August 31, 2009
Ask every person if he’s heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory…
For one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.
I wasn’t a Kennedy fan originally, not a fan, I mean, of the liege lords of Camelot, John and Robert Kennedy. John had been an indifferent congressman and an indifferent senator, with a liberal voting record for the most part but conveniently ill when the Senate voted to censure his father’s old friend Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
And he was running in the 1960 Democratic presidential primaries against Sen. Hubert Humphrey. My father had worked for Humphrey in the senate, and I regarded him—still regard him—as a great man. As mayor of Minneapolis, he had almost single-handedly forced the 1948 Democratic convention to adopt a pro-civil rights platform, against the wishes of President Truman and the southern segregationists who ruled Congress and whose defection, it was thought, could sink the ticket. Elected to the Senate in 1948, he had been as active and principled a senator as Kennedy was indifferent, championing civil rights, arms control, a nuclear test ban, food stamps, and humanitarian foreign.
Kennedy turned out to be a better president than his service in the Senate might have predicted. He started the Peace Corps. He initiated and negotiated the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and persuaded the Senate to ratify it. He forced the steel industry to back down from a price increase. (“My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches,” he told historian and White House aide Arthur Schlesinger during the episode, “but I never believed it till now.”) But he was a cautious and lukewarm advocate of civil rights, fearing that demonstrations would alienate southern senators whose votes were needed for other New Frontier legislation. Compare Lyndon Johnson who knew that passage of civil rights legislation would lose the south for his party—and pushed it through anyway.
Robert Kennedy seemed, to me at least, to be a more concentrated version of his older brother. He had done even less prior to 1960 than his brother, and what he had done, including serving as committee counsel to Joe McCarthy, was not encouraging. As Attorney General, he abetted his brother’s cautious approach on civil rights, advising against the Birmingham demonstrations and the 1963 March on Washington, and authorizing wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was a better senator, warming to civil rights and becoming steadily more skeptical about the war in Vietnam. But he did not begin to advocate withdrawal until 1967, and refused to oppose Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 presidential primaries until after—just four days after—Sen. Eugene McCarthy demonstrated Johnson’s vulnerability. So: Good that he found his way to where he should have been from the beginning; too bad it took him so long to get there.
And yet, there was something, a great deal, in fact, to the Camelot gestalt that encompassed the era of John and Robert Kennedy. It was partly the contrast between the shades of gray of the Eisenhower administration and the Technicolor of the Kennedy crowd. Someone once remarked on the dramatic effect that Frank Lloyd Wright achieved by designing somewhat dark and closed-in hallways that opened on spacious, high-ceilinged rooms, sunlit by vast expanses of windows. The passage from Eisenhower’s ‘fifties to Kennedy’s ‘sixties was something like that.
The rhetoric was part of it too, and the accents in which it was expressed. Where Eisenhower had plodded, the Kennedys soared. “Ask not what your country can do for you…” “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” “Ich bin ein Berliner.” “I dream of things that never were, and ask ‘why not?’”
The style and the rhetoric spoke to the best in us, beckoning us to better and higher things. Were there problems? They were put there for us to solve. Mountains? There for us to climb. Enemies? There for us to befriend or defeat.
This was the legacy that Ted Kennedy inherited and made real. He had the rhetoric. His brother Robert “saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.” “We dared to hope that this John Kennedy [John F. Kennedy Jr.] would live to comb gray hair.” “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
But he had more that uplift. His brothers’ shortened careers were full of promise. Ted Kennedy’s was full of accomplishment. Immigration, voting rights, direct student loans, the National Teachers Corps, campaign finance reform (almost thirty years before McCain-Feingold), women’s and gay rights, sanctions against South Africa and, of course, national health care. Was there a progressive cause in which Kennedy didn’t play a leading role? He was, for me at least, the best Kennedy.
How then—the question seems inescapable—could a political career characterized by such constancy, courage and high purpose coexist with the dissolution, evasion of responsibility and even poltroonery that characterized Kennedy’s personal life through his sixth decade? The well-remembered incidents—his expulsion from Harvard for cheating in order to maintain his athletic eligibility, Chappaquiddick and Mary Jo Kopechne, and his participation in the late-night episode that led to his nephew being charged with (but acquitted of) rape—and the generalized carousing and tomcatting punctuated almost fifty years of exemplary public service. To say, as some do, that Kennedy’s sterling public career redeemed his private peccadilloes implies that the peccadilloes came early in his career and the accomplishments came later; but the two strains occupied the same space in Kennedy’s life and career, at least until he reached about sixty and remarried.
But then, the Camelot legend, especially as recounted in the Lerner and Loewe musical, is not without its dark moments and may even be fairly interpreted as a story of how high-minded and glamorous folly can lead to calamity. A king with vast and idealistic ambitions marries a woman he has never met, who turns out to be flighty and frivolous and betrays him with a younger and less serious man. The betrayal provokes the king to declare a war against forces led jointly by the knight who cuckolded the king and the king’s own illegitimate son. The war destroys the reign of peace that the king had imagined would last forever. Any similarity between this fictional sequence of events and the disastrous war domestic dissension that followed the Kennedys’ Camelot is, as they say on TV, strictly coincidental.
Perhaps, then, Ted Kennedy’s career may be seen as a fifty year campaign for restoration. Not for restoration of Camelot in its narrowest sense, a Kennedy presidency: It was clear by the time he turned fifty that he would never be president, and none of the next-generation Kennedys who pursued careers in politics have seemed slated for national leadership.
The restoration Kennedy sought was a restoration of the passion and ideals with which his brothers were identified. An echo, perhaps, of his brother John’s call, in his inaugural address, for “a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself;” or his declaration that equal rights is a moral issue, “as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.” Or of his brother Robert’s call for “love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or…black.”
It was the fight of a lifetime, the fight of his lifetime, and he did us the honor of fighting it.