Sunday, July 29, 2012

Edward Kennedy Redux II


Again, computer meltdown.  Again, salvation.  Bear with us.

Our last blog was taken up with anecdotal reminiscences about Ted Kennedy.  Three books and many pieces for Esquire and The Washingtonian later, I put it all together in the spellbinding Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography (Counterpoint, 2010) .  Hard-cover or trade paperback, it's all there.  Let's turn to substance.

One of my earlier treatments of Kennedy's life and career was called The Shadow President. The title was intended to suggest Kennedy's amazing capacity to manipulate beneath the surface of public events and work toward outcomes frequently more effective and ultimately more meaningful than the legislative process.  No president could hope to realize his agenda without Kennedy's quiet cooperation.

LBJ saw that unlike Jack Kennedy -- whom Lyndon Johnson regarded openly as a crippled playboy during his Senate years -- or the fractious Bobby, Ted Kennedy, within a few months of his arrival in the Senate in 1963, was demonstrating an extraordinary legislative gift.  At home in the Senate, Ted was a ferociously hard worker. Johnson set the freshman Senator to work on immigration legislation and involved him with the Voting Rights boilerplate already making its way through committee.  This gave Kennedy status enough to push for an end to most of the exemptions keeping middle-class youngsters out of the butchershop in Viet Nam, which provoked an uproar among the country-club set and begin to legitimize the agonizing process of American withdrawal.

Simultaneously, Kennedy maneuvered within the committees drafting the Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation to introduce language eliminating the poll tax, a device cherished since Reconstruction around the Old South to prevent a significant number of blacks from voting.  While the segregationists who controlled the important committees were able to block Kennedy's legislation, the issue now surfaced with such prominence that the Supreme Court was drawn into the battle and quickly ruled the poll tax illegal. Were Kennedy still around, by now it's safe to bet he would  have inserted himself into the struggle over "voter registration," another hard-right conspiracy artfully designed to disenfranchise the helpless.

Deft as he was, Kennedy managed all this without alienating even outspoken bigots like Mississippi's James Eastland. Ted had a knack for trading favors, enlisting idealism and practicality and self-interest among his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.  Conservatives from Orrin Hatch to Bob Dole found themselves sponsoring Kennedy's legislation, often with their names attached to the bills.  Kennedy was after results, not glory.

Many of his successes, especially in foreign policy, were spectacular, if largely unheralded.  When a confrontation with the Soviets over intermediate-range missiles threatened, Kennedy worked back-channels with Leonid Breznev and defused the crisis.  When most of the leadership in the Reagan White House had opted for a quick and dirty ground war in Nicaragua, Kennedy colluded with Tip O'Neill and John Boland in the Congress while himself creating an issue over the Misquito Indians in the region that made intervention too sticky to consider.  After a quick visit in Bobby's memory to South Africa, Ted recruited Connecticut Republican Lowell Weiker and double-teamed the Congress into enacting legislation that cut off all U.S. investment until apartheit ended and democracy emerged.  As things developed, that didn't take long.

Without question Kennedy's most durable issue was reform of the health system, universal coverage.  He stole good ideas from anybody who came up with one. Himself perhaps the greatest expert in government on the intricacies of the issue, he shared whatever he knew with anybody willing to learn.  One avid student, it turned out, was Mitt Romney.

But more on that next time.

Burton Hersh

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Edward Kennedy Redux


So here we find ourselves, inside the muggiest dog days of the quadrennial political season.  Important issues are scrupulously evaded by both sides, while irrelevancies absorb the cable channels.

Watching Mitt Romney flail around I keep being reminded of his 1994 attempt to unseat Teddy Kennedy in Massachusetts.  It happened that I had covered Kennedy's regular rises and falls and rises again and again for Esquire Magazine since the middle sixties.  In 1994 I spent a day or two rolling around the state in a rusting van with Ted and his watchful new wife Victoria and a student driver.  Things had definitely changed since, say, 1970, when there was a lot more Kennedy family money available and Ted campaigned in a motorcade of black limousines, each journalist alotted a few minutes of face time with the fair-haired, high-strung candidate, hustling hard to come back from the Chappiddick disaster.  You can follow a lot of this minute to minute in my comprehensive 2010 volume Edward Kennedy:  An Intimate Biography.

 By 1994 campaigning with Kennedy had gotten a lot simpler.  There were analogies.  The notorious Palm Beach incident a few years earlier, during which Kennedy's nephew had essentially assaulted a woman he picked up at the local Au Bar while Ted floated around the beach in his nightshirt -- that had gone down hard.  Kennedy was being outspent many times by the wealthy and personally immaculate Mitt Romney.  Kennedy was far behind in the polls.

At some point I asked Ted how he felt about all that.  He gave me that long, sympathetic glance of his which meant:  How can you be this thick?  "We're not that worried," he told me.

I wondered how that could be.

"Romney's problem is, there isn't anybody there," Kennedy said.  "You pick an issue, Romney has flip-flopped on it at least a couple of times.  The guy doesn't seem to believe in anything.  The voters in this state will pick up on that."

