A foreigner reflects on Ted Kennedy

I hesitate to say anything about his passing--least of all, anything addressed to American readers. I didn't grow up with the history, as Americans of my age did. I'm an outsider, so reverence for the dynasty and the deeper sense of loss that goes with it are things I cannot feel. I'll just point to a few of the articles I've read today that seemed to shed some light.

The Boston Globe has the fullest coverage, as you might expect, and it is very well done.

I thought this essay by Sean Wilentz for The New Republic was outstanding.

His political longevity testified to the love of his constituents, through thick and thin, but also to his persistence, his ability to learn and to grow, and then to surpass himself. The sadness, the squandering, the might-have-beens of his life would have crushed others, but Kennedy endured, his principles intact.

You ought to read the whole article, but that capsule sums the man up pretty well, I think. I'd have added charm and energy--he was phenomenal in both respects--to the summary list of assets, and I don't think "the sadness, the squandering, the might-have-beens" does justice to his lowest point, but still.

Speaking of that, how to deal with Chappaquiddick has been a problem for many commentators and obituarists. Many decided, I think, that decency requires a veil to be drawn and euphemisms deployed, such as Wilentz's in that snippet. I disagree. I think you have to look at it unflinchingly, because you cannot understand the miracle of Kennedy's redemption otherwise. What he did was terrible. He survived as a politician only because of his name--a disgusting thing. But it changed him, and see what he then did with his life. He was emphatically not, as Paul Krugman writes, always a great man. He was once much less than a great man. What is astonishing is that he nonetheless made himself a great man.

I admired EJ Dionne's column for several reasons, including for the way it captured unique, or at any rate very unusual, aspects of Kennedy's political personality. He was neither cynic nor soggy centrist. He was passionate, a liberal's liberal. Yet he was pragmatic, and was capable of liking and respecting people who disagreed with him. Firm principles married to a friendly tolerance of other views: on both sides of modern American politics, that is so rare.

And there was this Kennedy paradox: Precisely because he knew so clearly what he wanted and where he wished the country to move, he could strike deals with Republicans far outside his philosophical comfort zone...

[K]ennedy's liberalism was experimental, not rigid. Principles didn't change, but tactics and formulations were always subject to review. He gave annual speeches that amounted to a report on the state of American liberalism. He always sought to give heart to its partisans in dark times -- "Let's be who we are and not pretend to be something else," Kennedy said in early 1995, shortly after his party's devastating midterm defeat -- but he did not shrink from pointing to liberal shortcomings.

In that speech, he insisted that "outcomes," not intentions, should determine whether government programs live or die. In 2005, he criticized liberals for failing to harness their creed to the country's core values.

I think that last point is crucial. On the left of the Democratic party, it is not hard to find disdain and even contempt for "the country's core values", insofar as those values depart from the ones espoused by a progressive liberal.

As for the willingness to cut deals in the name of progress, one wonders of course what role Kennedy might have played in fashioning a compromise on healthcare. He strongly favored the public option, but I find it hard to believe he would have preferred no reform at all to a Massachusetts-style system, or that he would have committed himself to vote against any measure that did not contain a public plan--the position that many Democrats now seem to be adopting. In more ways than one, he will be missed.