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The Dynast

Kennedy, the moral leader

"Happy the country," Bertolt Brecht wrote, "which requires no heroes." But our country is unhappy, and it is looking for a hero. That's what the polls tell us, and have told us for more than a decade now—in fact, ever since Ted Kennedy's older brother was cut down at the threshold of victory in the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel. Not a martyr's death exactly, Robert Kennedy's, but that of a victim of the bitter mood he simultaneously exploited and tried to bend to hope.

Will Teddy pick up the fallen banner? The question is being posed again for the fourth consecutive presidential campaign. Looking to 1980 the intensity and expectation are greater than ever before. The shine of our last great national legend survives the assault of accumulated facts that might tarnish it: the reflex of foreign intervention, the reflex of domestic surveillance, the reflex of personal vengeance, the reflex of provocative rhetoric, the reflexes of the principals and their courtiers who behaved as if they were born to govern. Much of this is not applicable to the senior senator from Massachusetts himself. It's his life, after all, that has been haunted by tragedy, his career touched by self-doubt. The meager attainments of reality in relief against the monumental conquests of myth. How many times might he have asked himself,

"Am I worthy?" On the record—even though our politics seem to allow even the best of our politicians only the sparsest record of achievement—Ted Kennedy has more than vindicated himself. Moreover, honor is especially due him for not joining, nor for a moment suggesting that he would lead, the liberal retreat happening all about him. This, by the way, is not a retreat to a philosophy: in America we are not animated by philosophies. But it is greed that calls us, and the most pathetic shroud of thought shields our consciences from the sin of countenancing human wretchedness. Not, it should again be said, Teddy's conscience.

The durability of the Kennedy presence, however, cannot be explained by his fidelity to a generous vision of American society. This is the paradox of his popularity. Those who want him as their president do not necessarily want what he would want to achieve as his own president. Most likely they do not even know what he wants, or care for that matter. Perhaps the mass of them, not being among the privileged, might come to understand that the dogma of the stone heart that lies behind the current anti-tax delusions will benefit them less than the old liberal conviction that government exists to ameliorate misery or, as Locke put it more grandly, to secure for its citizens "a commodious life." Kennedy might even be able to persuade them of this. Would that he could.

Kennedy's emerging foreign policy is another matter. He will have a harder time persuading a doubting public about its wisdom. Its elements seem to include a credulousness about Russian intentions and interests, and about their susceptibility to sheer good will; an exaggerated sense of our moral debt to an indiscriminately perceived third world; and an overeagerness to mute our human-rights commitments in the service of fashionable causes such as "normalization" of relations with the People's Republic of China.

The appeal of the Kennedy alternative is particularly strong at this moment because the incumbent president appears to have made incompetence an art. Or, as one Washington commentator observed, Jimmy Carter's real accomplishment is to make Gerald Ford seem masterful. Faulty memory and the shadow of assassinations again play tricks on the mind. Don't we remember who the first Kennedy's best and brightest really were, and what enormities that cohort of monomaniacal ideologues and whiz-kid technocrats invented and rationalized? The truth about most of them never quite caught up with their reputations. The haughty style has served them well: it is often mistaken for ability. Kennedy will attract good men and women to him, we are assured by his partisans; maybe it is so, and surely there is no reason to burden him in advance with the worst of his brothers' associates. But this electoral strength may also be a substantive weakness.

If Carter had not surrounded the presidential person with so many louts and Snopses the lure of an imagined Kennedy entourage would not be nearly so great as it is. A similar dynamic may be at work with reference to public perceptions of the Carter and Kennedy families. It sometimes seen-is as if the "Soap" program's Campbell family has stumbled off the TV screen, psychopathologies and all, into the White House. But this image is not the fault of President Carter, and here again our memories may be playing tricks with us in any unfavorable comparison to the Kennedys. Nor should people be proud of desiring the restoration of a regal line and a regal tone to the presidential office. One of the least attractive, least democratic features of a Kennedy presidency would be the return en masse of the extended family (has it ever really departed?) of princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses to every medium of public information and entertainment.

One of the advantages enjoyed by dynasts is that they are accorded deference. In the Democratic Party, Kennedy has been accorded at least an implied deference. Aspirants for leadership, particularly among liberals, are always daunted by the residual loyalties of other politicians and of the public to that Kennedy ever in the wings. Will he or won't he? The question always seems to circumscribe commitment and opportunity or, at minimum, to justify insufficient resolve. Will any Carter challenger inevitably be made to seem a stalking horse for Kennedy? That apprehension does not disappear.

The most curious feature of the present Kennedy boomlet is that it occurs at a time of self-conscious and self-righteous moralism in politics that logically should have precluded any broad-based interest in his candidacy. The reason for that, too, is deference, the making of exceptions. If private peccadillos and transgressions are to disbar others from public trust, why is Kennedy exempt from the stern verdict? We are not inclined to make judgment on his personal life. It is his own. And who really dares cast the first stone? Apparently the people, or most of them, do not believe Senator Kennedy's explanation of the events at Chappaquiddick. That is a judgment and a harsh one. But the judgment somehow fails to become a judgment of character, at least one serious enough to question Kennedy's fitness for the presidency and for the moral authority it should exercise. What is so casually tossed off in Washington, among Kennedy's friends joyfully, among his adversaries sourly, among the pundits and odds givers confidently, is that "Chappaquiddick doesn't matter . . . folk forget . . . don't care. ..." Dishonor, if that is what people believe it to have been, should not be treated with such deference.

One suspects that Edward Kennedy believes the intractables of history also will defer to him, that he will be able to impose himself on them, as Jack wanted to do, as he thought his heroes had. That is why Teddy's politics have an arrogant facility about them, even those elements of his politics that we share with him. This may be why he, and his brothers, have been so ready to dispense hope, that possibly indispensable currency of politics, even though, as Walter Benjamin suggested, "hope is given most to those utterly without hope." Hope can be a political asset, but it also is a social danger, especially when the prospect of fulfilling its terms are not reasonably certain. That is surely one lesson from the years of rage such as the late 1960s.

If Kennedy wants his party's nomination, it may just come to him easily on the platter of desperate Democratic desire. But even the nomination will not be his without great costs. It may entail, for example, the alienation from the Democratic Party of Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists, offended not by his Catholicism but by what they may see as his flabby morals. The campaign that would follow would be bitter, even ugly, taut with the energy that politics-as-life-style and life-style-as-politics induce. It might all be different if Ted Kennedy could come to us as a contender in his own right, without the trappings or shackles of a past at once mythic and all too real. As it is, candidate or not, he comes to us, as it is said in the Agamemnon, "in excess of fame and danger."

This article originally ran in the September 23, 1978 issue of the magazine.