Ted Kennedy: The Lyin’ of the Senate

© 2018 Steve Feinstein. All rights reserved.

The 2018 movie “Chappaquiddick” recounts the July 1969 incident in which then-Senator Ted Kennedy drove off a narrow bride on Chappaquiddick Island late at night, plunging into shallow water of Poucha Pond, killing his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne, a young campaign staffer.  The movie details Kennedy’s subsequent actions, his delay in reporting the occurrence to local officials and his meticulously-planned televised mea culpa that rescued his tottering political career. With Kennedy’s name and story being thrust back into the spotlight by this film, it’s an opportune time to re-examine his long role on the national scene.

Theodore (Ted) Kennedy—the fourth and youngest son of Joe Kennedy Sr.—was arguably the most influential player of the entire Kennedy political clan. Although he never made it to the presidency, his impact on American culture, politics and society was far-reaching and has fundamentally altered this country’s direction in many ways. None of them good, unfortunately.

Here are some of the highlights of his long and storied career in the Senate:

1965 Immigration and Nationality Act

Other than abortion, probably no domestic issue flames the emotions and draws such sharp lines of political division as does the subject of immigration. The issues are well-known and it’s not necessary to recount them all here.  Suffice to say, once the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 became law, there was a fundamental shift in the ease and number of non-Northern European immigrants coming into the United States. In practical terms, the Act allowed the number—both legal and illegal— of Latino immigrants into the United States to increase precipitously.

Although Kennedy wasn’t an official author of the bill (it was known as the Cellar-Hart Act, named for NY Representative Emanuel Celler and Michigan Senator Philip Hart), he lent the full weight of his family name and personal political capital to supporting its passage. In the Senate only three years at the time (he was elected in November 1962 in a special election to fill the MA Senate seat vacated by President John F. Kennedy in 1960), his vociferous, passionate support of the Act was the first really major public policy success of his Senate career.

He championed this Act because he likely thought it would redound for decades to the profound benefit of the Democratic party. Many contend that Kennedy’s support was based strictly on demographic/political issues, because he knew (or was told) that opening up immigration to more Hispanics and Asians would swell Democratic voting coffers for generations to come. His critics would be quick to add that Kennedy was an upper-crust racist hypocrite who would never personally associate with the people the Immigration and Nationality Act was ostensibly designed to help.

It’s nearly impossible to divine the intents and motives of someone since deceased, more than a half-century after the fact. But regardless of Kennedy’s real objective, he played a pivotal role in helping pass the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which arguably altered the political and cultural course of this country as much or more than any other single piece of legislation has since.

1969 Chappaquiddick

As touched upon above, in July 1969 (over the moon landing weekend of July 18-20), Kennedy left a family party late at night and drove with young campaign staffer Mary Jo Kopechne to catch the Edgartown Ferry back to Martha’s Vineyard. Confused and tired, possibly from a few drinks at the party (although no one has ever claimed he was inebriated), Kennedy took a wrong turn and drove his car off a narrow bridge. Kennedy was unhurt, but Kopechne died in the accident.

The aftermath of the occurrence stands as Kennedy’s lasting contribution to the moral aspect of American politics and culture. His narcissistic, self-absorbed devotion to his own political fortunes, demonstrated by his leaving the scene of the accident and his stunning subsequent reluctance to immediately report it and take full responsibility, provided a veritable “how to” blueprint for unscrupulous individuals from that point forward as to how trusted people could evade accountability and blame. Trying to get the police report withheld so the NY Times and other major media outlets would focus instead on the historic first moon landing happening that same weekend, the behind-the-scenes scheming of the best way to orchestrate an effective career-saving televised explanation/apology that would cast Kennedy more as a sympathetic victim of circumstance than perpetrator, are both concrete indications that Kennedy’s only real concern was professional self-preservation.

