Wednesday, August 26, 2009

77 Year Old American Politician From Famous Family Dies

It is difficult to be impartial about Ted Kennedy. The fact of his family membership would give him a celebrity far beyond his achievements, while the burden of being the youngest brother to two murdered political heroes would give his own political career a poignancy he would never shake off. Furthermore, the scion of a deeply flawed family, from his adulterous, appeasement loving, Brit hating father down, Ted Kennedy seemed perhaps to encapsulate more of the flaws than his famous siblings. So how do we judge such a man?

He was no friend of Britain, certainly, and while this hardly distinguishes him from a majority of other American politicians (the 'Special Relationship' exists largely in the imagination of British politicians), it was particularly virulent in his case, through his persistent support of Irish republican terrorism and refusal to acknowledge the difficulties and ambiguities of the British involvement in Northern Ireland. Kennedy revelled in his Irishness, and was a prominent spokesman in Washington for the Republican cause. Eventually, true, such a role allowed him finally to play a part in the peace agreement that was forged between the warring communities, but he was ever greeted with suspicion by the Unionist community - he could hardly be greeted any other way. The award of a knighthood to him by Gordon Brown was bizarre, explicable only by Brown's own deep affection for America and romantic notion of Kennedy.

At home, in America, Kennedy was a controversial figure. The Chappaquidick tragedy, which saw Kennedy drive a car into a river, escape and flee whilst leaving his companion, Mary Jo Kopechne, to die, always hung over him. He divided the Democratic Party with his ill considered decision to challenge the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, for the Democratic nomination in 1980. A damaged Carter would later lose to Republican Ronald Reagan. And yet Kennedy also became a legislator par excellence. He championed social liberal causes, none more so than universal heath care, and was a persistent champion of New Deal policies. He was the first prominent Democratic politician to endorse Barack Obama, remaining a firm supporter of the candidate through to his election victory. Obama himself, a relative novice in Washington affairs, might have been hoping for Kennedy's heavyweight support in the passing of a healthcare bill.

Kennedy was an impressive legislator who could hardly transcend his flaws. He was neither a great politician - although he could turn a fine rhetorical phrase as well as his brothers - nor a bad one. In the end, his fame and prominence always promised more than he could deliver.

For a much more positive view of Kenendy's life and achievements, David Blackburn's Spectator blog post is worth reading.

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