The End of an Era
I hate to upstage my lengthy post on industrial policy. But I can’t refrain from commenting on Ted Kennedy’s passing. It marks the end of an era. For people of my age (64), whom all three prominent Kennedys inspired, it is a sad, sad day.
Just over seven months ago, a very different era ended with Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency. That was an era of racism, economic fairy tales, breast-beating jingoism, swindling the common man, and passing off shallow elitism as a counterfeit American value. It was a forty-year attempt to create a self-perpetuating ruling class of business elite—men and women far less intelligent and well educated than our Founders and infinitely less public spirited. These are the folks who would have ruled but gave us GM, Chrysler, Bear Stearns, AIG, Morgan Stanley (among many others) and economic meltdown. They are the ones who told us selfishness is good and will make us stronger.
Seldom do two so antithetical eras—the Kennedys’ and the one that Obama’s election gave the coup de grace—end so close to simultaneously. It is as if the poles of the universe collided and now are spent. Ted at least could take pride in outlasting his rivals’ prominence.
At their core the Kennedys were a paradox. They were one of the richest, most powerful families in the nation. Beginning with patriarch Joe, they strove relentlessly and obsessively for political power, with all the ruthlessness of recent immigrants. Had they not been so obsessed with political power and public service, they all could have led lives of leisure and dissipation. Ted almost did. But in the end Jack, Bob and Ted worked fanatically to put their immense wealth, education, and talent in service of American values and the common man. Jack and Bob died for their efforts.
Jack and Ted had big feet of clay. Both were womanizers. Jack reportedly “entertained” ladies (including a Mafia Don’s girlfriend) in the White House while his elegant wife Jacquie converted it into an international Camelot. Ted’s transgressions at Chappaquiddick are better known. I will never forget my own outrage when his ineffectual presidential campaign, which that incident terminated, destroyed Jimmy Carter’s chance for second term. (I consider Carter the most underrated president of my lifetime, but that’s another story.)
But the Kennedys were not just sinners. Jack Kennedy literally saved the world. In his short career as Attorney General, Bob put in place the task forces that (decades later) took down most of the American Mafia. Ted didn’t have any similar single triumph, but he worked for decades, tirelessly and effectively, to better the common person’s lot. He made us all more equal before the law.
In their personal lives, some of our greatest leaders also had feet of clay. Thomas Jefferson penned our stirring national credo: “all men are created equal.” Yet he owned slaves all of his life. The only ones he ever freed were his mistress, Sally Hemmings, and her children by him. He led a life of extreme self-indulgence, procuring every luxury available at the time. When he died, he left an estate so mired in debts that selling his slaves, land and immense library barely covered them. And as a skilled politician, he fought as hard as he could to keep the system of slavery that made his life of extreme self-indulgence possible.
We rightly remember Jefferson not for his self-indulgent lifestyle, but for those wonderful words. We fought our most terrible war to give them life. We have them to thank for a competent and highly promising president today. And some day—if we can bring them to full fruition—they will make us the strongest and happiest nation on Earth.
So in the end, Jefferson’s words mattered far more than his reprehensible life. What we do that lasts counts most.
Every biologist knows that genetic diversity is the secret to species’ survival. Equality is nothing more than that universal biological principle translated into politics. It is our chief national value, and the one that makes this nation work. Giving everyone equal opportunity—whatever their genetics, origin or station in life—is our primary unfinished business in constructing a more perfect union. Health-insurance reform is a small part of that effort.
Although born and living at the pinnacle of wealth and power, all three prominent Kennedys understood this. That’s why the passing of their era is so sad.
Not only did they understand our chief national value. They imbued it with unique passion and eloquence. Ted, in particular, knew there can be no equality without respect. And so he honored and respected his opponents and in turn earned their honor and respect. Virtually every sitting senator has named Ted as the most admired colleague, most long before he died.
All three prominent Kennedys had a passion for equality. But Ted, who lived the longest, matched it with unique maturity and grace. And as a result, he managed to make equality more real through legislation.
We are blessed with a president who has similar qualities. But who will take Ted’s place in that other branch? Who will stop the suicidal cycle of caricature, demonization and demagoguery that has made our Senate a mud-wrestling arena? Who will restore our dignity and grace?
We might not soon see Ted’s like again. That thought alone should provoke deep sadness and national introspection.
P.S. Here is President Obama’s eulogy for Ted Kennedy—one great man mourning another’s passing. While there are such people among us, there is hope.