A Worker in the Shadows
Published in Gulf News, 4 September 09
By Gordon Robison, Special to Weekend Review
A few hours before Edward Moore "Ted" Kennedy died on August 25, thousands of kilometres and a continent away from Massachusetts, John McCain was holding a town hall meeting on healthcare. At one point during the session, a woman mistakenly addressed the 2008 Republican presidential nominee as "Senator Kennedy".
Hearing the liberal New Englander's name, the mostly elderly audience erupted in boos and catcalls. McCain himself jokingly feigned shock and anger at his constituent's slip of the tongue. After all, what could be worse for a conservative Republican than to get mixed up with a liberal Democrat?
Barely 48 hours earlier, however, Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who is, by most measures, well to McCain's right, was on national television lamenting the absence of his "close friend" Ted Kennedy from Washington's healthcare debate. Ted Kennedy, Hatch said, would have known how to reach out to Republicans and find the common ground that could lead to a genuinely bipartisan healthcare Bill.
Therein lies the contradiction. For all the epithets the Right has hurled at American President Barack Obama over the past 18 months and at the Clintons over the past 17 years, they have remained, in some ways, supporting players. Conservatives were vilifying Ted Kennedy when Bill and Hillary Clinton were university students and Obama a small child playing on Hawaii's beaches.
Indeed, for decades the way one knew a rising Democrat had begun to worry Republicans was when they publicly linked him or her to Ted Kennedy. From fundraising letters to rallies to the rants of talk radio, the most effective way to mobilise the Right-wing base is not to invoke the name of its hero, Ronald Reagan, but rather to summon the spectre of its nemesis, Ted Kennedy.
Yet this same Ted Kennedy has often been praised by his fiercest political opponents as an adversary they could work with. A man who knew how to break through the American Senate's infuriating barriers of procedure and ego and get stuff done.
All this may have been possible because Ted Kennedy was one of the last survivors of a Washington of which few traces now remain.
Ted Kennedy's seeming ability to forge genuine friendships with his ideological enemies and, in turn, to build on those personal relationships as he sought legislative common ground, made him the last of a vanishing breed.
When he arrived in Washington those sort of friendships-across-the-aisle were common. Today they are rare. Modern congressmen and senators spend their evenings raising money to finance their ever-more-expensive re-election campaigns and return to their home states or districts nearly every weekend. Forty or 50 years ago campaigns did not cost nearly as much money. And travel times in an earlier era made such frequent trips home impractical. As a result there was a lot more after-hours and weekend socialising among legislators, something that made those personal bonds easier to build.
Which is not to say there were no differences on policy or ideology. But Ted Kennedy began his career at a time when it was understood that whatever might have been said during a campaign, politicians ultimately were elected to get stuff done. And doing that required finding a way to live with everyone else who also won an election.
Today's America is often said to be "a centre-right nation". The subtext to this claim is a belief that Americans do not trust "liberals", who are seen as soft when it comes to defending the country, incompetent to manage the economy and far too eager to raise taxes.
This is, of course, a fairly crude caricature but over the past 40 years it has proved to be remarkably enduring - so enduring that even today, when the Democrats control the White House and enjoy significant majorities in both houses of Congress, few dare describe themselves as "liberals". "Progressive" is the preferred term.
The 'L' word remains so toxic that both Obama and Hillary Clinton bent over backwards to avoid using it throughout last year's presidential campaign even as Republicans never missed an opportunity to hurl it at them.
Ted Kennedy emerged on the public stage in a very different era: Liberalism was the dominant political strain in America. "Liberal", back then, meant someone with a social conscience (at a time when having a social conscience was considered a good thing). It was, perhaps, the defining belief of 1960s liberals that helping the poor and promoting social justice were normal and proper activities for government.
Ted Kennedy's early years in the Senate coincided with an era of big thoughts and big programmes. It was a time when a president (Lyndon Johnson) publicly vowed to eliminate poverty in America and was taken seriously by supporters and opponents alike.
Yet Ted Kennedy's influence reached its peak in a very different era, one in which the very ambitions of 1960s liberalism had come to be seen as evidence of why liberals could not be trusted to run the country. Ronald Reagan became America's dominant political figure and his influence shaped politics for many years after he left office in 1989.
It was this rightward trend as much as his family's memory or his own political future that Ted Kennedy stood against when he told the 1980 Democratic national convention: "The hope still lives and the dream will never die."
That speech began Ted Kennedy's transformation. From a political heir - someone whose place on the public stage was entirely due to the reflected glow from his much mourned, better-loved brothers - Ted Kennedy began to emerge as a political force in his own right: a champion of liberal ideas in an era when hardly anyone else in Washington was willing to call himself a liberal.
In keeping the flame alive he did his party great service, not least in paving the way for politicians such as Obama - younger men and women who often still shrink from the "liberal" label but embrace most of the values it implies.
And yet when the accolades have faded, what will remain of Ted Kennedy and his 46 years in the United States Senate?
It seems unlikely that, a generation from now, the display of Ted Kennedy's photograph at a Democratic convention will elicit the roar of approval that still greets his elder brother John's image every four years. Senators, no matter how long-lived, powerful and influential they may be, never become genuine icons. America reserves that for its presidents.
In practical ways, however, the youngest Kennedy brother may prove to be the one who had the greatest effect on the country. John F. Kennedy is a great romantic figure. Bobby Kennedy embodies promise cut short. Ted Kennedy is the one who actually stayed in office long enough to get a lot of things done.
It is a significant measure of his fame that you are even reading this piece, published in a newspaper half a world away. It is striking how little related to foreign policy one finds in the long lists of Ted Kennedy's legislative accomplishments and the endless clips of his public speeches that have dominated the American media since his death. He was, of course, involved in foreign affairs - no one who stays in the Senate that long can avoid developing a certain degree of expertise - but that was never where his main interest lay. It was not where he directed the bulk of his prodigious energies.
And yet, for decades, he has probably been the American legislature's best-known member in the world beyond its shores. Much of this, of course, is the family name. For some people, especially overseas, Ted Kennedy's most memorable accomplishment will always be that he was born John Kennedy's brother.
What would be most fitting, however, would be if he were remembered for the pride he took in being a legislator.
The United States is perhaps the only country in the democratic world where politics is considered a fundamentally disreputable line of work. While there is no shortage of people who desire to be politicians, what is remarkable is that even after 20 or 30 years in Congress these men and women will, in official biographies, list their occupation as "teacher", "doctor", "lawyer" or "airline pilot".
Where other countries acknowledge that legislating is often difficult and complicated work, and put some store in the expertise it requires, America's political culture is built around the myth that making good public policy is easy.
Ted Kennedy came to embody the idea that making law was difficult and messy but also essential and honourable.
On the very day he died - at a moment when the entire country knew he was gravely ill - the inadvertent mention of his name was enough to make a conservative crowd explode in derision. But the same John McCain who encouraged the crowd that Tuesday afternoon with feigned outrage at being called "Kennedy" was on television the next day mourning the loss of a man he called a friend.
Those human relationships with his political opponents were one of the least-seen aspects of Ted Kennedy's public life but they were the secret of his success as a legislator. That success, in turn, guarantees him a legacy, albeit a very different one, from the brothers in whose shadows he lived so much of his life.
Gordon Robison teaches political science at the University of Vermont. His opinion column on US politics appears alternate Wednesdays in Gulf News.