal memory of Teddy. Back in ‘73 I worked for an outfit that did utility work in Nortern Virginia. We had to dig a trench in an easement that ran through the backyard of Teddy’s house in McClean. He wouldn’t allow a backhoe to dig it, so we had to hand dig it (250 feet).  Long story short, he was pissed about something and proceeded to give us stiffs in the hole all sorts of shit. Like we we were the shotcallers! We told him “Dude, call the boss!” He wouldn’t have any of it. He must have spent a good 20 minutes yelling about making sure that every goddamn leaf on a shrub better be there when we got done. Maybe he had been drinking, maybe Joan had been giving him some shit, I don’t know, but he was no friend to the working man on that day.

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By bluelori, August 26, 2009 at 4:07 am Link to this comment

What I remember is he lived 40 years longer then his victim Mary Jo
Kopechne!

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By ardee, August 26, 2009 at 3:15 am Link to this comment

One does not have to agree with everything this man stood for to recognize his commitment, his dedication to make things better and his uncanny ability to get bills passed. This last trait is one the Democrats will sorely miss.

Like the other members of this, one of America’s first families, he devoted his life to public service. I think that high praise indeed.

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prole's avatar

By prole, August 26, 2009 at 3:12 am Link to this comment

“I would put Kennedy alongside my other hero, George McGovern, as the two most trusted standard-bearers of the Democratic Party’s too-often-sabotaged liberalism”...poor George McGovern, who really is a man of some principle, to be placed in the unsavory company of Teddy K.  Teddy as much as any Democrat was a true liberal saboteur i.e. posing as a ‘man of the people’ while representing the interests of his own class and giving precedence to corporate and imperial interests around the globe. It wasn’t only his grammar that could be troubling, his sentiments often were, too. Kennedy was one of the worst enemies Palestinians had in the American government. Take it from the horse’s mouth (or ass), Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, eulogized, “(Senator) Kennedy has been a friend for 30 years, a great American patriot, a great champion of a better world, a great friend of Israel. He will be sorely missed.”  And zionist extremixt and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressed his own deep sorrow over the death of Kennedy, commenting, “Kennedy was a great friend to Israel and the Jewish people. A protector of human rights and member of a prestigious family who stood by Israel’s side in its most trying times in his many years as a member of the Senate.”  Stood by Israel’s side while it battered Palestinians time and time again including most recently in January. Stood by Israel’s side while it periodically pulverized Lebanon, including again three summers ago. Stood by LBJ while he savaged Vietnam.  And stood by Clinton while he carried on his genocidal sanctions against Iraq for a decade. All this and so much more evidence of “his principled determination, plus his capacity to truly care about the real-world outcomes of legislation for ordinary people.” Which isn’t to say that he didn’t care about legislation and “its impact on his or anyone else’s election”. He was vehemently opposed to term-limits legislation, for obvious reasons. And he raked in a lot of cash from all the usual suspect lobbies. So maybe “not once in those interviews did I find Kennedy to equivocate or slide into the amoral triangulation that defines almost all successful politicians” - but you couldn’t exactly say the same about his personal life. Perhaps for the scion of a bootlegger dynasty, “amoral triangulation” comes naturally - but at least Teddy Kennedy got to live forty years longer than Mary Jo Kopechne. Which gave him time to rival Bill Clinton in marital infidelity. “In a political world dominated by bipartisan cynicism, there are few touchstones of integrity for the common folk, and Kennedy was one of them.” ...but not in a very positive sense. True, “it should mean a great deal to progressives that in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination Sen. Ted Kennedy favors Sen. Barack Obama”...given that Obama has thoroughly betrayed ‘progressives’ on everything from banking bailouts to Iraqi pullouts to health care sellouts. It means they’re cut from the same political cloth. “Hopefully, it will be added to Ted Kennedy’s legacy that he was” partly responsible for the deceptively right-wing Obama “just as he was consistently right on every major issue that he dealt with as a senator”...“right” that is if you’re a big fan of corporate power and American imperialism like Scheer and Obama. “Right” if you share the views of Netanyahu and Lieberman. Yes, it’s probably true as Kennedy wrote him in a note thanking him for “the column and adding, ‘I can think of at least fifty on the Senate side of Capital Hill that could benefit from a good fireside chat as well.’” But then again, so could the Republicans, so the actual total is probably closer to 100. “That’s also a worthy epitaph for Ted Kennedy: Born of privilege, and yet absorbed with the fate of” ... Israel and Goldman Sachs. What a deal.

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