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


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