He Kept the Flame

True Compass: A Memoir by Edward M. Kennedy, Twelve, 532 pages, $35.00

Only once in his nearly half-century as a United States senator did Ted Kennedy face a serious re-election challenge. It came from a young Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, in that most Republican of years, 1994. It came, as well, just three years after Kennedy's night out with his nephew William Kennedy Smith and the ensuing spate of tabloid stories that depicted Kennedy as a superannuated Prince Hal. 

By the time he met Romney for the campaign's first televised debate, the polls had the race dead even. In his memoir, True Compass, Kennedy recalls his nervousness as he was driven to Boston's Faneuil Hall, where the debate was to be held. Then, he recounts: 

I looked out of the window, and any remaining nervousness vanished. I saw a huge swell of people stretching for blocks. They carried Kennedy signs and chanted, 'Teddy! Teddy! Teddy!' It was like the old torchlight parades that Grampa [turn-of-the-century Boston Mayor John F. 'Honey Fitz' Fitzgerald] used to tell me about, and that he loved so much. I rolled down the car window, leaned out, raised my arm, and pumped my fist. My adrenaline was flowing. These were my people. They were working people. They were the people I had been representing for thirty-two years, and we still had work to do.

Several weeks later, Kennedy dispatched Romney by a healthy (58 percent to 42 percent) margin -- but let's stay with his remembrance of that scene for a moment, because it tells us so much about Kennedy and his all-too-distinct place in American politics. There's his visceral love of the rituals of politics, his sense of historic continuity (familial as well as political), his role as beloved tribal chief, and his strong sense of class as an (if not the) orienting principle of his politics. 

This was not, by 1994, an orientation universally shared by his fellow Democrats. For decades, the party had been losing the support of working-class whites (and gaining support among professionals). It had been complicit in the evisceration of American manufacturing and had generally grown more centrist in its economics. For Kennedy, however, the Democrats had an enduring compact with working Americans, one they had to renew every generation by enacting such policies as universal health care. Though the party moved rightward during the age of Reagan, Kennedy writes, "I maintained my conviction that the working-class majority forged by Roosevelt remained our best hope for justice and progress." 

The appreciations of Kennedy's achievements that followed his death this summer noted, of course, that he was the only one of the Kennedy brothers to be given a long career and that his list of accomplishments was, accordingly, a long one. But in measuring Ted's work alongside that of Jack and Bobby, another key difference also emerges: His brothers were liberal political leaders during an age of liberalism. Ted was liberalism's leading standard-bearer in a time of conservatism, a time when conservatism made inroads into his own political party. 

So despite his role in the liberal battles of the 1960s, the essential Ted Kennedy only truly emerged as he sought to keep the nation and his party from moving rightward in the 1970s -- most particularly, in his battles with Jimmy Carter, culminating with his challenge to Carter's re-nomination in 1980. It is Carter who gets the harshest treatment of any major figure in Kennedy's memoir -- but given the causes and battles that animated Kennedy's life, that shouldn't come as a surprise.

Two items headed Kennedy's bill of particulars against Carter: The president's reluctance to enact national health care and his response to the rising unemployment and inflation ("stagflation" was the term du jour then) of the late 1970s. Despite the assurances that Carter had given him on pursuing a health-care bill, and despite huge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Kennedy watched in dismay as Carter declined to move on the issue. Kennedy was even more upset as Carter responded to rising inflation by cutting federal employment programs and installing a Federal Reserve chief (Paul Volcker) whose strategy for reducing inflation was to increase unemployment. These were policies that no Democratic president since Grover Cleveland had enacted, and as Kennedy saw it, those policies broke the Democrats' covenant with working Americans that ran back not only to Franklin Delano Roosevelt but to Jefferson and Jackson as well.

Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign was legendarily a mess in its early months, but once it got on track and he began winning primaries (too late, alas, for him to amass enough delegates to win the nomination), he became the nation's great liberal tribune, the role he was to play for the remainder of his life. His liberalism on social issues was nothing new, and in his memoir, he mentions with pride his campaign event in Los Angeles' gay community, the first such event ever held by a major presidential campaign. But what truly defined Kennedy was his economic agenda: He called for universal health care, spoke for increasing the government's commitment to full employment with public employment programs when necessary, and advocated policies of reindustrialization, just as the Midwest manufacturing belt was beginning to turn into our national Rust Belt. On inflation, he wasn't greatly specific, but it was only nine years since the Nixon White House had imposed wage and price controls: The memory of Keynesian economic management had not yet faded from the mind of man or from the liberal consciousness.

Would such a program have enabled Kennedy, had he actually won the nomination, to defeat Ronald Reagan in 1980? By 1980, the white backlash was in full swing, a phenomenon to which Kennedy was no stranger, having endured the fury of crowds composed of "his people" -- the heavily Irish American white working class of Boston -- during the battle over school busing that raged in his hometown in the mid-1970s. In his memoir, Kennedy acknowledges, "I don't know that I could have beaten Ronald Reagan. He was more than a candidate at that time; he was a movement." He planned to run against Reagan in 1984, we learn in the memoir, but so strong was the opposition of his three children to the idea that he dropped the plan altogether. 

So Kennedy took up the cause of opposing Reaganism in the Senate (his much maligned attack on Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork has subsequently been vindicated by Bork's own writings and speeches, which have displayed a mind even more medieval than Kennedy alleged). His commitment to progressive universal economic policies remained constant, even as such perspectives fell in and out of favor within the Democratic Party. They certainly suffused Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign and his push for universal health care, even as they underpin Barack Obama's drive for health care today.

I don't mean to convey the impression that Kennedy's memoir, in part the product of an oral history project he began in 2004, is primarily a chronicle of ideological and policy battles. It is, in fact, an engaging telling of Kennedy's storied life, including the warmest depiction we shall ever have, surely, of his formidable father; a loving re-creation of the Hyannis Port ménage; a trove of campaign stories full of the kind of ridiculous tales that emerge from any half-decent campaign; and the first extended discussion Kennedy has given of the events at Chappaquiddick since the speech he gave immediately following them. His anecdotes on the public figures he variously supported and opposed are recounted at greater length than his assessments of them; we see a meeting with President Reagan on whether to impose quotas on shoe imports subverted by Reagan's curiosity as to whether it's still possible to find a particular brand ("Bostonians"), and we get Kennedy's version of a tale also told in the new Bill Clinton?Taylor Branch book, how Robert Byrd took over a gays-in-the-military meeting with Clinton with an excruciatingly long disquisition on homosexuality in the late Roman republic. 

Above all, this is the memoir of the man who more than any other sustained and renewed American liberalism in a conservative time and lived just long enough to see that time end (though not long enough, alas, to see liberalism ascendant once more). And if it doesn't do full justice to his achievements, it certainly helps us understand his life.

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