Ted had never let anybody remain confused as to where he himself stood.  JFK, accused of a liberal bias in the press, had stormed:  "I'm not a liberal.  I've told everyboy that all along."  When Kennedy family friend Joe McCarthy came up for censure in the Senate, Jack absented himself strategically.

Ted, characterized in 1962 as a promising young liberal, agreed with this characterization, at once.  When there was flak to be taken, Teddy took it.  Early in his career he came down on the side of Choice for Women, an infuriating position even among his siblings, especially Eunice.  When the Democratic Party slid right, Kennedy held his ground.  "That's the last thing this country needs, two Republican Parties," he broke out during one interview.

Pressed in 1994, worried by the Romney onslaught, Bob Shrum and Kennedy's other handlers came back by putting their very limited campaign funds into ads which spelled out the devastation Romney's pump-and-run financial methods were producing in the "private sector."  Kennedy won the Senate race overwhelmingly.

All that stayed with me a few years later when Romney actually became governor of Massachusetts.  Struggling with a heavily Democratic legislature, Romney accomplished very little except for the program to extend mandated health coverage to almost everybody in Massachusetts -- Romneycare.  What almost nobody seems to have noticed is the extent to which, day by day, Ted Kennedy came back and micromanaged this singular success for Romney.

Next time.

Burton Hersh


Monday, July 2, 2012

White Like Me #3


Yes, yes, I know.  I'm running behind schedule.  The fact is, lightning did hit our computer.  You have your doubts?  How about, an elephant stepped on our monitor?  Here in the New Hampshire rain forest that sort of thing happens all the time.

In any case, here is the third and final installment of my three parter on racism in the military during the nineteen fifties, already recognized as the most promising interlude during our unsuccessful experiment with empire.  I served 1957-1959.  A couple of vignettes should help establish the period.

One member of my platoon during basic training was a sleek young black boxer from Harlem, already accomplished enough for Sugar Ray Robinson -- often enough referred to as "pound-for-pound" the greatest middleweight we had ever developed -- to have bought up the contract on the fellow and to be training him personally.  My fellow recruit was good-natured but perhaps a bit withheld; he obviously regarded the army, its rules, the entire system as designed mainly for farmboys and jailbirds, but not for him.  I'd been invited to join the army boxing team -- I didn't, wised up by having sparred from time to time with my friend for a few minutes behind the barracks.  As a courtesy he refrained from knocking my block off.  He told me my arms weren't that bad but my legs needed work.

As it happened he occupied the bunk under my own.  During basic training he had a way of mounding his clothes underneath his blanket and stealing out for a night in the nearby town, Killeen.  Whenever there was bed-check, and one of the sergeants came by with a flashlight and saw that he wasn't there, I mumbled something about his having probably left for the latrine.

Once the Fourth Armored Division was gyroed and sent to Germany we wound up in different units, if in the same camp.  Then one day word got around the camp that somebody had been killed much earlier that morning.  It was my friend.  Predictably, he'd fallen into the habit of slipping out of the barracks and frolicking with the Frauleins and returning to camp without a pass during the wee hours.  That night an officer of the guard had heard him making his way through the brush around the guard post, challenged him repeatedly, then -- when he did not surrender -- blown him away with his standard-issue .45.  This sort of thing happened all the time.  There was no investigation.

Another,  perhaps more telling incidence of military justice broke around me a few months before I was discharged.  When we got to Germany I had picked up a very old Opel, which got me to the camp every day -- as a newly married man I lived off post -- and even had miles enough in it to get Ellen and me to Brussels for The World's Fair, then Paris, then back to Goeppingen, our base near Stuttgart.  Then we bought a new blue Opel wagon, an event which caused something of a stir around the camp when word got out that we'd paid cash for it --@$1500, as I remember.  I sold its predecessor to a mild-mannered black staff sergeant from the adjacent company, for $400.

The next thing I heard was that the staff sergeant's company commander, a stocky, single-minded popoff who had supposedly won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Korea, was bringing the staff sergeant before a court martial proceeding for allegedly stealing the car from me.  I was called to testify.  I assured the board that the staff sergeant had bought the car from me for cash.  The sergeant got off.

The next move the company commander made was to arrange for me to be transferred to his unit from the headquarters battalion.  He intended to make me pay.  For days he kept me on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor of his orderly room.  While I was scrubbing devotedly the company commander issued word that he wanted to call a special formation that afternoon.  He'd made sure I never got the word.  Then he informed me that he was instituting a court martial action against me, for "missing a movement." as the military parlance went.

That burned me up, immediately.  Characteristically, I came back hard if not that far-sightedly.  "If you do that," I told him, "I will bring over the best defense attorney in Manhattan.  Before this is over I'll have your captain's bars.  Furthermore, you'd better leave that staff sergeant alone."

I suspect that what convinced the vengeful old reprobate was the rumor that I had paid cash for my new car.  The professional military of the period lived by time payments and borrowed money.  If I had $1500 at my disposal, God knows what resources I might bring to bear.  I was bluffing, totally, but he crumpled at once.  The next day he released me back to the headquarters company.  I hope he left the staff sergeant in peace.

Later, when I began writing novels, it occurred to me that here was an episode parallel to the plot in "From Here To Eternity."  But by then a lot more had happened to me.  I present you all with the bare bones.