Good Ted Kennedy, Bad Ted Kennedy
No public figure was more divisive in my family – or really, my father’s side of the family — than Edward M. Kennedy. None; no politician, priest, or poet compares. My uncle and namesake slapped on the back window of his yellow Ford Pinto a “Kennedy ‘80” bumper sticker. My dad invoked the words Ted Kennedy as if he had swallowed a sip of bourbon and attempted to pronounce the name of the foul-tasting brand.
My family’s reaction to him likely was not representative; as ours was a mostly pious clan of bourgeois Catholics, we viewed him as if he were a distant but famous uncle, a personage of consequence rather than just another politician. Yet my family’s dueling reactions curiously symbolized his career. Kennedy, for all of the hagiographic obituaries that the MSM writes about him, was a Janus-faced public figure. There was a Good Teddy, and there was a Bad Teddy.
The good Ted Kennedy did more perhaps to help the poor, disabled, and marginalized than any American politician in the last two generations. A partial list of the bills he sponsored or shepherded to passage reveals a breadth of support for groups that only Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt could match: The bilingual Education Act; the Fair Housing Acts; the Age Discrimination Act; the South African sanctions; the Federal Disabilities Act, and the Children’s Health-Insurance Program.
The bad Ted Kennedy honored politicians who threatened the poor, disabled, and marginalized. When George C. Wallace in February 1974 announced his candidacy for a third term as governor of Alabama, he noted that several prominent Northern politicians had flown to
the state capitol of Birmingham to kiss his ring. One of those was Kennedy, who contemplated running for president in 1976, a time when the South was still up for grabs. All of those Northerners, Wallace told his followers at a morning press conference, had but one message: “How great thou art in Alabama!”
The good Ted Kennedy was a responsible patriarch. He cared for the children of his brother Bobby after he was assassinated in 1968. He treated his Senate colleagues with uncommon thoughtfulness and decency, calling them right away when a family member had died or contracted a serious illness.
The bad Ted Kennedy was an outrageous cad. Forget Chappaquiddick, although it’s difficult given that he crawled out of the sinking car while young Mary Jo Kopechne sat inside. Kennedy reportedly cheated on his first wife from the moment the two were married; in December 1985 grabbed a waitress at Washington’s La Brasserie restaurant, picked her up from the table and threw her into the lap of friend Sen. Chris Dodd, whereupon he proceeded to rub his genital area against her; and in September 1987 screwed his blonde girlfriend on the floor of La Brasserie.
The good Ted Kennedy spoke eloquently for and supported the most vulnerable of all human beings. In a August 3, 1971 letter to a constituent, Kennedy made a case on behalf of the unborn that would make Randall Terry weep:
“While the deep concern of a woman bearing an unwanted child merits consideration and sympathy, it is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized – the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old.”
Those were no mere words. Kennedy backed them up. In a little-noticed vote in April 1976, he favored a joint Senate resolution to define personhood as beginning at conception.
The bad Ted Kennedy turned his back on the least of these. Not only did Kennedy by the 1980s come out in support of Roe v. Wade; he also supported taxpayer funding of abortion. His most consequential pro-choice advocacy was the 1987 Supreme Court hearing of nominee Robert Bork. Standing on the Senate floor, Kennedy assailed Bork as a jurist whose rulings would force women to resort to “back-alley abortions.” Kennedy’s verbal assault helped defeat Bork, who would have been a fifth vote to overturn Roe.
I have first-hand experience of Kennedy’s Janus-faced behavior. On January 23, 2003, I talked with him for a story I wrote for the late Crisis magazine. The article was about Catholic politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, whose voting history contradicts Church teaching on core issues. Here is the relevant passage, about my interview with him off the Senate floor:
Kennedy left at 8:44 p.m. and headed toward the white marble steps. He still retains the Irishman’s thick shock of hair, although his face is puffy and he now waddles. I asked him about the Vatican’s doctrinal note on Catholic politicians. “Well, as I said the other day [at the National Press Club], I take my beliefs, I take my religion very seriously.… My religion has made an enormous difference to my family and my parents,” he said calmly, shuffling down the steps.
At this point we were on the first floor, about to head outside. I asked him how he reconciled his liberal stance on social issues with the bishops’ view of Catholicism. By the time I finished my question, we were past the maple doors and outside, alone, in the cold northeastern winter night. He stopped and turned almost directly toward me. “Look,” he said, displaying that characteristic Ted Kennedy indignation. “I know who I am,” he said, pausing for half a second, “and what I believe.”
It was that first comment that hit its mark — rather predictably I conjured up images of his two assassinated brothers and imagined all the grief that he and his family had endured. I suddenly felt as if I had no right to question him. In terms of personal suffering, the gulf between us was as wide as an ocean. He walked away, and after dismissing me with a wave of his left hand, I thought the interview was over. I was wrong. Six or seven yards away and still obviously upset, he said of the bishops, “It’s their problem, not mine.”
Now that he’s passed from this side of paradise, his words are prophetic. Catholic prelates will need to decide how to send this most outsized of politicians to his eternal rest. Do they honor his good side, forget his bad one or acknowledge that, maddeningly, he was both?