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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly By: FrontPage Magazine
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, August 27, 2009

Asked recently why he continued to push for a health care overhaul that has alienated large parts of the country, energized the political opposition, and deflated his once-soaring poll numbers, President Obama offered a concise answer: “I promised Teddy.”

The president’s promise was a fitting tribute to the outsize political influence of Ted Kennedy, who died of brain cancer this week at the age of 77. In the context of a particularly polarizing piece of legislation, it was also a reminder that Kennedy’s political career was as notable for his storied pedigree and his impressive longevity – Kennedy spent 47 years in the Senate – as for the aggressively partisan causes he supported, including his longtime goal of “universal” government-run health insurance.

Few would dispute that Kennedy was a highly effective Senate operator and an iconic figure. But as the accolades pour in in praise of the “liberal lion’s” vaunted pragmatism and bipartisan collegiality, some no doubt deserved, it is worth recalling that the nickname was well earned and the legacy Kennedy leaves behind more blemished than some are willing to remember.

Roots of Disaster

Despite his famous name, Kennedy had a humble beginning – and not just because he emerged from the shadow of his more famous brothers. His first major achievement was to be thrown out of Harvard University for cheating on a Spanish exam. And perhaps his most notorious political setback took place early in his career, far from the Senate floor.

On a nighttime drive in July 1969, Kennedy swerved his ’67 Oldsmobile off a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island near Martha’s Vineyard. Although Kennedy managed to flee the wreck, his companion, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned in the crash. Worse, Kennedy failed to report the death for over ten hours. For a junior senator who would go on to style himself as a champion of the downtrodden, it was a shockingly callous start to a career, and one he would never completely live down. Kennedy escaped serious punishment for Kopechne’s death, getting off with a suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident, but any hopes of winning the presidency ultimately died that night.

A Contentious Cold War Legacy

Kennedy did not entirely redeem himself with his stance during the premier foreign-policy issue of his early career: the Cold War. On one hand, he expressed genuine concern for the plight of political dissidents and Jewish refuseniks under the repressive communist system, even taking the time to meet with persecuted opposition activists during a trip to the Soviet Union – in defiance of Soviet authorities and the KGB. In his book The Case for Democracy, former dissident Natan Sharansky would recall that shortly after the signing of the Helsinki accords in 1975,


“Edward Kennedy boldly decided to see a handful of refuseniks in a midnight meeting that was kept secret from the KGB until the very last moment. In these encounters with political figures from abroad, refuseniks got to brief politicians on the latest news about our movement, such as how many people had been denied visas and who had been arrested. The meetings were an important reminder to Soviet officials that the refuseniks had powerful friends in the West.”

Despite these fond remembrances, some have questioned whether Kennedy’s relationship with the KGB was really that adversarial. Author Paul Kengor, for instance, has charged that in 1983 Kennedy may have reached out to Soviet secretary general and former KGB head Yuri Andropov in a calculated attempt to discredit President Reagan’s policy toward the Soviet Union just prior to the 1984 election. Seeing Reagan as the greater threat, Kennedy, according to Kengor,

“suggested a number of PR moves to help the Soviets in terms of their public image with the American public. He reportedly believed that the Soviet problem was a communication problem, resulting from an inability to counter Reagan’s (not the USSR’s) ‘propaganda.’ If only Americans could get through Reagan’s smokescreen and hear the Soviets’ peaceful intentions.”

The substance of the shocking charge, based on a secret KGB communiqué, remains speculative. But it was not out of step with Kennedy’s Cold War-era advocacy, which amounted to a campaign for disarmament on the part of the United States.

Central to that effort was Kennedy’s support for the “nuclear freeze” movement, which would have reduced America’s nuclear capabilities with no guarantee of reciprocal concessions from the Soviet side. Considering the Soviet Union’s repeated refusal to abide by arms-reduction agreements, Kennedy’s sponsorship of nuclear freeze resolutions was, in effect, a declaration of unilateral surrender. As Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, warned at the time, “If the nuclear freeze goes through, this country won’t exist in 1990.” No thanks to Kennedy, that theory was never tested.

