Trunk, I enjoyed your post on Noemie Emery’s piece about the decline of the Kennedy dynasty. I think Emery is correct in assigning much of the blame to the Clan’s leftward turn. However, based on the excerpt you posted, I think she assigns too much of that responsibility to Ted Kennedy — or, more precisely, fails to appreciate Robert Kennedy’s responsibility. For it was RFK who transformed the Kennedy’s from pragmatic, hard-headed centrists into bleeding-heart liberals. Ted Kennedy was not cut-out to blaze new trails, and he didn’t in this case. He merely tried to follow the trail blazed by his brother Bob during the 1968 campaign.
It’s fun to speculate about why RFK went down that path. Was he simply trying, Howard Dean-like, to get to the left of Gene McCarthy for purposes of winning the Democratic nomination? Did he conclude, as the 1960s wore on, that the Kennedy legacy would be better served by aligning itself with “flower power?” Was he (always something of the family outsider) rebelling against his pragmatic father and older brother? Or did his sympathies actually lie with the “wretched of the earth” (excluding, for purposes of running in California, the Palestinians)?
Who can say? All we really know is that his “radical” 1968 campaign came to dominate the Kennedy legacy, trumping years of centrist pragmatism. And it’s not difficult to understand why. One can hardly blame Ted Kennedy for wanting to see his brothers as martyred idealists, gunned down in service of humanity, instead of practical politicians killed by a disgruntled Communist and Palestinian, respectively. And one can also understand why Ted Kennedy figured he could follow RFK’s path with political impugnity, given the power of the family legend.
It turned out, however, that 1968 was a one-of-a-kind election and the 1960s were a one-of-a-kind decade. By the mid-1970s at the latest, JFK could have told him this. RFK could have too, assuming that his conversion to a kind of radicalism wasn’t a complete “freak out.” But no Kennedy since JFK or RFK seems to have quite figured this out. And, in any case, Ted Kennedy long ago stopped caring.
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