This is the grave of Ted Kennedy.
It’s hardly necessary here to provide the details of Ted Kennedy’s life. After all, he was a seminal figure of American politics for nearly a half-century. But just a few points.
1) Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Kennedy’s life is his utter unseriousness as a person and a politician until the early 80s. Chappaquiddick is the most tragic example of this of course and his behavior around that cannot be excused. But going back to his time at Harvard when he was caught cheating on exams, he was just not a serious man. He was good at politics, being incredibly likable. But when he decided to primary Carter in 1980, he just wasn’t serious enough about it to actually do it. Instead, he just weakened Carter. I wouldn’t have minded a real primary challenge. After all, Carter was a pretty bad president who was governing way to the right of a Democratic Congress. But if you are going to do it, do it. Whether Kennedy would have defeated Reagan is an open question, but I doubt it, even if he had run a great campaign. But he probably would have done better than Carter. In any case, his campaign was a disorganized disaster and he struggled to articulate why he was running other than he was Ted Kennedy. Carter claimed he would “whup his ass” and he did. Yet Kennedy liberals were disgusted by Carter and he had trouble bringing the party back together. The whole Democratic Party was basically a disaster in 1980.
2) Kennedy was however a really great senator, especially after 1980. But even before that, he took on the load of fighting for a national health insurance program. He introduced a bill for single-payer as early as 1970. In 1974, Nixon did propose a bill to move a step toward a more comprehensive health care system, but Kennedy initially rejected it, figuring we would naturally have the chance for a real national system soon enough. Alas, American politics were changing rapidly in the 1970s and that window was lost. Kennedy introduced a new national health care bill in 1979, but of course Carter opposed it. Carter and Kennedy did not have good relations at all and Carter’s conservative nature helped move Kennedy toward the primary challenge.
3) Kennedy’s foreign policy also evolved in a very positive way. Of course, he started his career as a hard-core cold warrior like his brothers. But as he developed as a senator, he began pushing on human rights. Naturally enough this began with a passionate interest in Northern Ireland, but he also worked hard to publicize what was happening in Bangladesh as it split from Pakistan, creating the world’s largest refugee crisis. He strongly criticized Nixon and Kissinger’s support of the Pakistanis here. He pushed for nuclear disarmament in the 70s and visited both China and Russia. It was during the Reagan years when Kennedy really became the big leader in the Democratic Party on foreign policy. He was disgusted by Reagan’s proxy wars in Central America and did more than anyone else in Washington to fight them. He supported a nuclear freeze and tried to reach out to the Soviets to work together on this issue, no matter what Reagan said. That didn’t really work out, but it shows how far Kennedy was willing to go to save the world from Reagan. Kennedy’s deep knowledge of Senate rules also did much to slow down the Reagan agenda. It seems that once Kennedy decided after 1980 that he would never be president, he set his mind to being a lion of the Senate. And he certainly succeeded.
4) All that said, his personal life remained a disaster. Had #MeToo existed in the 1980s, Kennedy and Chris Dodd would have been long gone, as they both caroused and sexually harassed women all over the place. He was a drunk, a cheat, and generally an asshole. There’s no reason to beat around the bush on this.
5) Even so, Kennedy’s value in the Senate remained huge for the rest of his life. He spearheaded the fight against Robert Bork, for instance. He played a critical role in the creation and passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. He, working with Orrin Hatch of all people, overwhelmed the opposition of Jesse Helms to provide federal funding to AIDS victims. He pushed hard for Steven Breyer’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, Kennedy holds a lot of responsibility for No Child Left Behind. I guess nearly everyone makes bad political choices sometimes. He opposed the Iraq War from the first and continued to fight for national health care. He was an early backer of Barack Obama, really angry about the racially questionable stuff Bill Clinton was saying about Obama as the challenge to Hillary’s coronation became real. Kennedy’s price for endorsing Obama: that he make national health care his top priority if he won. That laid the groundwork for the Affordable Care Act, which is hardly the dream Kennedy long held for single-payer but was the best that could be gotten in 2009, despite believers in Green Laternism. Sadly, Kennedy was dying of cancer during this whole process. He didn’t live to see the ACA signed, dying in August 2009.
In conclusion, I can’t believe the voters of Massachusetts replaced this man with Scott Brown.
Ted Kennedy is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.
If you would like this series to visit other major senators, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. As I prepare to visit the Nashville area, I will note that Howard Baker is buried in Huntsville, Tennessee and Kenneth McKellar is in Memphis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.