There is no illusion here that Kennedy was the first politician or powerful businessperson to try to get away with some egregious immoral blunder. However, his was perhaps the biggest, most public misstep by a major public figure up to that point in the television age of instantaneous media coverage. What happened with Kennedy was known worldwide in real time. The world learned and took the lesson that he essentially got away with it just as quickly, being granted absolution by the sympathetic media and the Kennedy-infatuated MA electorate alike.

In addition, the entire incident revealed beyond any doubt that there are indeed two levels of justice in this country: One for the average person and another for the favored and well-connected. Both lessons—how to evade responsibility and the fact that the well-connected will not be fully held to account—are permanent stains on the fabric of American culture and decency. If this incident was a dinner party, then Senator Ted Kennedy—with the famous family name revered by the liberal media and thus granted slack that no Republican could ever hope for—knocked over the wine glass onto the white carpet, never apologized to the host, and tried to blame the whole thing on the person sitting next to him—and then expected to be invited back next week.

The Rejection of Robert Bork, 1987

Robert Bork, a highly-respected scholar and judge, was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1987 by President Reagan. Being more conservative than the retiring Justice Lewis Powell that he’d be replacing, Democrats were determined to block Bork’s appointment and prevent the Court from tilting in a conservative direction.

The day that Bork was nominated, Kennedy made perhaps the most famous and influential speech of his entire career, a wildly histrionic speech in which he excoriated Bork, attacking his character with vitriolic falsehoods, gratuitous lies and totally fabricated innuendo:

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.

This was an astonishing speech coming from a supposed highly-respected leader of the country. The reality was, of course, that Bork was eminently qualified; he simply wasn’t in philosophical lockstep with the Democratic Party.

Kennedy’s performance during the Bork episode can plausibly be thought of as the beginning of the modern-day liberal media bias era as we know it today. His comments and behavior were blatantly and intentionally inaccurate, intended to shape public perception. The news outlets—overwhelmingly populated by liberal correspondents and writers—never questioned Kennedy’s statements or assertions of Bork’s unfitness. They never questioned his motives or inquired about his sources. Instead, they played his incendiary comments over and over, unchallenged, unquestioned, as if it was news, not opinion.

Stunned into non-action, the Republicans never did mount any kind of counter to Kennedy’s baseless attack. In 1987, there were no media/legal watchdog groups like today’s Media Research Center or Judicial Watch to get an opposing viewpoint out into the public space. Fox News was still ten years away. The Big Three television networks dominated the media landscape and their liberal slant pervaded virtually all the news coverage. Ted Kennedy, with a floor Senate speech born out of unabashed partisanship, personal animus and the brazen, apparent desire for self-aggrandizement, cleverly and knowingly leveraged a liberal media he knew would never challenge him and single-handedly engineered a major structural change to the country’s highest court system that would have repercussions decades into the future.

As President, John F. Kennedy didn’t have the chance to make a truly lasting mark on the American landscape. His greatest contributions were as much visual and aesthetic as they were policy: the notion of Camelot, the romance and adventurism of having begun the successful Space Program, the dramatic success of squirming out of the immediacy of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Similarly, Robert Kennedy—the “smartest” Kennedy—never got the chance to really establish his influence on the country, being cut down by an assassin’s bullet during the 1968 Democratic primary campaign, a campaign he seemed likely to win.

But Ted Kennedy, despite lacking his older brothers’ charisma, not being their intellectual equal and seemingly struggling his entire life for the approval of his father Joseph Kennedy Sr., the unapologetically ruthless head of the Kennedy political machine, has made a more lasting impact on American politics, society and culture than any of his brothers. Ted’s actions have left a permanent negative mark on America in terms of demographics, voting, morality and law.

Kennedy’s revisionist-history sycophants have coined the term the “Lion of the Senate” to describe his 47 years of supposedly unselfish, meritorious, crucial work on behalf of the American people. With a minor spelling adjustment, it’s an apt term indeed.

 

 

Comments

  • Terrie McPhee

    I think your term is more apt. Well written as usual…