We are accustomed to reading histories that deify the Founding Fathers. They, after all, overthrew the world’s greatest military power to establish a republic, and they did it with rhetorical grace that even today stirs the heart. Our idealized view of the Founding Fathers obscures their failings as often as it eclipses other great American political leaders who did not have the good fortune to be alive in 1776.
I’m thinking, of course, of Senator Kennedy whose passing last week finally drew him the bipartisan praise that he had earned but was generally denied in his lifetime. Whatever one may think of his liberalism, he was a fierce and effective advocate, who nevertheless respected his colleagues on both sides and conducted himself with a civility that is as absent today from politics as it was in 1776. Ted Kennedy understood that just because a person has a different opinion about tax policy, health care, or military spending is no reason to question his patriotism, intellect, or character.
What makes Kennedy’s collegiality extraordinary is that he was constantly maligned by conservatives, including those whom he genuinely liked. For nearly a half-century, he bore all of this abuse with quiet dignity and humor.
When you consider Senator Kennedy’s monumental legislative record of accomplishment in health, labor, human rights, economic reform, and education, there are few presidents who got as much done as he did. And he did all this while winning the respect and affection of his adversaries as much as his allies.
By comparison, some of the Founding Fathers were vicious hypocrites who thought nothing of defaming their colleagues with baseless accusations and whose fiery politics alienated even members of their own party. Jefferson, for example, as vice-president arranged for the publication of outrageous lies about President John Adams. Jefferson paid someone to steal the personal papers of Silas Deane, the hero of my book UNLIKELY ALLIES. Jefferson tried to impeach federal judges who disagreed with him. Jefferson extolled the virtues of the bloody French Revolution, and so alienated the Federalists in Congress that his election in 1800 bitterly divided the young republic.
That’s not to say that Jefferson does not deserve his place as one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the founder of the University of Virginia. But a fair-minded person could conclude that the achievements of Jefferson, like other Founding Fathers, were won despite his mean partisanship. In contrast to Jefferson, Ted Kennedy time and again reached across the aisle to heal the divisions of party.
I met Senator Kennedy only in passing at two dramatic points in his astonishing career. The first time was when I was called to testify as a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee to corroborate Anita Hill’s allegations against then-Judge Clarence Thomas. Though some liberals criticized Kennedy for not taking a stronger position against Judge Thomas, they forget Kennedy’s dramatic role in those hearings. At the time, of course, the Senator was facing allegations in the press concerning his own drinking and socializing. He felt constrained by those allegations to lead the attack. But after a panel of four witnesses, myself included, testified in support of Anita Hill’s allegations, Senator Kennedy responded in a booming voice to the defamatory attacks on Anita Hill:
“…I hope, Mr. Chairman, that after this panel we are not going to hear any more comments, unworthy, unsubstantiated comments, unjustified comments about Professor Hill and perjury…I hope we are not going to hear more about fantasy stories picked out of books…I hope we can clear this room of dirt and innuendo, that has been suggested [about] Professor Hill… They are unworthy.”
That was Kennedy at his best: decrying those who used smear tactics to advance a political agenda. Throughout his long career Kennedy stood to uphold the Senate’s tradition of decorum and comity.
I met Senator Kennedy again last year at a breakfast at the home of a friend. It was only days after Senator Kennedy’s dramatic endorsement of Senator Obama for president and only months before his brain tumor was discovered. Kennedy bounded up like a eager puppy to introduce himself to all the guests – as if there were anyone on the planet who would not recognize him. His hand seemed like it was the size of a catcher’s mitt, leathery from a lifetime of sailing and shaking hands. He was excited about the young senator from Illinois whose idealism and eloquence reminded him of his own brothers. And he was determined to help pass Obama’s health insurance reform.
Kennedy spent four decades persistently and patiently working towards health reform. Perhaps he could have succeeded this year with a broad consensus of Democratic and Republican colleagues. If he were unable to win broad support, Kennedy would have pushed for reform with the votes he had, and afterward, he would have embraced his Republican colleagues and defused any hard feelings.
Kennedy’s civility is an exceedingly rare element in the summer of “death panel” Republicans and “birther” conspiracy theorists. We have lost Senator Kennedy at the moment we needed him most to escape the toxic political environment that has engulfed health insurance reform. We need more like him.
If you like reading this blog, check out my new book, UNLIKELY ALLIES.