“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 would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.”
— Senator Ted Kennedy
“And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”
— Governor Sarah Palin
The story is about Winston Churchill.
The British statesman was a guest at a dinner in a private home. The dinner hour arrived and the guests made their way to the dining room. Churchill moved to a chair along the side of the table. Mortified, the hostess was quickly at his side, gesturing to the empty chair waiting for him. “Mr. Churchill,” she said, “your seat is at the head of the table.” To which Churchill responded in typical Churchillian style. “Madame,” he said, “wherever I sit is the head of the table.” And with that — the Great Man sat down where he was.
The story comes to mind as Senator Ted Kennedy is laid to rest amid praise that he was the “Lion of the Senate,” a man of whom it is said that when he spoke, a nation listened. Neither the Senate nor the nation necessarily followed — but they did listen.
Whatever one’s view of the late Senator, it would be hard to dispute this assessment. The famous statement he made within minutes of President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court is perhaps a classic example of this. Conservatives assailed Kennedy at the time — and it has been cited all over again in recent days as one of his less glorious moments as a senator.
Yet in fact this criticism of Kennedy’s Bork statement misses a very Churchillian fact.
Whether you liked what Ted Kennedy said that day or hated it, whether you loved Ted Kennedy or couldn’t stand him — millions of people paid attention to him when he said it. In fact, in that instance for better or worse, depending on one’s politics, Kennedy’s statement signaled not just that Bork would have a difficult time being confirmed. His blunt remarks from the Senate floor set the stage for Bork’s outright defeat, something initially considered impossible at the time. After all, Ronald Reagan was a popular president and Robert Bork was commonly considered by even opponents to be a legal giant. With his startling speech from the floor of the Senate, the sheer power of Ted Kennedy’s personality and rhetoric changed the course of history.
This is precisely what Churchill meant when he (perhaps rudely) told his hostess the obvious truth of the evening. Winston Churchill was dining in her home, and no matter where he sat, no matter whether he was in office or out, no matter the other guests, he quite indisputably would have the attention of everyone else at the table. He was, after all, Winston Churchill.
This is a rare quality in political leaders. In reality it’s a human trait, not a political one. Your Aunt Sally could possess Churchill’s “head of the table” characteristic and not your Uncle Jim. Yet in the rarefied world of politics, where there is by definition a handful of nationally prominent politicians at any given moment, possessors of Churchill’s “head of the table” trait stand out.
They possess, as did Winston Churchill, an unquantifiable capability that can not just electrify a room full of supporters but send them into passionate fits of ecstasy — while simultaneously sending opponents into a furious, foaming rage. If these politicians master the art of using this quality, they can instantly play a huge role in anything from a winning political campaign to driving a piece of legislation across the legislative finish line. Or stopping it.
By now, a year after her emergence on the national scene, it is crystal clear that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has this “head of the table” gene in spades. She is, in a remarkable way, the real heir — make that heiress — to Senator Kennedy. She is charismatic, she has a decided point of view and she is a lightning rod for controversy. Just as Kennedy managed to sink a once sure-thing Supreme Court nomination with his famous Bork speech, Governor Palin has managed to explode Section 1233 of the ObamaCare House bill with her vivid description of “death panels,” severely damaging the President’s entire legislative priority in the process.
Ted Kennedy was in fact always one of 100 senators at any given moment in his senatorial career. Any one of the other 99 could have been a star at the same time. In fact, only a handful had any lasting impact over the decades, most simply treading water in the historic body leaving nary a footprint behind. Sarah Palin is one of a number of nationally prominent Republican leaders, a field that includes senators, congressmen, governors and party officials. Most Americans had trouble at any moment from 1963 until this past week identifying more than a handful of U.S. Senators — but everybody knew Senator Kennedy. So too is Sarah Palin an instant standout among her Republican leadership peers, most of whom are unidentifiable to the vast American public.
It takes nothing away from Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee or Tim Pawlenty and others who may be presidential candidates the next time around, all of whom have had criticism of ObamaCare, to say that it was Sarah Palin almost single-handedly who has dealt a once hugely popular president a stunning defeat on a major aspect of his key legislative program. A feat accomplished she accomplished with a simple Kennedy-esque “Robert Bork’s America” style posting on her Facebook page.
In an article applauding Kennedy’s Bork speech, written after the Senator’s death, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin says in the New Yorker that Kennedy’s speech “was crude and exaggerated, but it galvanized the opposition as nothing else, and no one else, could”
Toobin, a liberal, is applauding the result — keeping Bork off the bench — because he agrees with it. What he overlooks here is that what Kennedy also launched that day was a way of speaking in the television soundbite age that might be labeled as visual shorthand. Toobin describes it exactly, however — a “crude and exaggerated” portrait of the issue at hand. The one word Toobin left out was effective, which Kennedy’s Bork speech most certainly was. Like Ted Kennedy, Sarah Palin has demonstrated her mastery of this political skill. Have liberals taken offense at her death panel description? Are you kidding? They are beside themselves with anger. But in true sauce for the goose and the gander style, if this “crude and exaggerated” technique can be used by Ted Kennedy to keep Robert Bork off the Supreme Court, Sarah Palin is well within the boundaries of acceptable political dialogue to describe the Obama health care plan as promoting the use of “death panels.”
Yet as Toobin also importantly noted about Kennedy’s Bork speech, it could only galvanize because “no one else” other than Ted Kennedy was capable of giving those words such an impact. In other words, this kind of language has to be used by a “head of the table” personality to have any serious impact. For anyone of less political heft than Kennedy to have tried the Bork speech would have resulted in, well, not much. There were plenty of liberals in the Senate in 1987, but it was Ted Kennedy who had the Churchill-sized clout. There are plenty of Republican leaders out there right now — a few saying some version of Palin’s words — but it is Palin with the Churchill-style “head of the table” clout who makes people sit up and pay attention.
