This is not only the end of the Kennedy dynasty
Yes, Ted’s death represents the end of the line for ‘America’s royals’, but it also exposes the ideology-shaped hole in the Democratic Party.
The lives of John F Kennedy and Robert F Kennedy were cut short by assassins’ bullets. Their brother Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy, in contrast, lived a full life until his death last week at the age of 77. He was first elected to the Senate from the state of Massachusetts in 1962, and was one of the longest-serving senators in US history. His career spanned from JFK’s Camelot days to the election of the first African-American president, and he was a major player in all that happened in American politics in between. Indeed, he made much more of an impact than most expected when he first emerged, when he was regarded as far less talented than his brothers.
Ted Kennedy’s death marks not just the end of Kennedy political dynasty, but also of a period in American history. And it brings into relief just how much liberal Democratic Party politics has changed over time.
In the popular imagination, Ted has been viewed primarily as a player in the Kennedy family saga, and his death appears to be the last chapter of a story that has fascinated Americans (and the world) for decades. The Kennedy ‘mystique’ first became a national phenomenon with the election of JFK in 1960. Following him, many other family members entered political and public life, most notably Robert and Ted. This mystique is also referred to as a curse, as it is associated with early deaths and other tragedies, starting with the death of the eldest Kennedy brother Joseph Junior in the Second World War. More recently, JFK’s son John Kennedy Junior – who many had hoped would carry on in the family’s political tradition – was killed in a plane crash in 1999 at the age of 38.
Ted’s place in this narrative is the sibling who should have become president, but did not, due to his own personal failings. His hopes for the presidency were undermined by an incident which has become known as ‘Chappaquiddick’. In July 1969, Kennedy drove a car off a bridge from Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, drowning his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy swam ashore and did not report the accident until the next day (and never gave a full account of what happened). Most believe Kennedy’s best chances for a presidential run were in 1972 and in 1976, but in both instances he declined, partially due to Chappaquiddick. When he did make an attempt to grab the Democratic Party nomination from sitting President Jimmy Carter in 1980, he was arguably past his political prime, and in the event his campaign was a dismal failure.
With Ted Kennedy’s passing, it now appears very unlikely that a Kennedy will reach the lofty heights of national politics, as Ted and his brothers did. Many family members can be found across the country in political offices and not-for-profit organisations, but they have not had nearly the success of the prior generation. ‘America’s royals’ appear to have reached the end of the line.
The Kennedy family story is certainly a compelling one. But, at its worst, the fascination with the Irish-American clan is just celebrity-chasing fodder for the tabloids.
Indeed, the family has felt both sides of the sword of celebrity. JFK’s election, with its emphasis on glamour – in contrast to the dull, conformist Eisenhower Fifties – ushered in a new celebrity dimension to American politics. And the aura that JFK generated seemed to bathe his siblings in the same glow. Ted certainly benefited: on the back of the Kennedy name, and not much else, he was elected to the Senate at the earliest age possible (30). As his opponent for the party’s nomination chided him, ‘If your name was Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke’. And yet, Ted won handily, and it appeared that qualifications were no match for the Kennedy charisma.
Ted may have been propelled into politics by piggybacking off a celebrity name, but he ultimately suffered from celebrity politics. Especially from Chappaquiddick onwards, he was regularly ridiculed as a carousing playboy. The low point was probably in 1991, when he got drunk with his nephew William Kennedy Smith, who was charged with rape for an incident that occurred on that same evening. Despite ongoing if not growing influence in the Senate, Kennedy became primarily known as a washed-up celebrity first and a politico second. As historian Sean Wilentz noted, Chappaquiddick ‘marked the beginning of what would become a convergence of celebrity scandal-mongering and cynical prurience that forever changed the rules of American political journalism – and from which Kennedy, with his personal demons, would not escape for decades’ (1).
Celebrity politics ultimately undermined the Kennedy family’s appeal as well. For all of the celebrity glow surrounding the Kennedys, the reality was that most of them were, first and foremost, interested in politics and public service. But as celebrity politics gained in American politics, there was a shift from politicians with celebrity-like flair to celebrities themselves – actors, athletes, and so on. In fact, one of the most prominent and successful people to leverage his entertainment ‘brand’ is the one-time bodybuilder/actor and current California governor, Arnold Schwarzennegger, who, coincidentally, married into the Kennedy family via Ted’s niece, Maria Shriver.
Ted Kennedy may be the last of the famous family, and he may even be a man responsible for a woman’s death, but the focus on these aspects of his life in the aftermath of his death is really a superficial way of understanding him and his role in American politics.
Kennedy was a titanic figure in the Democratic Party, its standard-bearer and public face for traditional, post-New Deal liberalism. Kennedy’s liberalism was moulded in the 1960s, when that perspective was in the ascendant. And he remained essentially steadfast in espousing his liberal principles throughout his career, including when liberalism was in retreat during the Reagan era.
