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

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