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Aug. 26 2009 - 10:17 am | 212 views | 3 recommendations | 17 comments

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.”[1]

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?


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  1. collapse expand

    Thank you for the truthful eulogy. I’ve never understood the value of pretending someone wasn’t who they really were. I have to wonder if the liberal, public Ted Kennedy was just a form of paying a perpetual indulgence for all his personal deficits.
    There has to be a better way to be a good Catholic than to freely indulge your vices and then confess them, ask forgiveness, do a forced and dishonest penance and then go back to committing the vices. It doesn’t seem like a good method for making either personal or social progress.
    BTW, I think Kennedy left out the most important right of the unborn: to be adequately loved and cared for in a world that still reflects the biodiverse glory God created.

    • collapse expand


      Did Kennedy confess his sins? Only his priests and bishops would know.

      If he confessed them and didn’t really believe they were sins, he would not be in a state of grace. He would receive formal absolution but not the graces that flow from a genuine and contrite confession.

      Your reply suggests, to me at least, a certain pessimism or cynicism about the sacrament: Only those who completely refrain from the sin they confess are acting truthfully. I know that in my case this is not so. I have one sin I confess every two or three months. I want to rid myself of it, truly and sincerely. But I find my old ways bring me down. Never do Augustine’s words to the Lord — give me purity, God, but just not yet — ring more true.

      By the way, Pope Benedict is a big believer in the sacrament of penance. In his sermon last year in Washington, he said a revival of the sacrament would lead to genuine moral and spiritual progress.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Yes, I’m assuming Kennedy confessed his sins only to sin again. Yes, I’m cynical of a process called a sacrament which often dysfunctions so as to enable sin rather than resolve it. Of course, there are no guarantees but we should be open to analyzing the actual, functional course of these activities and we should be willing to compare them with other spiritual activities to find which are most functional.
    I’ll let you know if I find one that works well!
    I would support Pope Benedict’s leadership in a national day of penance, ashes and sackcloth would be appropriate, for our overconsumption or for our war on Iraq.

  3. collapse expand

    I’ve got good Ted Kennedy on my right shoulder, whispering into my right ear that I should help the poor, fight for education and health care for all. I’ve got bad Ted Kennedy on my left shoulder, whispering into my left ear that I should respect a woman’s right to make her own choice in consultation with her own God instead of imposing upon her the will of some nosy bishops who very likely have never been pregnant. I’m just so thankful that I have Ted Kennedys on my shoulders instead of, say, Dick Cheneys.

  4. collapse expand

    The baby has no choice. She depends on others for her protection.

  5. collapse expand

    The only real Christian to serve in the White House in the last 40 years, Jimmy Carter, had a very common sensical approach to abortion. He said that since no one thinks abortion is a good thing we should do everything in our power to prevent unwanted pregnancies. An excellent option is oral sex and mutual masturbation. Alas, when Clinton’s SG Joyce Elders said as much some 15 years later ( “I think that (masturbation) it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught”) Bill Clinton canned her.
    Last I heard the Catholic Church teaches that masturbation is a sin. Seems like there are lots of dead ends for Catholics who don’t wish to overpopulate the world but do wish to find expression of their God-given sexuality.

  6. collapse expand

    Seems there is no mercy in the Catholic Church for the sin defying the doctrine of the men who proclaim the truth for others. I left the church on the day of my confirmation, exiting by a side door because I couldn’t bring myself to kiss the ring of the bishop. It is one thing to worship Jesus quite another to worship an institution and its leaders and doctrines. God gave us free will and the ability to reason. Perhaps God will punish Ted Kennedy but the church has no such power. Especially a church that has yet to demonstrate any atonement or shame for its sins against the innocence.

    Ted Kennedy was a human being like the rest of us, filled with contradicting emotions and actions yet Kennedy tried to rise above his failings and succeeded far more than most of us. I for one will have a drink in his memory tipping a bit into the wind so he can have a bit of Irish fortitude to get him through judgment day.

  7. collapse expand

    I recently talked to a pro-life Democratic veteran of my city’s politics. He told me how much his political career has been hamstrung because he won’t go over to the pro-choice side.

    It made me realize that Democrats who become pro-choice do not simply undergo a change of opinion. They become part of the political network which would otherwise suppress them.

    Who was the last Massachusetts pro-life Democrat Sen. Kennedy threw his weight behind? Since his change of view, has he ever supported a pro-life Democrat in a primary race against a pro-choice Democrat?

    I fear Kennedy helped strangle the careers of many pro-life Democrats in his state and his party. Am I wrong?

    Given Kennedy’s rakish behavior with women, it’s hard not to think he has had a personal interest in the availability of legal abortion.

    I’ve focused too much on these negative aspects. May Sen. Kennedy RIP.

    (Aside: My charming contact’s pro-life talking point with pro-choice Dems is “I’m so glad your mother didn’t have an abortion, because otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.”)

  8. collapse expand

    I think Mark’s contribution boils down to this question: Are you comfortable with thinking of Kennedy as the voice of liberal conscience for the last 40 years or so? I think I would agree with the thrust of Mark’s point of view from the personal behavior aspect, but I would disagree from the political (pro-choice) aspect. The political aspect that rankles me is not abortion but another population-related issue: that Kennedy opened the floodgates to mass immigration.
    I equate this with his catholicity, if not his Catholicity. It was an outgrowth of the civil rights movement but it has had devastating effects on wages, the environment and many aspects of the quality of life in America. Much of our fiscal mess is due to the costs of absorbing some 33 million new people a decade, about 2/3 due to immigration.
    When are Catholics going to come up with a practical plan to stabilize population, nationally and globally? I’m not sure the idea that if we love God, love mankind, enough the Lord will do the rest.

    • collapse expand


      Where do you get your immigration figures and are you including illegal immigrants in that figure. It was my understanding that Kennedy’s intention was to open up immigration to Eastern countries in parity to Europe.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        The best info comes from Center for Immigration Studies. The US population went up 33 million between 1990 and 2000 (more than half the population of France). At least 13 million, probably more like 15.5 million immigrants, 10m legal and 5.5m illegal, are accounted for between the 1990 census and the 2000 census. Their much higher fertility rate accounts for about an additonal 7 million babies. Therefore about 22 million of the 33 million increase was directly and indirectly due to immigration. That’s about 2/3.
        This is disturbing in a nearly endless number of ways–congestion, quality of life, crime, lawless, apartheid, fiscal, wage suppression, environmental impacts, sprawl . . .
        The US should stabilize/reduce its population and reduce its consumption by half.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  9. collapse expand

    Do you have another source for S.J. Res. 178 (1976)? The source you link to seems to say that Kennedy took the pro-choice position.

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    About Me

    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party (Encounter Books, 2007). He was born in San Francisco in 1970 and raised in the Bay Area. He graduated from Santa Clara University and the University of Chicago (M.A. in Social Sciences, '97). In between, he worked, as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, for an inner-city housing agency in Baton Rouge, La. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard, among other publications. He, his wife, and two daughters live in the Washington, D.C. region.

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