Fighting Words

Redemption Song

Assessing the media version of the Kennedy “legacy.’

Ted Kennedy

By the time I came across the full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times, I had become so numb and habituated that the thing barely managed to register as grotesque. On an otherwise almost uncluttered expanse of paper appeared the words, “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” There followed the name of the politician who once read those words aloud. As I say, this seemed perfectly in keeping with the determination of the American mass media not to give up until every child in the country, if not the world, could lisp the deathless words of Bob Shrum by heart. At the bottom of the page in smaller letters appeared the injunction, “Let us continue his legacy of faith in the people and faith in the work that has yet to be done.” That, too, could have come from almost any tribute uttered since Aug. 26. Last of all came the Levi’s logo and the blunt exhortation: “Go Forth.” (To do what? Multiply? Now that the Kennedys could all do.)

When mindlessly and endlessly reiterated, ordinary words begin to lose their anchorage in original meaning. Dream is now so vague as to be strictly without content, and, with strong assistance from Barack Obama, hope is rapidly going the same way. (Twice on Saturday I heard the closing words of the Roman Catholic funeral liturgy, which sonorously intone “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.” If this means anything, it means not that there is anything certain about the prospect of the resurrection but that people sure think that there is something certain about hoping for it.)

One of the many dreadful aspects of the Kennedy “legacy” is the now-unbreakable grip of celebrity politics, image-doctoring, stage management, and “torch passing” rhetoric in general. One of the film-archive obits showed an early moment when this began to happen. In 1962, despite having been all but fixed up by his family for the Massachusetts Senate seat, Edward Kennedy (as I feel I must call him since I didn’t know the man) ran into a tough and articulate primary opponent named Edward J. McCormack, the state’s attorney general. The old footage shows McCormack getting some mileage with his charge of family coat-tailing and carpet-bagging—and then a sort of light coming on in Kennedy’s eyes as he bluffs away and says that the election is nothing to do with his ability to peddle influence in Washington but instead concerns “the destiny” of the people of Massachusetts. As the cheap applause starts to rise and it hits McCormack that times have changed, you can almost see the hereditary senator-to-be thinking aloud: This is too easy.

The surviving family must have been thinking the same, as the whole Camelot replay rolled once again unchallenged across the national screen. But perhaps by now they take it as their due. Sure, the “tragedy” of Chappaquiddick had its necessary moment, but even in those days Barbara Walters was doing her damage control, and it was amazing to see a clip of Walter Cronkite referring deadpan to the “driving accident” that had kept Kennedy away from the Senate. It must take some ingenuity at the networks, even so, to simply airbrush the fascist sympathies and bootlegging background of Joseph Kennedy Sr., his sons’ murder campaigns in Cuba, the recruitment of the mafia for same, the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam, the increasingly frantic and pathetic narco-addictions of JFK, the exploitation of unstable broads like Marilyn Monroe, and so much else besides.

In some ways, this banana-republic coverage was a disservice even to the recently departed. After all, it was in part the case that the youngest brother had lived down the criminal and narcissistic and power-mad background of his family. His best biographer, Adam Clymer, wrote, on the morning after he died, that it was arguably wrong to see a discontinuity in Kennedy’s career and that he had actually been a decent-enough legislator before abandoning any yearning for the White House after 1980. This may be true as far as it goes, but the obituaries would still have had to be somewhat different in tone, even given the servility of the journalistic profession, if Kennedy had died at the time of the Au Bar episode in Palm Beach, for instance, and had not decided to take some kind of a pull on himself and become a citizen again instead of a drone.

A former Senate staffer of his stopped by for a drink last week and told me that, without fanfare, the socialist president of Chile had come in person to the Kennedy home a few months ago to bestow one of her nation’s highest human rights awards on him. His work on that subject alone was a part atonement for his siblings’ deployment of what Lyndon Johnson himself called “a goddam Murder Incorporated” in the Southern Hemisphere. So, of course, was his labor on health care (where Richard Nixon had a better political track record than the Kennedy administration) and his last decision to keep looking life in the face for as long as he had breath. In those waning months, after being disgusted by malicious anti-Obama propaganda being spread in the Democratic primaries—later picked up and used by the right in the general election—he withdrew his support from a candidate whose victory would have meant the continuation of the dynastic politics represented by the family names Bush, Gore, and Clinton. What a favor he did us all by that repudiation! And how fitting that it should have been a Kennedy who did it. The political rhetoric of Obamaism, alas, is even more bloviating at times than Camelot was, but you can’t have everything.

It is true, then, and not just in America, that people do instinctively respond to redemption, atonement, the making up for missed opportunities and squandered time. Call no man happy until he is dead, as the Greeks had it. Kennedy’s very last year was quite possibly his best, and how many men or women will be able to say that?