Taking Ted Kennedy for Granted
“Now, there are some who would look at my past and say, ‘Why?’ I choose to look at my past and say, ‘So what?’”
That was Bill Murray, doing his best Ted Kennedy early in SNL‘s fifth season, just as the 1980 campaign was kicking into gear, and in a sketch written by someone who would later serve with Kennedy in the Senate’s Democratic caucus, on behalf of the state of Minnesota. That 1980 Democratic primary turned into a great debacle, of course, more ridiculous than Al Franken or anyone else on SNL would have dared predict, with Kennedy’s attempted hostile takeover of a Democratic incumbent, and all the great damage to the liberal cause that resulted. Ted Kennedy in his memoir, True Compass, wants to put the record straight on this as on so many other matters.
For one thing, Carter hadn’t been playing fair, you see. Just after Kennedy had announced, Illinois Senator Dan Rostenkowski promised his support, promised that he would “do the same for you in Chicago that we did for John Kennedy,” by which he meant, I think, that he would campaign vigorously and shore up a constituency, not cast crooked ballots in the names of dead people. Anyway, Rostenkowski’s support for Kennedy ultimately never materialized, and Teddy knows the reason: “Four days later, he announced for Carter, who had pushed through funding for Chicago’s transit system.” Apparently, Carter never got the memo that only Kennedys are allowed to fight dirty.
Kennedy’s combat with Carter became so acrimonious that before long, fellow Democrats were begging him to drop out, lest the party incur irreparable damage before the general election. But Kennedy pretended to principle in his persistence. Maybe if Carter had given the issue of healthcare more of the respect and attention it deserved, then Kennedy wouldn’t have had to continue his fight. As for his handshake snub at the convention when Carter was finally nominated–Kennedy tells us there was no snub; it’s all just a mythological misunderstanding of history:
I shook the president’s hand, and then Mrs. Carter’s hand. I did not elevate his hand, and he made no effort to elevate mine. But then the press began to point out that I had not elevated Jimmy’s hand, and that became a sort spot that lasted, I suppose, to this day.
Kennedy still has some sore spots of his own from out of that campaign, even if it’s obvious to everyone by now that his talents were better suited to the senate than to the presidency. And, even if you’re prepared to give him the benefit of every doubt over what occurred on that bridge connecting Edgartown to the island of Chappaquiddick (a brief, bare-bones, matter-of-fact account of which is given here), it’s pretty safe to say that his actions, or at least lack of action, on that night rendered him unelectable in a general presidential contest.
His invocation of some kind of “Kennedy curse” in the speech he gave after the incident is maybe the most pathetic piece of political theater Americans had since Nixon’s Checkers disclosures, seventeen years earlier, and at least twice as despicable. Which is too bad, because if there’s one thing Ted Kennedy deserves credit for–and really there are many–it’s his tenacious endurance of preposterously persistent tragedy. He had no way of knowing, in 1969, that he was only seeing the first movement of his life’s cumulative tragedy–that there was a whole other act still to follow.
But the Kennedys caused their share of tragedies, too. I guess that’s inevitable any time you command a country as large as America and its military. But Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs seem so gratuitously tragic in retrospect that people far more mystical–and cynical–than I have invoked not a Kennedy Curse but Kennedy Karma.
Kennedy tells a couple of stories here that are meant to be cute but that in reality only confirm his oblivious sense of entitlement. Late for some stump-circuit junket he was supposed to attend on behalf of his brother Jack, in 1960, Teddy’s small plane landed in an open field somewhere and, in order to make it to the luncheon on time, he decided upon something that not all of us would instantly decide upon: he would steal an abandoned car, figuring that one of his supporters could drive it back. “I reached through a side window and started rummaging in the glove compartment and under the seat for a key, but came up empty. I figured I would start the car by crossing the wires. I’d never done that before in my life, but I’d seen it in the movies.” Anyway, the story has a happy ending, because Ted Kennedy ended up with a pistol pointed at his gut. This tale should provide some uplift for anyone with a car they’d rather not have hot-wired and broken into and driven around by some Kennedy or other who takes it for granted, by birthright, that his own immediate concerns are more important than the sanctity of your private property. The only bad news is that the guy with the pistol, the car’s owner, drove Kennedy to the event and he made it on time, and Kennedy got what he’d gone “there seeking: half a delegate,” so maybe the lesson didn’t register the way it should have.
The other adorable tale that Ted tells in this vein regards his mother, Rose. Wouldn’t you know it if that crazy old dame didn’t almost blow up the world once. What a character, that Rose. When the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its highest pitch, Nikita Khrushchev received word from the head of the KGB that Rose wanted Khrushchev to sign some of his books and send them out to her. “The transatlantic cables hummed with this baffling new development,” Ted writes.
“What in the world are you doing?!” Jack demanded, livid, when he got her on the phone. “The Russians won’t assume this is innocent! They’ll give it some interpretation! Now I have to get my CIA people speculating on what that interpretation might be! The strengths! The weaknesses! The contingencies!”
“The kicker,” Ted writes, “is that, after the threat of World War III had been defused, Khrushchev did send mother the books.” Yep, and Teddy “still chuckle[s]” when he remembers that one.
About his first marriage, to Joan Bennett, he is suitably sober and rueful (“I realize that Joan and I were young and naive about what it took to have a successful relationship”), and about his second and final marriage, to Victoria Reggie, he is effusive with gratitude. For nearly forty-seven years, until his death shortly before this book was published, Ted Kennedy kept tenaciously tackling the country’s problems, even as new ones arose all the time–challenging Supreme Court nominees who made Barry Goldwater look like a liberal, voting against the war in Iraq, winning assistance for the disadvantaged. All of this and more easily outweigh his misguided support for busing in Boston (legislation that was favored by neither whites not blacks), or his vote for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Kennedy was far from the only one to have his eyes hooded by LBJ on that one, and at least he lived, and endured in office, long enough to make up for it with his Iraq vote. I’m glad we’ll never have to know what would have happened to the country if Kennedy hadn’t prospered politically for so long. When in 1994 it looked like the unthinkable might occur–that he might actually lose his senate seat, to Mitt Romney–Vicki diagnosed the problem perfectly when she told her husband what the matter was: “You’ve become like a building to them,” the voters of Massachusetts–all of us who long ago obtained the luxury, now lost, of taking Ted Kennedy for granted.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 2 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 6 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook