The appearance of Sen. Ted Kennedy on the Democratic stage in Denver last night needs the narrative ministrations not of a journalist, but of a novelist — and a superb novelist at that. Perhaps there was such a person in the TV audience, attuned to the immense appetite for life, in all its rich array, that propelled a mortally sick man to stand up before the crowd and declare that nothing could keep him away — and yet also attuned to the failures of character and flaws of vision, nursed by decades of power and privilege, that make this man a terrible guide for our nation’s future. If a story rich in the full dimensions of this lion’s last roar is to be written, it could hardly be published until well after this election and a great many more things — on which hang matters of life and death for a great many people — have been decided.
In the moment, there is an etiquette we accord to those engaged in mortal struggles, and a respect we render to those who do not go gentle into that good night. It would be wild folly, however, and a betrayal of future generations, to translate that wholesale into an embrace of all they have stood for. Watching the Kennedy tribute last night, in which the sea was invoked as the element of renewal, I wondered how many others in the audience thought of Chappaquiddick and Mary Jo Kopechne — left to die in the submerged car while Ted Kennedy meandered off to salvage his political career , a career symbolized in last night’s film tribute by that expensive sailboat with Kennedy at the wheel and family aboard.
The year of Chappaquiddick was 1969. John McCain was then two years into his more than five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.
These are the dramas in which we discern not only clues to the character of a politician, but hints of our own struggles with courage, cowardice and mortality. They are far more gripping than the details of debates over tax policy, the progress and pitfalls of diplomacy, threats gathering in places far away, and whether “universal healthcare” portends a golden age, or the drab and unhealthy realities of socialized medicine. Politics feeds on symbols, fictions, images that linger in memory in ways that humdrum policy debates and practicalities do not. But I keep remembering a speech that the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa gave more than 20 years ago in New York. It was before the age of google and the internet, and I cannot now find a copy of the text, but the gist of it was this: he warned that art and politics have separate roles to play in our lives, and when the two become too much entwined — beware.