Saturday, August 29, 2009

Possible Reasons I Never Warmed Up to Teddy

I’m not quite sure why, but I never fully warmed up to Ted, perhaps because I was literally there when he first ran for office. Then too, beyond Chappaquiddick itself I never fully connected with him. I’m not sure what was happening in my life at that moment but I never engaged at the time of his 1980 attempt to push Carter out of the way for re-nomination, something that in retrospect seemed absurd given Kennedy's own past and that Carter was a sitting president, albeit unpopular in many ways. Perhaps my relative distance from it all was because I was in my first year of being a practicing lawyer at a big law firm.

In any case, for me Ted lacked the most endearing qualities of his brothers, John’s charisma, charm and gentle humor, and Bobby’s late blooming but authentic love affair with the poor and destitute. Ted seemed more an institutionalized Kennedy which over the years of his Senate service seemed to become even more the case. His failed marriage and his own drinking (on top of Joan’s) hardly served him or his image well. It wasn’t until after the trial of his nephew that he seemed to find a new beginning of sorts with his new wife, albeit after 30 years in the Senate. And, admittedly for me, the 1990’s belonged to the Clintons, not the Kennedys. John Jr’s death and fairly lackluster political pursuits by other Kennedys, culminating in Caroline’s abysmal run for Senate, further dimmed the Kennedy legacy. Ted continued to contribute, and I appreciate him for those contributions, but his time had passed. It was, indeed, time for a new generation of leadership, as his brother John had exclaimed in 1960, and Ted threw his considerable weight and influence behind Obama.

My Thoughts on Ted Kennedy

My thoughts on Ted Kennedy are reflected in a very well-written article in today’s Los Angeles Times by Janet Hook entitled “Tragedy, Scandal, and a Will to Persevere” and in an email I wrote to Hook in response.

Immediately below is my email. Hook’s article is below that.


Thanks for a well written piece this morning in the Los Angeles Times on the meaning of Ted Kennedy to so many Americans, or should I say the meanings. Unlike many, and in contrast to Larry Sabato’s observation, I remain ambivalent rather than having my mind made up. I neither love nor hate Ted Kennedy.

I was a 19 year old college student at Brandeis University on the outskirts of Boston in 1962 when Ted ran for his brother’s Senate seat. I can still recall his Democratic opponent’s charge that if his name had been Edward Moore his candidacy would have been a joke. As a young political science major, I too thought that nepotism and dynasty were trumping competency, although both his primary and general election opponents also owed their successes to family names.

You have nicely chronicled Ted’s history through the 1990’s that made few of us admirers, even liberal Democrats which I certainly was through those decades and still am. We respected the tragedies that had befallen his family and him but Chappaquiddick represented behavior that was totally inexcusable. I admit that I forgave Bill Clinton his flaws and transgressions relating to the Lewinsky affair, while also condemning them, but I have never been able to do the same toward Ted Kennedy over Chappaquiddick. Chappaquiddick still remains the pivotal event for me in leaving me unable to elevate him to the stature of either of his brothers, not to say I idolize either of them.

But I certainly acknowledge and applaud Ted’s legislative accomplishments and success at refocusing his energies in later years, apparently attributable in large part to his re-marriage. I was admittedly personally disappointed although not entirely surprised by his and Caroline’s endorsement of Obama at a critical time in the Democratic presidential campaign. At the same time, I agree with many who feel Kennedy’s absence in the healthcare debate has been and will continue to be a major loss for the President. Ted had emerged as a powerful voice for liberal policies but able to work with Republicans and others at fashioning workable compromises. We are in danger of losing those kinds of public figures.

Thanks again for your article.


Tragedy, scandal, and a will to persevere

For many of those mourning Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, what gives special meaning to his life is not only his legislative accomplishments but his resolve through a lifetime of headlines and hardship.

By Janet Hook

August 29, 2009

Reporting from Washington

For many of those mourning Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) during his funeral and burial today, what gives special meaning to his life is not only his record of legislative accomplishments but his perseverance through a lifetime of scandal and hardship.

For others, however, no record of achievement will compensate for Kennedy's mistakes and personal failings.

The 1969 Chappaquiddick episode -- in which he fled the scene after his car went off a bridge, carrying Mary Jo Kopechne to her death -- was arguably the most unforgivable of the blemishes on his career.

Perhaps more than for any current figure on the political stage, "people have their minds made up about Ted Kennedy," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, who has written a book on political scandals.

Few dispute that although Kennedy never fully overcame his weaknesses, he didn't stop trying to achieve important goals in spite of them.

Kennedy was overshadowed and undervalued early on in comparison with his older brothers.

And more than once, his personal problems hobbled his efforts at public service.