Leading the Party of Defeat

Twenty years later, Kennedy again sought to undermine a sitting Republican president in wartime. He opposed the October 2002 resolution authorizing the Iraq war, later calling it “the best vote I have cast in the United States Senate since I was elected in 1962.” But while Kennedy’s opposition to the war was defensible, his often scurrilous campaign to discredit President Bush and shake popular support for the military campaign was not.

Among other damaging and demagogic claims, Kennedy helped popularize the Democratic distortion that the president had lied the country into war by deliberately depicting Saddam Hussein as an “imminent threat.” “There was no imminent threat,” Kennedy declared, earning instant approval from the anti-war Left. In fact, the president had made precisely the opposite argument: that Hussein should be deposed before Iraq becomes a real and present danger to U.S. security. Of the two accounts of the war’s origins, Kennedy’s was by far the less truthful.

Equally to his discredit, Kennedy would help radicalize the anti-war movement by lending credibility to its more conspiratorial conjectures. In decidedly bad political faith, he claimed that the Iraq war was a sinister plot “made up in Texas” and sold to the Congress as a move that “was going to be good politically.” According to Kennedy, “The whole thing was a fraud.”

President Bush had the better of that argument. In 2005, the Senate Intelligence Committee found no evidence of “political manipulation or pressure” to manipulate pre-war intelligence on Iraq. But as support for the war cratered, Kennedy won the political fight. As David Horowitz and Ben Johnson observe in their book Party of Defeat, Kennedy’s attacks on the war, though discredited, “took a damaging toll on the president’s credibility and on the public’s support for the war nonetheless.” Nevertheless, with a grace never publically accorded him by his political foe, the former president was among the first to praise Kennedy after his death.

The People’s Champion?

For all his involvement in foreign affairs, it was domestic policy and politics that Kennedy considered his true calling and his great achievement. To his supporters, Kennedy compiled an impressive record in this regard, and many take on faith the senator’s assurance that he was a lifelong champion of poor and underprivileged. But here as elsewhere, the virtues of the record he leaves behind can be overstated.

One of Kennedy’s signature causes, for instance, was raising the minimum wage. For Kennedy, the issue was uncomplicated: Those Republicans who opposed minimum wages hikes were refusing to “give hard-working men and women the pay they deserve.” But that claim was difficult to sustain in the face of substantial evidence that minimum wage laws hurt precisely those workers on the low end of the income scale that they are intended to help. A 2006 Heritage Foundation analysis was one of many to find that not only do minimum wage increases not alleviate poverty but they may actually perpetuate it by leaving “low-income Americans no better off in the short term and far worse off in the long term.”

A similar paradox was evident in the cause closest to Kennedy’s heart: health care. By his own account, Kennedy had been engaged in the health care debate since 1969, when he first moved to create a national, government-run health care insurance program. Kennedy saw his health care vision as a victory for all Americans, but a host of critics disagreed. While most remember the debacle of “HillaryCare” it’s now forgotten that the administration’s much-maligned plan was actually the moderate alternative to health care legislation proposed by Kennedy. Assessing Kennedy’s plan in 1994, the Heritage Foundation found that while the “Kennedy legislation contains many of the same features as President Clinton’s plan… in several instances, it expands upon the President’s prescription to broaden and deepen the federal government's direct involvement and control in virtually every aspect of America's health care system.” So far from helping Americans across the income spectrum, Kennedy’s plan would have raised premiums and taxes.  

Kennedy did not get mellower with time. Of all the health care legislation debated in Washington this summer, the most radical, dramatically increasing government intervention in the health care system, was proposed by none other than Kennedy.

Whatever one’s views of his resolute and sometimes ruthless liberal politics, Kennedy’s clout was undeniable. Notwithstanding the more shameful chapters in his career, he certainly outgrew an early jibe against him, playing on his famous family connections, that a Senate post “should be merited, not inherited.”

Nowhere was that more apparent than in 2008, when he threw his backing behind a popular but less recognizable candidate for the Democratic nomination by snubbing Hillary Clinton and supporting Barack Obama. That the president now feels compelled to carry out his most controversial legislation in Kennedy’s name is perhaps the greatest testament to Kennedy’s place in American politics. Even beyond the grave, Kennedy remains a singularly influential figure.

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