Political Hay

The Kopechne Effect

Teddy's death resurrects memories liberals want to bury.

By 8.28.09

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Thursday afternoon, libertarian journalist David Weigel sent out a message on Twitter that struck me as profound: "The proliferation of liberal media watchdogs has led to much, much, much more repetition of what conservatives say."

Watchdogging is perhaps the sincerest form of media flattery. If what was written and said by conservatives on the Internet, radio and TV had no influence on public discourse, liberals would not be constantly monitoring Mark Levin, Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin. What is amusing, to anyone directly familiar with the haphazard operating environment of right-wing communications, is the liberal suspicion that everything conservatives do is carefully orchestrated.

When news broke that Ted Kennedy had died, many people had a reaction quite similar to my own: "Mary Jo Kopechne could not be reached for comment." It's an old line I'd used often over the years whenever Teddy made news. While I thought I'd stolen it from Ann Coulter, someone else said it actually originated more than two decades ago as a Chevy Chase punchline on Saturday Night Live.

Tasteless as that punchline may be, certainly liberals have often shown much worse taste in their utterances about dead Republicans who never killed any campaign aides. Turnabout may not always be fair play, but I was not the only American who thought the events of July 19, 1969, to have been the definitive moment in Senator Kennedy's career.

"The No. 1 search term at Google Trends Wednesday morning was 'Ted Kennedy.' Nos. 2 and 3: 'Mary Jo Kopechne' and 'Chappaquiddick,' wrote Politico's Michael Calderone, noting that not everyone was observing the Massachusetts Democrat's death in the hagiographic style of the mainstream press.

Consensus or conspiracy? The liberal watchdogs were vigilant, and Carly Carioli of the Boston Phoenix pounced, decrying evidence of "a right-wing smear campaign…an orchestrated movement" on the part of "ghoulishly insensitive right-wingers."

Oh, yes, like the conservative blogger who quite touchingly recalled Kopechne's civil-rights activism, and pondered what the promising 28-year-old might have become, had she lived.

Democrats immediately politicized Kennedy's death, seeking to enlist their departed comrade -- in a manner reminiscent of Weekend at Bernie's -- as the leading advocate for passage of health-care legislation. No liberal complained about that, but when some Republicans mentioned how Sen. Paul Wellstone's 2004 funeral became an ad hoc campaign rally, there was an outcry from the Left.

"It looks like word went out yesterday about what leading conservative voices should say about Ted Kennedy's death: complain about the memorial service that hasn't happened yet," wrote Steven Benen of the Washington Monthly.

All this watchdogging indicates a paranoid tendency among soi-disant "progressives," a fear that has its source in their own ideology. To the liberal True Believer, "rugged individualism" is not a lifestyle nor an attitude, but rather a false myth propagated by Republicans for political purposes. The liberal cannot admit that ballets and operas would exist without taxpayer support from the National Endowment of the Arts, nor that a family could provide for its health-care needs without government subsidies and bureaucratic superintendence.

Therefore, it never occurs to liberals that their political antagonists are capable of independent thought and action in the field of communications. If Mark Levin, Michael Reagan, Glenn Reynolds and Ann Coulter say similar things about any particular phenomenon -- e.g., the media's absurdly hagiographic tributes to Ted Kennedy -- this can only reflect a purposeful coordination of effort. Somewhere, there must be some right-wing Gepetto pulling the strings.

Note how this parallels the usual liberal explanations of how the world works. If a teenager skips school, smokes dope, hangs out with hoodlums, accumulates a record of juvenile crime and fails to graduate high school, no well-meaning liberal would ever suggest that this teenager is responsible for his own failures. No, if this youth turns 18 inside a jail cell, becomes a repeat offender when paroled, and spends the rest of his life as one more statistical data-point proving the "socio-economic inequality" that liberals insist the taxpayers must pay to alleviate, the criminal himself cannot be blamed.

Instead of considering the role of individual responsibility, the liberal habitually attributes all human misery to nebulous forces of evil -- greed, discrimination, "Corporate America" and so forth -- which serve as ready-made scapegoats in liberal demonology. Occasionally, when these reliable bogeymen lose their power to terrify the gullible, liberals will conjure up new demons -- global warming, suburban sprawl, Halliburton -- representing the evils from which liberals courageously offer to rescue the helpless citizenry.

This ideology of disempowerment, portraying the downtrodden as passive victims of malevolent forces beyond their control, expresses itself as paranoia whenever liberals find themselves at a political disadvantage. If President Obama's poll numbers are down, if conservatives seem on the verge of defeating the decades-old liberal dream of an all-encompassing federal health-care bureaucracy, the consistency of their worldview prevents liberals from accepting the most obvious explanations for these setbacks.

It cannot be that Obama is inept, or that citizens have examined and rejected as unworkable the legislation Democrats have proposed. Rather, the liberal believes, there must be some right-wing bogeyman to blame.

Enter -- deus ex machina, as it were -- the "orchestrated movement" that liberals so quickly perceived in the wake of Ted Kennedy's death. Even as MSNBC's Chris Matthews twisted himself into ridiculous knots to declare Obama "the new brother…of the Kennedy tradition," liberals fumed over the "right-wing smear campaign" which reminded America that Teddy's most memorable contribution to that tradition was to get drunk and drive an Oldsmobile off a bridge.

Whatever liberals want to blame on "ghoulishly insensitive right-wingers," we have yet to match that.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.