The public perception of the Kennedy brothers has always puzzled me. Their level of public regard has always been in inverse proportion to the amount of good they have done for the world. Robert Kennedy comes the closest of them to being a secular saint, and yet beyond a mixed record on civil rights as Attorney General and a not particularly notable stint in the Senate, he left remarkably little behind him. John F. Kennedy is beloved with caveats, and while that whole “preventing the Eastern Seaboard from being nuked out of existence” thing was impressive, his slow progress on integration and welfare state expansion was disappointing, as, of course, were the Bay of Pigs and his steps toward escalation in Vietnam.
Ted Kennedy, however, gets labeled a drunken philanderer, despite having spent the past forty years pushing through every piece of progressive legislation that really mattered. The 1965 immigration reforms, the post-watergate campaign finance reforms, COBRA, ADA, Family and Medical Leave, SCHIP: you name it, he helped pass it. He almost single-handedly saved us from Associate Justice Robert Bork, was perhaps the first major national Democrat to support marriage equality, and had the balls to call for a nuclear freeze and oppose the invasion of Iraq when few others did. But, you know, there was that Chappaquiddick thing, so screw him.
This, suffice it to say, is bullshit. Kennedy had his personal demons. I lived underneath his freshman dorm room in Wigglesworth Hall last year, and the floorboards in his old common room are still loose from when he would hide his hard liquor under them. His alcoholism, womanizing, and, in at least one case, disregard for another human life were not particularly attractive qualities. But damned if he didn’t do more to improve the lives of America’s poor than anyone else in government. And damned if most of the too-few positive aspects of our nation’s health care system can’t be laid squarely at his feet.
This is not to say that Kennedy was politically blameless either. He should not have rejected Nixon’s health care plan so brazenly (which he has acknowledged). He should not have challenged Carter in 1980. He definitely should not have supported Northern Irish secessionist terrorism with the vigor he did. But politics is an imperfect business. Compared to his colleagues, Kennedy’s sins were minimal, and his accomplishments enormous. The lived experience of the American people has improved more due to his actions than due to those of any politician since Roosevelt. There is a lot I am willing to forgive for such a record, far more than needs to be forgiven of Teddy.
He wasn’t the purest Kennedy, to be sure. He was not the president, and he was not the idealist. But he was the best Kennedy. He was the Kennedy who actually brought the country closer to one dreamed of in the rhetoric of his brothers, who made American liberalism implemented policy, rather than a pleasant dream. Some of this is due to longevity, of course, but it is mostly due to his very imperfection, to his willingness to wade into the mud, play dirty, cut deals, and staunch losses if it means some small progress. Senate maneuvering is an ugly business, but as Teddy showed like few others, it can a tool of the angels.
If there is any lesson to be drawn from his career to the current fight, to his final fight, it is that there is no shame in manipulating procedure, no shame in out-Roberts Rule-ing your opponent, if it means a better life for the American people. I harbor no illusions that Senate Republicans will have any desire to “pass it for Kennedy”, but I hope that Senate Democrats will use the occasion to conclude, finally, that it need not matter what those forty bastards think. Expanding Medicare to 133%, and ensuring 20 million more Americans in the process, is worthy upsetting Senate niceties. Banning discrimination on preexisting conditions is worth making Chuck Grassley uncomfortable. And establishing an affordable market for individuals is worth jettisoning the silly “Gang of Six” concept altogether. Every Democrat in the Senate should be informed that voting against cloture on Kennedy’s last bill is not just a shameful act of cowardice and perfidy, but cause for loss of committee memberships, of voting status within the caucus, and of DSCC support. Break skulls, Harry Reid. Break them for Teddy.