Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Ted Kennedy's Legacy, Appropriately Presented in Shades of Grey
As is true with many Americans, I grew up in a household where Ted Kennedy was a profanity, not a inspirational invocation. My father, like most conservatives I know, pointed to Chappaquiddick as indisputable evidence that Ted currently needed to be in jail, not in the United States Senate. Though I was raised by parents who were openly and unashamedly hostile to the very name Kennedy and anything attached to it, as an adult I came to reject their sentiments and in so doing make my own ideological way. I briefly call attention to my life history to explain as best I can why much of the adulation and waxing nostalgic flowing from the mouths of liberals from a different generation than my own (as well as media figures similarly inclined) rings utterly hollow for me. I envision many of them waiting for the end of the day whereby they can have a drink or two and, after reaching an optimum level of intoxication, share stories about Uncle Teddy.
I flatter myself into thinking I might possess a kind of objectivity that older liberals now wistfully spinning yarns about the good old days aren't capable of entertaining. Ted Kennedy's life, as I have observed it, was a mass of contradictions: a personal life full of tragedy and character failings, but a public life overflowing with legislative successes. And for those of a different sensibility, those who believe that sowing bad behavior, selfishness, and immorality into the universe produces an ample and justly deserved harvest of sorrow, misery, and pain, they need only look into the life of the man as proof. While I personally am not that callous nor am I that sanctimonious, one needs only take into consideration the attitudes of many on the right at this moment as proof of that. Let it be known that I make my points below not to denigrate Senator Kennedy's legacy, but to make note of the fact that many of our stars and inspirational leaders also led highly imperfect lives themselves.
A great number of influential people have courted high levels of controversy in their relatively short period of time here on Earth. The poet, critic, and intellectual known as Ezra Pound contributed mightily to modernist theory and a new direction in poetry, but also favored Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's brand of fascism. Pound gave a series of radio broadcasts in Italy brilliantly defending an ideology based on anti-Semitism and advancing the policies of a reactionary military dictatorship. Italy was, after all, an enemy of the Allied powers and in league with Hitler's Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. Following the War, Pound was brought to justice back in the United States and spent twelve years in an asylum, having been ruled by a federal grand jury not guilty by reason of insanity. At the time, many believed that Pound was completely sane and did not show the clear-cut signs of deranged psychosis that would have been the determining factor to establish conclusively that he was truly out of touch with reality. And even so, this treasonous act was not enough to keep Pound's works out of literature textbooks or to keep his ideas from being freely discussed by scholars into the current day.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., justifiably championed as a highly inspirational torchbearer in the Civil Rights Movement, did, much like Kennedy, resort to academic dishonesty on at least one occasion. King plagiarized certain sources in his doctoral dissertation, though they were not discovered until years later. And, again like Kennedy, King was nagged by persistent rumors that he was a womanizer and adulterer. While these accusations of both mens' infidelity have never been confirmed in any wholesale fashion, they nevertheless have been at least suggested by those in their inner circle. In this day, we are quick to judge the indiscreet discretion of John Edwards, Mark Sanford, and John Ensign but one wonders if the actions of Kennedy and King would have come to light in a different, pre-Watergate, pre-investigative journalist era. If one operates on the premise that where there's smoke, there's fire, who knows what might have made its way onto a blog back then.
Those who forgive Ted Kennedy's numerous failings attempt to weigh the good he accomplished alongside the bad judgments and poor decisions made in his personal life that effectively doomed his chances at the Presidency or at a higher public profile than that of Senator. We often assume that those who sinned once or sinned frequently in a younger, more immature period in their life have neither the inclination nor the ability to change their conduct for the better. If we applied that same standard to each of us individually, then I daresay most of us would be on trial in the court of popular opinion for something. I certainly would include myself in that scenario. As it stands, I happen to believe that Kennedy was his own worst enemy and that the person he injured most was himself. That he was able to accomplish great good as a counter-weight to his human side speaks volumes to the fact that no human life is without merit. His tortured, tangled personal life might also be a potent lesson to teach us that those who make a conscious effort to lead a moral life never need to worry about having something to hide nor have to take great pains to always look over their shoulder.