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Jewish World Review
August 28, 2009 / 8 Elul 5769
Remembering the Darker Side of Teddy Kennedy
The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, we are being told, should
strengthen our resolve to act in a bipartisan fashion. Many of the tributes,
from former presidents and Republican colleagues, have stressed the late
senator's willingness to find "common ground." Well, since ancient Rome
we've been exhorted not to speak ill of the dead. But neither should we
completely disfigure the truth.
Before offering some less than hagiographic reflections on the
late Sen. Edward Kennedy (may he rest in peace), one pleasant memory: About
a decade ago, I was late for a party in northwest Washington D.C. a
neighborhood not known for abundant parking spaces. After circling the block
several times, I spied a cramped space and determined that somehow I was
going to fit my minivan into it. Just then, a large man approached walking
two Portuguese Water Dogs. He stopped, saw my predicament, and proceeded to
guide me into the space with lots of laughter, encouragement, and a little
bit of teasing. I knew (obviously) that my Good Samaritan was the senior
senator from Massachusetts. I have no reason to think he recognized me.
So I have personal experience of Teddy Kennedy's charm and
affability. The many stories of his personal kindnesses to others (including
those with whom he disagreed politically) speak well of him to a point.
But Kennedy was a politician who too often permitted his own sense of
righteousness to overwhelm the large reservoir of decency that he is
reported to have possessed. He could trample on conservatives with, it
seems, hardly a pang of conscience. He may have been the "great liberal
lion" of the U.S. Senate, but some of us cannot forget that his tactics were
often low and dishonorable.
Former President George W. Bush was characteristically gracious
about Kennedy ("a great man") in his comments since his death, but Kennedy
went after Bush utterly without scruple. Consider Kennedy's shrill attacks
on President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. In 2002, Sen. Kennedy himself
had said, "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein's regime is a serious
danger, that he is a tyrant, and that his pursuit of lethal weapons of mass
destruction cannot be tolerated. He must be disarmed." But just a year
later, Kennedy was saying, "This was made up in Texas, announced in January
to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going
to be good politically. This whole thing was a fraud." In 2004, Kennedy
said, "Before the war, week after week after week we were told lie after lie
after lie after lie … the president's war is revealed as mindless,
needless, senseless, reckless."
Kennedy did not perhaps could not accept that the Bush
administration had made a good faith decision to use military force (as his
brother did in the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam). Instead, he contributed to
conspiracy theories about Bush's true motives. Echoing the most inflamed
leftist websites, Kennedy alleged that "the President and his senior aides
began the march to war in Iraq in the earliest days of the administration,
long before the terrorists struck this nation on 9/11."
When the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison came to light, disgust and
abhorrence were expressed pretty universally and certainly bipartisanly. But
Kennedy, unable to resist a cheap political shot, actually compared the U.S.
to Saddam Hussein, saying, "Shamefully, we now learn that Saddam's torture
chambers reopened under new management U.S. management."
Sen. Kennedy's rhetorical ruthlessness was perhaps most famously
displayed within minutes of the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the
Supreme Court. The world now knows that Bob Bork is one of the most
intelligent, witty, reasonable, and civilized men in America. But at the
time, few knew anything about him. Kennedy rushed to the Senate floor to
introduce a grotesque bogeyman: "Robert Bork's America is a land in which
women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at
segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in
midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers
and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors
of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens
for whom the judiciary is and is often the only protector of the
individual rights that are the heart of our democracy."
Judge Bork recounted later that when he met privately with the
senator, Kennedy mumbled, "Nothing personal." When you have calumniated a
man before the entire world, you cannot claim that it isn't personal.
One hopes that the Kennedy family will find comfort in the days
ahead. But I cannot join those who uphold Teddy Kennedy as a model public
servant, far less as an exemplar of any sort of bipartisanship.
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