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Sunday, 04 October 2009 19:02

Edward M. Kennedy: A Multilayered Object-Lesson in Political Courage

Jack Kennedy had received some 400 death threats annually during his short-lived "thousand days." Ted Kennedy in the late 1960s and through the 1970s received even more—the majority of them, no doubt, from extremists of the right including white supremacists, fundamentalists, Catholic—haters, liberal—haters, and the like, writes H.C. Nash.


Here's a remarkably indirect comment by Mike Barnicle on MSNBC's Morning Joe: "He knew that he had a certain luxury that his three brothers didn't have."

Translated, it means that Edward M. Kennedy, 77, the youngest of four Kennedy men for whom their father had the most ambitious and tragic hopes, did not die a violent death.

The sentimental commentaries that consumed our media in the aftermath of his death—all richly deserved—did not do justice to the underlying realities of intrigue and risk in which Ted Kennedy proved himself a hero of his time, and ours. A "managed" and timorous media will see to it that certain taboos are observed.

"There's got to be more to it," Ted Kennedy told Sander Vanocur of NBC News on the plane carrying Bobby Kennedy's body to the East Coast for interment in June of 1968.

Of course there was "more to it" in the slaying of the presidential candidate—although you wouldn't know it if the mainstream media were your only source of information.

Ted's two older brothers had been victims of domestic political conspiracies of the most lethal sort: they were assassinated. Countless people were aware that an attempt on JFK's life would be made. J. Edgar Hoover himself knew for months of plots to kill Kennedy—and did nothing. Bobby, who had said after Dallas that "I thought they'd get one of us, but Jack, after all he'd been through, never worried about it. I thought it would be me," expressed his renewed sense of risk during the tumultuous 1968 campaign: "I can't plan. Every day is like Russian roulette."

Americans who believe that Jack and Bobby were not victims of conspiracies are at best naïve or ignorant, at worst in full-blown denial. ("It can't happen here.") Study the evidence.

The "heir apparent," who had come to the Senate in a special election in 1962, was in private deeply suspicious of the forces behind the assassination of JFK, although in his new memoir True Compass, the late senator, it has been widely reported, writes that he has always accepted the lone-assassin findings of the Warren Commission.

Re-elected seven times, he would play a constructive role in some 300 pieces of major legislation. He recognized—as did many of his mentors and colleagues—that he possessed legislative qualities that Jack had never displayed, and that Bobby as a senator from New York was too impatient—not to mention anguished and distracted—to cultivate.

The Kennedyesque environment in which she found herself took an alcoholic toll on Ted's wife Joan, and he too drank heavily—and womanized. In July of 1969 a party of Kennedy cronies and loyal female associates culminated—in circumstances that are unclear to this day—in the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who had worked tirelessly in Bobby's 1968 campaign. Ted Kennedy, who had probably been drinking heavily, was pilloried for lying about what he had done—or had not done—to save the young woman, who was found in a car that he had allegedly been driving. He was pilloried for leaving the scene of the accident in the middle of the night and failing to contact authorities for nine hours. He was pilloried for special treatment in being charged with "leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury" and receiving a light sentence of incarceration, which was suspended. Soon thereafter, he addressed the nation in shame and regret. His political prospects had been dashed.

But his detractors wanted several pounds of flesh. "Chappaquiddick" became a term of derision for legions of Kennedy-haters in the land. Refusing to resign, the villain of this sad story returned to the Senate in a neck brace. In 1972 he decided, for reasons of his own safety, not to run for president. The forces threatening him, he said, "are kind of self-evident." (They included Kennedy-haters in the CIA.)

Jack Kennedy had received some 400 death threats annually during his short-lived "thousand days." Ted Kennedy in the late 1960s and through the 1970s received even more—the majority of them, no doubt, from extremists of the right including white supremacists, fundamentalists, Catholic—haters, liberal—haters, and the like. (Which political party might have fanned these fires?)

The impetus for substantial health-care reform will take strength from EMK's courage, his energy, his compassion. As an expression of his stature and legacy, we have the testimony of Boris Kast, a Jewish refusnik whose emigration with his family to the U.S. was negotiated by EMK in the 1970s. Said Kast in an NPR interview: "He's one of those rare people whose major role in life is to help people."

A lion of the Senate indeed—and with his death the end of an epoch in which those responsible for the political murders of two of his brothers have never been brought to justice. The phrase national disgrace barely suffices.


H.C. Nash, a native Virginian, lives in Williamsport, Pa. He is working on a book entitled Patsy of the Ages: Lee Harvey Oswald and His Nation 46 Years Later.

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