“In Kennedy, the Last Roar of the New Deal Liberal,” proclaimed the New York Times‘ “Week in Review” Sunday section in summarizing the late Senator’s career. There’s another way they might have put it: “Ted Kennedy: The Man Forever Stuck in the 1930s.”
With the Last Liberal Lion now laid to rest, it is worth pausing a moment to evaluate what the career of the third-longest-sitting Senator in history (behind only Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond) was all about. Like Thurmond and Byrd, Kennedy came from a baronial state where the traditional centers of wealth and power are rarely challenged by newcomers. This kind of politics fit the New Deal perfectly. Its strongest support was in the urban centers of the East Coast and in the populist dynasties of the Old South — home of John Stennis and Earl and Huey Long. In these states the principle had long been established that “the masses” were exploited and victimized by Big Business and it was the business of politicians to intercede on their behalf or else they would be denied the basic sustenance of life.
Thus, the prevailing image of the New Deal was the Leaders and the Masses, the Shepherds and their Flocks, the People and the Politicians, united against the Malefactors of Great Wealth. Kennedy and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party have never entirely given up on this model. During the funeral there was endless mention of the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless, the dispossessed, the excluded, the gay — any of the myriad of constituencies into which the populace can be sliced and then assigned to its Democratic shepherd. (“I doubt if even the poor spend this much time talking about the poor at their own funerals,” said one person I was watching with.) There is logic to all this. Democrats embrace ACORN and its organized voter fraud, motor-voter laws, amnesty for illegal immigrants — maybe even inviting half of Mexico into the country — because all this promises the votes to keep them in power.
Thus, for Ted Kennedy, the Reagan Revolution was simply a rebirth of the Fifth Avenue dowagers who exulted (according to Peter Arno’s cartoon in The New Yorker), “Let’s go down to the Trans-Lux and hiss Roosevelt.” He never quite matched the Medieval imagery of Mario Cuomo, who saw Reagan’s America as the land of “the lucky and the left-out, the royalty and the rabble.” His image of himself was that he was not one of the “idle rich” but actively engaged in righting wrongs and helping the downtrodden. As Evan Thomas wrote this week in Newsweek, “His own ideology seems to have been rooted in liberal guilt: since the rich have a lot (like good health care), why shouldn’t the poor? Kennedy’s gifts were more of the heart than the head.”
What Kennedy and other liberals never wanted to acknowledge, however, is that when the “active rich” reach out to help the poor, they must reach over that vast muddle-in-the-middle who are neither rich nor poor but middle class and trying to make their own way. The people who oppose New Deal politics are no longer society ladies who want to hiss Roosevelt. They are Joe the Plumber, the Babbits, the Sammy Glicks — all the “men and women on the make” (that’s Woodrow Wilson’s phrase) who never show up well in films and literature but who are the mainstay of the economy and the backbone of the nation. These are the people holding “Tea Parties” and storming Town Halls protesting Obamacare. They are not glamorous. They aren’t invited to celebrity funerals. They aren’t even mentioned at them. All they want is make their own way and be left alone by the government. They have no use for liberal politicians and therefore liberals have no use for them.
Kennedy never met a tax cut he didn’t oppose, a federal program he didn’t like. He would have been happy to raise taxes to 50 percent or more in European fashion — all this in the name of “taxing the rich and helping the poor.” Yet as numerous analysts have pointed out, income taxes — the main source of this revenue — don’t really target “the rich.” Instead, they tax people who are trying to become rich, who are working hard to build their fortunes. People who are already rich aren’t affected very much by income taxes because they don’t have to depend on earned income. If that profile fits a certain Senator from the State of Massachusetts, well then maybe it isn’t too surprising.
I’ve never begrudged Senator Kennedy the outcome at Chappaquiddick. I thought he paid his dues on that by forfeiting the presidency. Without Chappaquiddick, Kennedy almost certainly would have been the Democratic nominee in 1972 or 1976 and could have won the presidency in either of them. What we got instead was the immortal ghost of Camelot, the eternal torchbearer of the “Dream That Will Never Die,” his famous 1980s Convention keynote address that was in fact the valedictory for his one unsuccessful run at the presidency.
And what was “the Dream”? Basically, it was the idea that large swathes of the American populace — a majority, even — would remain perpetually dependent on the government. No new centers of economic wealth or political power would ever arise to challenge the social configuration of the 1930s — when the old patriarch, Joe Kennedy, successfully made the transition from being a malefactor of great wealth (and reputed rum-runner) to a respectable member of the new establishment by being appointed the first Director of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
So is the Dream really over? Well, maybe not. In a perfect replica of European dynastic succession, all of Massachusetts is now holding its breath to find out whether Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the heir apparent, will give up his peerage as Duke of the Hudson Valley in order to take title to the Kennedys’ Bay State Barony. Should he deign to run for the vacant Senate seat, Kennedy the Younger would be inheriting the peerage that has been in the family since 1954 — except for a brief year interregnum between 1960 and 1962 when Benjamin Atwood Smith II, a former Harvard fullback, was appointed to fill the time between which John F. Kennedy moved up to the presidency and Edward Kennedy turned 30 so he could legally inherit the estate.
Like a loyal vassal, Smith was appointed U.S. ambassador to an international fisheries conference in 1963 in reward for his services.