What To Make of Teddy K?

Ted Kennedy made an emotional appearance at the Democratic convention tonight, and reprised the last line of a speech he gave, to great applause, in 1980: “The work begins anew, the hope rises again and the dream lives on.”

But what, exactly, is the dream? The dream of Democrats occupying the White House and again being able to parcel out jobs in the Executive Branch, as best I can tell. Too, there is something odd about harkening back to 1980, when Ronald Reagan carried 44 states, sweeping to victory against Jimmy Carter, who also will address the Democrats’ convention. Do Democrats really remember that year fondly, and do they really want to draw the parallel implicit in the Kennedy/Carter deja vu?

What’s more interesting to me, though, is what we conservatives should make of Ted Kennedy. It’s hard to get past Chappaquiddick, the facts of which are far more discreditable to Kennedy than most people realize. He left Mary Jo Kopechne to die under circumstances where, if he had not given priority to preserving his political career, she might well have been saved. He passed by one house after another where he might have called the emergency rescue squad, and instead sought out his cousin Joe Gargan, whom he implored to take the fall for him. When Gargan refused, he divided the remainder of the night between phone calls to the family lawyer and attempts to establish an alibi by repeatedly wandering down to the lobby of the hotel where he was staying and engaging the hotel clerk in a conversation about the time of night. Never, apparently, did he give a thought to the young woman whom he left dying in his submerged car.

Nor was Kennedy a callow youth when these events occurred. He was 37 years old at the time. Still, he was treated by the family’s advisers as a fool, sent to fly a kite on the beach while they deliberated how to handle the crisis.

Is it possible to put these events aside and view Kennedy with respect? Actually, I think it may be. Kennedy is an old-fashioned Irish pol whose real strength is constituent service. He has never properly atoned for the test of character that he so miserably failed at Chappaquiddick, but he has devoted himself for many years to being a hard-working Senator. His left-wing views are misguided, I think, but he has promoted them with evident sincerity. More important, he has tirelessly seen to the nuts and bolts of Senatorial service. Mitt Romney has said that when he needed to pursue federal legislation on behalf of Massachusetts, John Kerry was useless. Kerry couldn’t be bothered to bestir himself on behalf of his constituents. Ted Kennedy, on the other hand, was cooperative and effective in working with Romney to get things done on behalf of Massachusetts.

Can that kind of service constitute redemption? That’s not for us to judge, but I do think Kennedy deserves respect as a knowledgeable and effective legislator. Whether he should be viewed as a moral arbiter, instructing the rest of us in how to hope and dream, is something else.

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