It is traditional in our culture to sum up the accomplishments and sins of those who have died and weigh the relative pluses and minuses to arrive at a rough approximation of their net worth to society and the impact they made on their fellow man.
This practice is not idiosyncratic to Westerners, although there are many tribal cultures where it is not permissible or polite to speak of the dead at all. But perhaps it is the influence of Christianity, and the knowledge of believers that one who dies will face the eternal judge, which compels us to engage in this exercise.
If I died, the skein of my life would reveal some good, some bad, and much that is a combination of both. An obit writer at my local paper would no doubt ignore the bad, highlight the good things I’ve done, and send me off to the hereafter making it appear from his writing as if I was a candidate for a harp and wings.
But I am not a world-historical figure like Ted Kennedy. And while there are many in the media and on the left who can’t resist hagiography, plumbing the thesaurus to find ever more lofty expressions of weepy gratitude for being able to share space on planet Earth with such a titan, some on the right take the opposite tack. Many of Kennedy’s political foes cannot find enough bad things to write about him, barely acknowledging what most historians consider to be one of the most consequential Senate careers in U.S. history.
It would seem then that in the case of someone who has made such a substantial impact on his world while alive, there is not much middle ground to plow — or perhaps none that both sides would acknowledge. This is especially true in judging Ted Kennedy’s life, because for four decades he was either the symbol of hope or the devil incarnate, depending on which side of the ideological divide you fell.
How then to accurately judge the worth of the man? In this case, it must be how Kennedy impacted an ever-widening circle of humanity, beginning with family, then friends, then neighbors, and on and on, spiraling outward until perhaps you reach a small hovel on an Indian reservation where a little girl has received decent medical care because Ted Kennedy fought to make the government accountable for it. Does Kennedy’s good work with the Indian child cancel out all the betrayals of friends and family he is responsible for in his life? Even if you were to multiply that good deed by millions?
I think much more weight should be given to the initial rings in that expanding circle to be able to accurately judge the man. After all, Kennedy’s beneficence toward the poor was not achieved using his own or his family’s money. His victories came courtesy of the American taxpayer and their exhaustive generosity toward those less fortunate. Kennedy and his ilk wouldn’t have been able to get elected dog catcher unless the American people saw merit in spending to fund programs Kennedy fought for and gave people like the Massachusetts senator their vote.