Kennedy’s fingerprints are all over the modern welfare state, and beyond that, he has made his mark on the quiet, sometimes desperate lives of the working poor who are better off today because of his advocacy. But there are many more motivations at play in Kennedy’s achievements besides pure altruism — something that would be truly commendable — and only Kennedy and his God can answer to what they were. Because of that, while it can be said that Kennedy’s legislative record is startling in its breadth and depth, you cannot separate a man’s good works from what drove him to work toward those worthy goals in the first place. The petty and the sublime walk hand in hand with the motivations of politicians, always a mix of the crass and the refined.
One might argue that it was simple human decency that drove Ted Kennedy to fight so hard for the poor, but we have ample examples from the rest of Kennedy’s life that would give the lie to that proposition. Decent human beings do not act the way Kennedy acted on the night of July 18, 1969, when Mary Jo Kopechne’s life was cut short by the senator’s cowardly actions and his subsequent lies making a mockery of justice. Decent human beings do not treat with such lewd contempt the numerous women who complained of Kennedy’s harassment over the years. Decent human beings do not literally drive their wives to drink and despair with their philandering ways.
There’s much more, of course, that belongs on the negative side of the Kennedy ledger that even some of his more honest supporters admit. But they point to his 40-year record of accomplishment in the Senate, the lives he made better, the dignity he gave many, the hope he engendered in the breasts of the downtrodden. All of this should wash away his personal failings as a moral man as well as his reprehensible and probably criminally negligent actions that awful night on Chappaquiddick Island.
But isn’t Kennedy then also responsible for the dark underbelly of the welfare state? The unintended consequences of his “compassion” led to a riot of disasters including the creation of a permanent underclass, the breakup of the black family, the disgrace that is public housing — this too, and more, is Ted Kennedy’s legacy of caring.
That’s why, in the end, it is futile to use Kennedy’s public accomplishments to judge him as a man. We might judge his impact as a world-historical figure using his public actions, but it must be in the private sphere of a man’s life — his impact on those closest to him — that ultimately he is seen as a success and failure.
In Kennedy’s case, the bag is mixed. He has never admitted to being an alcoholic, so blaming his contemptible behavior on disease is, by his own admission, not possible. We must assume his drinking, carousing, harassment, cruelty, and other transgressions against decency and probity were the result of deliberate and conscious malfeasance.
But on the other hand, it is apparent from watching him and his family since the diagnosis of brain cancer that there is a close bond with his children, his nieces and nephews, and his wife Vickie. Despite all of his shortcomings — many of which he acknowledged publicly — it can also be said that Kennedy’s impact on those close to him has not been all bad and that he left this life as someone who was loved and cherished by his wife, children, and many Kennedy relations.
For the rest, perhaps it would be best to leave the real judging to God and posterity.