Ted Kennedy and the odor of holiness

In the midst of the hallelujah chorus of praise that greeted the death of Ted Kennedy last month, several conservative commentators, including myself, sounded a sour note. Kennedy’s lifelong addiction to cheating and womanizing; his callous (not to say felonious) behavior in that Chappaquiddick affair, when he left Mary Jo Kopechne to asphyxiate while he worked out an appropriate alibi and let his blood alcohol level drop; his brutal behavior towards his first wife, Joan; his histrionic and mendacious performance on the Senate floor during Robert Bork’s confirmation hearings — Kennedy stood before a battery of television cameras and emitted a series of lies about one of our greatest jurists in order to keep him off the Supreme Court: these were prominent items in the bill of indictment that Kennedy’s critics put forward. Perhaps the most egregious tort — in some ways even worse than his behavior at Chappaquiddick — was what Peter Robinson called Kennedy’s “Soviet Gambit,” his approach to Yuri Andropov, the Soviet leader, in 1983. “Kennedy’s message,” Mr. Robinson observed, “was simple. He proposed an unabashed quid pro quo. Kennedy would lend Andropov a hand in dealing with President Reagan. In return, the Soviet leader would lend the Democratic Party a hand in challenging Reagan in the 1984 presidential election.”


Mr. Robinson, quoting from a a memorandum that came to light after the Soviet Union fell, noted that “Kennedy made Andropov a couple of specific offers.”

First he offered to visit Moscow. “The main purpose of the meeting, according to the senator, would be to arm Soviet officials with explanations regarding problems of nuclear disarmament so they may be better prepared and more convincing during appearances in the USA.” Kennedy would help the Soviets deal with Reagan by telling them how to brush up their propaganda.

Then he offered to make it possible for Andropov to sit down for a few interviews on American television. “A direct appeal … to the American people will, without a doubt, attract a great deal of attention and interest in the country. … If the proposal is recognized as worthy, then Kennedy and his friends will bring about suitable steps to have representatives of the largest television companies in the USA contact Y.V. Andropov for an invitation to Moscow for the interviews. … The senator underlined the importance that this initiative should be seen as coming from the American side.”

Andropov never closed the deal. But what does it tell us that around the time Ronald Reagan confronted the monstrous tyranny of Soviet Communism, calling it the “Evil Empire,” Ted Kennedy was reaching out to Soviet leaders offering to help them in exchange for partisan political favors? If it didn’t have such an antique sound to our sophisticated, cosmopolitan ears, I’d say the word “treason” about summed up Kennedy’s mission to Moscow.


But there is another, sadder aspect to the story of Ted Kennedy that didn’t attract the comment it deserved. I mean Kennedy’s apologia pro vita sua that he sent to the Pope. Writing at Armavirumque, the weblog of The New Criterion, James Piereson explores Kennedy’s last, epistolary plea for — or perhaps I should say “demand for” — exceptional treatment. While he acknowledges that he had “fallen short through human failings,” Kennedy presents his record as a staunch liberal — hi battle “to champion the rights of the poor and open doors of economic opportunity. . . [to] expand access to health care and education,” as reasons for forgiveness and salvation. As Mr. Piereson notes, Kennedy’s letter conspicuously omits any mention of his battle for abortion, gay marriage, and other items high on the liberal agenda but anathema to the Church. The most telling thing about Kennedy’s letter, however, is its expression of the conviction that liberal sentiments automatically conduce to moral exoneration. Kennedy argues — rather, he assumes — that because he battled on behalf of government intervention to help the poor, etc., he therefore is worthy of exoneration.

The presumption is breathtaking. As Mr. Piereson asks,


If Sen. Kennedy was a champion of the Catholic Church, what then does this say about Judge Bork, or any of us, Catholic or not, who doubt that federal intervention is the best way to expand opportunity or access to health care and education, or who are convinced that low taxes and limited government provide the surest means of preserving liberty while promoting prosperity for all?

Well, we know what it says: for liberals of the Kennedy stamp, you either espouse the “progressive” idea that big government is the best way to help make society better or you are cast into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Kennedy’s letter tells us a lot about the liberal presumption of virtue, and it also tells us a lot about the how liberal ideology poaches upon the energy of religion in order to ratify its political agenda. It is important to recognize the novelty of this development. Hitherto, as Mr. Piereson notes, if

secular doctrines like Marxism or nationalism [were seen as] “substitutes” for religion, . . . such a charge could never be made against liberalism because the architects of liberal governments saw religion and politics as separate domains that imposed different but not inconsistent requirements upon the individual citizen. . . . [T]he central idea was that liberty can be achieved through politics and salvation through religion, but the two should never be confused or intertwined lest we ask too much of politics and too little of religion.


Kennedy’s letter betokens a new wrinkle in the liberal dispensation. “By identifying his religion so closely with his political program,” Mr. Piereson observes, “Sen. Kennedy’s letter reminds us how difficult it can be to maintain such distinctions even in a secular age — and also that conservative Christians are far from the only ones who may be charged with mixing religion and politics.”


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