"You can think of at least five points in his career when he could have quit," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who has worked with Kennedy over the years: Chappaquiddick, the 1964 plane crash that nearly killed him and left a legacy of chronic back pain, a failed presidential bid in 1980, revelations of drunken carousing that emerged from the 1991 rape trial of his nephew.

Then there were the tragedies -- the assassinations of his two brothers, the cancer that two of his children battled, and the death of his nephew, John F. Kennedy Jr., in a plane crash.

Even as Kennedy pressed on with his Senate career, he never escaped from himself.

A decade after it happened, Chappaquiddick undercut Kennedy's 1980 fight with incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The day after Kennedy died -- 40 years after Chappaquiddick -- one of the hottest topics searched on Google was "Mary Jo Kopechne."

Conservative talk-show hosts, bloggers and activists showed little restraint in resurrecting the event.

"Perhaps Kennedy's major accomplishment was escaping indictment for manslaughter over the Kopechne affair, thanks to his family's connections," said conservative lawyer Larry Klayman.

Hadley Arkes, a professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College, wrote in the conservative National Review Online that Chappaquiddick "must mark his character forever."

"The crisis over Kopechne was entirely about himself: his layers of negligence, his utter absorption in his own interests, and saving his public position," Arkes wrote.

The negative judgments only hardened after the 1991 incident at his family's Palm Beach, Fla., compound that led to the rape trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith.

Trial testimony described the senator waking his son and nephew to go drinking in the middle of the night.

A young woman who had joined the group in a bar and returned to the compound lodged the rape charge against Smith.

Smith was acquitted, but Kennedy's approval rating in the Gallup poll plummeted to 22% and he was forced to sit out a major debate he might otherwise have dominated: the questioning of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings over allegations of sexual harassment leveled by Anita Hill.

It was a five-alarm political fire, and past time for Kennedy to acknowledge his personal failings with fresh candor.

"I am painfully aware that the criticism directed at me in recent months involves far more than honest disagreements with my position," Kennedy said in a speech at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

In 1992 he remarried, to Washington lawyer Victoria Reggie, and his new wife was widely credited with helping Kennedy achieve a more settled, sober life.

When he ran for reelection in 1994, he faced a tough challenge by Republican Mitt Romney, later governor of Massachusetts, who was buoyed by questions about the senator's judgment and by a strong anti-Democratic political tide.

Kennedy won by the narrowest majority of his Senate career, but he still drew 58% of the vote.

That helped him make his final years in the Senate among his most productive on the issues dearest to him, such as health and education.

And his record in the Senate, and his ability to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans, brought a measure of forgiveness there.

GOP stalwarts John McCain of Arizona and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, for example, both spoke at the memorial service for Kennedy in Boston on Friday night.

"Working in his Senate office, I was always struck by the contrast between the passionate Kennedy haters on the conservative Republican side, and how much affection, trust and confidence that so many of his Republican colleagues had," said Bill Carrick, a longtime Kennedy advisor.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The President Needs to Provide Real Leadership in the Healthcare Debate

I am not impressed with President Obama’s leadership of late. For the second time in a matter of great national concern, he has stepped back from the front lines of crafting challenging legislation and left things to Congressional Democrats. He first did this on the stimulus bill, letting House Democrats craft the legislation. That was a mistake. He is doing it again with respect to healthcare legislation and this time it has been a disaster.

During the Democratic primary campaign, Obama at one point compared himself to President Ronald Reagan as a transformational president. Obama was not endorsing Reagan’s policy preferences but, rather, seemingly embracing Reagan’s leadership style which Obama saw as providing overall policy guidance while leaving the details to others. This seems to be precisely what Obama has been doing.

President Obama has continued to articulate abstract principles regarding his approach to healthcare but has avoided the nitty gritty. Yet, it is precisely this nitty gritty that many of us are searching for. We want a clearer picture of Obama’s healthcare approach. How is a public option going to function? How will it be financed? Will it drive the private healthcare sector to extinction? Is it the precursor to a single payer system? Is a public option consistent with the President’s assurances that those who are content with their current healthcare insurance can keep it? How will Obama’s approach actually save money while expanding coverage to so many who are uninsured? Will Medicare pay even less to physicians and hospitals than at present and will that endanger the Medicare system, something of particular concern to seniors?

The talk of death panels is a distraction. But the fact that some critics have come up with absurd arguments should not cloud the fact that many remain legitimately confused about the specifics of President Obama’s healthcare plan. The President needs to do more than shed his tie. He needs to roll up his sleeves and delve into the nitty gritty of healthcare reform, and take ownership of his own plan. He must stop looking toward Congressional Democrats to lead the charge in crafting essential legislation. The President, albeit in consultation with legislative leaders, needs to talk in specifics, not merely in generalities, and explain the details of his healthcare program. If he refuses to do that, he may fail even if the Democrats pass legislation. For he will leave the American people bewildered and that will not help Obama or the Democrats.