From September 2009: Ted Kennedy – Last of the Proud Liberals

There is certainly no shortage of material to write about Edward Moore Kennedy, the late Massachusetts Senator, who held that seat for nearly fifty years and is regarded as one of the most influential legislators in American history.


He was president John’s youngest brother. Robert was between them in age, and oldest brother Joe Jr. was shot down in World War Two before he had a chance to pursue the political career for which their father, Joseph Sr., had been grooming him.  The three younger Kennedy brothers, Jack, Bobby, and Ted, were the princes in the American Age of Camelot in the early 1960s.  The Kennedys were America’s most storied family – adored by the public as if they were royalty. On the flip side, many Americans could not stand the Kennedys, particularly Ted – whose years in public service far exceeded those of his two older brothers combined.


Ted Kennedy’s larger-than-life presence in Washington politics resulted not simply from his astonishing longevity in public office, but because he was a famously polarizing figure.  To many, he was revered as the hero of the underclass, the voice of the voiceless.  To many others, however, he was a radical leftist bent on destroying everything great about America.  The intense feelings that Kennedy inspired, both positive and negative, are not entirely different from how many folks felt about President George W. Bush, particularly around 2004, when he was up for reelection.  At that time, the country was evenly split: half of Americans enthusiastically voted to give him another four years, while almost as many did everything they could to oust him from the White House.


I was asked during that time, by some of Bush’s fiercest critics, to name one thing that I liked about him.  I knew that if I had mentioned anything substantive – such as, the tax cuts across the board, his focus on the war on terror, or his commitment to appointing originalist jurists – they would have refused to even let me finish my thought.  Instead, I responded that what I like about Bush is that he sticks to his guns and does what he believes, even if it is politically unpopular.  Unlike most politicians, he does not pander to polls.


That answer silenced the critics.  Surely, had I said that Bush did some things successfully, they would have wasted no time in trying to prove me wrong.  But I did not say whether he did anything well, or poorly; I simply said that he did what he thought was best, not what was politically advantageous.  And that is exactly the same thing that we can all say about Ted Kennedy.


During the 1960s, when Ted was barely out of college, Bobby was the impassioned liberal.  When Bobby was gunned down in 1968, liberalism in America virtually died along with him.  Republican Richard Nixon won the White House that year, and four years later, trounced his liberal opponent, George McGovern, by winning 49 out of 50 states.  And in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president by a landslide, and ushered in a conservative revolution on his coattails. President Bill Clinton nailed liberalism’s coffin shut by proclaiming that “the era of big government is over.” “Liberal” became a dirty word that meant political suicide. No politician dared to associate him or herself with that label, except one: while the rest of the closet leftists were running for political cover, Kennedy stood firm, proudly and unapologetically proclaiming himself a liberal.


Kennedy’s speeches in 2009, during his last months in office, did not differ all that much from those he had made nearly 50 years earlier, when he was first elected to the Senate.  He did not change his views when it was convenient to do so in the age of conservatism.  He did not flip-flop, he did not “misremember,” and he certainly never said that he was for a particular bill before he was against it.


Because of his reputation and family name, Kennedy never had much of a problem winning reelection every six years – with one exception.  In 1994, Kennedy faced a stiff challenge from a rising Republican star, Mitt Romney.  Romney, of course, would go on to become governor of Massachusetts, and came very close to earning the Republican presidential nomination last year.  Rather than move to the center and coast to reelection, Kennedy stood his ground.  Although the country summarily ousted the Democrats that year, giving control of both houses of Congress to the Republicans for the first time since Eisenhower was president, Kennedy refused to budge from his principles.  As Election Day approached, he pulled away from Romney, even exposing him as a flip-flopper.


There is much to criticize about Edward Moore Kennedy, both personally and politically.  That the vast majority of Americans are to the right of him is no accident: his ideas clearly do not jibe with what most of America thinks is best.  But for the tens, even hundreds, of millions who denounce his ideology, at least no one can call him a poll chaser.  Right or wrong, Ted Kennedy stuck to his guns.  To this point, no one else has dared to come forward and seek to hoist the liberal mantle.



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