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.
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.