Kennedy was a major force behind various social reforms over his career, from civil rights and healthcare, to education, voting rights and labour legislation. Earlier this year he was ranked the third-most liberal senator by the National Journal (2). His support for abortion rights earned him 100 per cent ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood during the past two decades (3).
But Kennedy’s death is a reminder of how few Democratic politicians share his old-style liberalism today. He became out of sync with the majority of his party, which had abandoned confident, pro-government arguments, especially during the ‘third way’ Clinton years. Many commentators have noted the ‘paradox’ of how the liberal Kennedy reached across the aisle and found Republican allies to pass legislation. In fact, Kennedy’s experience exposes how the partisanship of recent years is mainly personal rancour that reflects a lack of ideology. As politics became emptied of competing visions or Kennedyesque ‘conviction politics’, all that was left was petty bickering; as someone once said about politics in academia, it is vicious because the stakes are so low (4).
Yet some of the post-mortem descriptions of Kennedy as a ‘good guy’ social reformer are just as simplistic as depicting him as the bastard of Chappaquiddick. The social measures he backed were modest and piecemeal in comparison with the wider welfare reforms introduced in Western Europe in the postwar era. And while his stated philosophy may not have changed much, he was not as consistent in practice as he is often portrayed: for example, despite being seen as an advocate for labour, in the late 1970s and early 1980s he backed airline and trucking deregulation, which led to Reagan’s smashing of the PATCO air traffic controllers’ union (which was a major setback for labour generally). The wealthy Kennedy’s social reformism has always been a form of noblesse oblige, more top-down, tinkering do-goodism than a bottom-up social movement for change.
Beyond flying the flag for traditional liberalism, Kennedy was an important institutional fixture in the Democratic Party’s operations in the Senate and more generally. He was the party’s most effective lawmaker, passing more than 300 bills in his career and earning him the title ‘lion of the Senate’.
Indeed, the Kennedy family’s rise has its roots in traditional Democratic Party urban politics. Ted’s grandfather, Patrick J Kennedy, was a ward politician in Boston, and his father, Joseph P Kennedy, while building a vast fortune in a variety of businesses, was also prominent in Democratic politics, becoming the first commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the ambassador to Great Britain. Joseph had a plan to leverage his wealth to political advantage through promoting his sons, and it worked tremendously.
The Kennedy foothold in Massachusetts – one of the most liberal states in the US – is famous. When JFK stepped down from his Senate seat following his election as president, the family was able to put in their lawyer to keep the seat ‘warm’ until Ted was old enough to run. Over the years, Ted faced few serious challenges (an exception being 1994, when the well-financed Mitt Romney stood against him). In fact, one of the main reasons he was able to maintain his traditional liberalism was that, unlike fellow Democrats, he was not under as much electoral pressure to defend his liberal stands.
On this foundation in city and state party machines, Kennedy was able to remain a key fixer in Democratic Party politics nationally. One way this expressed itself was through his Capitol Hill staff, which was generally recognised as the party’s best and brightest. Its alumni read like a who’s who, among them Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer (5).
Another sign of Kennedy’s influence was his ability to play kingmaker, most notably by anointing Barack Obama when last year’s primary season was still up for grabs. If he had plumped the other way it would have been very damaging for Obama. Kennedy no doubt sensed that the base of the party’s support had eroded (as he was in office back when the party did have a base) and realised that the inexperienced Obama was their only chance to start to rebuild it.
It is noticeable how most discussions about the implications of Ted Kennedy’s death for US politics are short-term and tactical. Will his passing damage the prospects for health reform, because he is not around to push it through? Or will it help, because now the reform will be packaged by Obama and the Democrats as the Kennedy bill in his honour, in an attempt to capitalise on the sympathy surrounding his death? Yes, the Democrats will miss someone of his stature to shepherd legislation through Congress. But this kind of debate misses the longer-term implications for the Democratic Party. Kennedy’s one-time base of support exposes how the rest of the Democratic Party has a hollow foundation. And this political heavyweight highlights how his fellow party senators are pygmies in comparison.
In delivering his eulogy for Kennedy, Obama described him as ‘the soul of the Democratic Party’. Some have said that Kennedy passed the baton of liberalism to Obama, but Obama – who promotes his healthcare reforms as primarily a cost-cutting exercise – does not appear to be resurrecting that traditional ideology anytime soon. The flame of idealism and optimism that the Kennedy brothers represented in the Sixties was extinguished long ago. The death of Ted Kennedy in 2009 reveals what an empty and soulless entity the Democratic Party has become since then.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.
(1) ‘Triumph and tragedy,’ New Republic, 26 August 2009
(2) ‘Committed Senate liberals,’ National Journal, 28 February 2009
(3) Senator Edward M Kennedy, Sr. (MA), Project Vote Smart
(4) The line is attributed to various people, including Wallace Sayre and Henry Kissinger. For more about partisanship, see Is ‘hyperpartisanship’ paralyzing American politics?, by Sean Collins
(5) `Legacy includes long list of prominent aides,’ TheHill.com, 26 August 2009.