Ironically, Ted Kennedy has bequeathed a modern televised style of rhetoric that has been used with considerable effect by Palin against the very plan that Kennedy spent a political lifetime championing. NPR’s Julie Rovner said of ObamaCare opposition that “opponents used fear as a key weapon in their arsenal.” If this is in fact what this kind of rhetoric is — and certainly there would be plentiful disagreement on the subject — is this not what Ted Kennedy was doing when attacking Judge Bork? Rovner and NPR’s memory seems to be remarkably short on the subject of Ted Kennedy dishing out what they themselves seem to define as fear.
One can only imagine that were he here now alive and well, the fabled old Senate lion would have heard Palin’s words and wasted no time burning some phone hours to Alaska.
None of this means Governor Palin is the inevitable Republican nominee for 2012. None of it means she will necessarily ever be president. Ted Kennedy was never president. What it does mean is that figuratively speaking, wherever Sarah Palin sits at the national political table, like Churchill or Ted Kennedy, that is the general location of the head of the table.
This is a quality that has appeared often enough in American history — and outside America as well. Senators like Ted Kennedy have been prominent before, bearing names like Henry Clay or Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey. Governors like New York Republican Nelson Rockefeller or Alabama Democrat George Wallace. A Congressman like Jack Kemp. Non-office holders like Martin Luther King in the United States or Mohandas Gandhi in India or Nelson Mandela in South Africa (who later became president of his country) can, through sheer force of personality, come to dominate the political scene of the day without ever bearing a single official title.
The Churchill case is particularly instructive. Here is a man whose career took off like a rocket from his youth, partially in a drive to prove himself to a brilliant yet cold father whose own career was cut short, allegedly by a fatal bout of syphilis. Young Winston used his role as a low-ranking Army officer to turn himself into a famous war correspondent and, eventually, a young Member of Parliament. As what would be a fifty-year career progressed, he established the Churchill reputation that enamors the world to this day — brilliant, insightful, witty, colorful, resilient, a literary giant with fearsome rhetorical skills. In the process he drew the intense dislike of any number of jealous rivals of the day. By the 1930s, now in his late fifties and early sixties, with his Conservative Party once again in power, he was famously cast out into the political wilderness by his two scheming Conservative Party rivals, the back-to-back prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. Neither man could hold a candle to Churchill — which both knew, providing a further sense of rage.
Churchill’s “head-of-the-table” factor was at that point so glaringly obvious both men had all they could do just to control him. He was belittled, ignored, attacked, maneuvered against — all, in the end, to no avail. And it should be noted, that for most of this time when he wasn’t lecturing around Europe or America, Churchill was relegated to one of two places — the back benches of Parliament or his equivalent of Wasilla, Alaska: Chartwell, his country manor in rural Kent. Neither place presented much opportunity for leadership on the surface. In point of fact, lots of British MPs of the day were back benchers with country homes. But they carried nowhere near the invisible aura of clout that moved with Churchill wherever he seemed to go.
So too was this true with Ted Kennedy. In Kennedy’s case, as has been frequently noted in the last week, his worst enemy was in fact himself — specifically with an inability to get control of a serious drinking and womanizing problem. Both of these personal problems eventually denied him the White House. Yet even then it could not extinguish Teddy’s “head-of-the-table” quality. It was that quality that made Americans love him, hate him, lavish praise on him and ferociously attack him. All of which was in its own way a testament to the fact that when Ted Kennedy spoke, people listened. Republican direct mail fundraisers throughout the land knew that if they wanted a sure-fire way to raise bucks all they had to do was holdout the specter of Teddy Kennedy and the dollars would roll in.
Are there other Americans on the political scene like this right now? Yes indeed, with some having one-word name identification with most Americans. Hillary and Newt would be two in this rarified crowd. Former vice presidents Dick Cheney and Al Gore are another two, making headlines regularly, both out of office with the presidency in each case seemingly never in the cards.. This is not so with former vice presidents Dan Quayle or Walter Mondale, both of whom have faded without a title to hold onto.
It is particularly interesting that presidents don’t always fit here. By definition a sitting president can rule the roost. But once receding into the mists of history, their clout can fade as easily as the last strains of Hail to the Chief. The obvious measure of this is to take a look at the former presidents living and dead who have captured the popular imagination — and still do. Of 43 men and 44 presidents, the list of “head of the table” types is small. Washington, Jefferson and Jackson were clearly early “head-of-the-table” personalities, all three recorded multiples of times dominating situations long before they held office. Abraham Lincoln and the two Roosevelts are similarly notable for receiving attention long before holding the presidency, and in TR’s case long after. So too with Reagan, who held attention for almost three decades before his presidential election. These were men who moved the nation around them with no title whatsoever, and would have that potential in office or out until their last breath.
In the case of Lincoln, Kennedy, the two Roosevelts and Reagan they are, long dead, still motivating Americans in one direction or another. Teddy Kennedy’s entire career derived from the initial push he received as JFK’s little brother. The latter fact is particularly telling, since JFK died in 1963. Only Teddy himself could have carved out the rest of his career, the political careers of relatives of famous presidents frequently having a short shelf life. Theodore Roosevelt’s famous son Ted Jr. fizzled in politics, as did Franklin Roosevelt’s namesake son Franklin Jr. The name can get you in the door. After that it’s up to you.
This is what really drives Sarah Palin’s critics nuts. She sits up there in Alaska with Todd and the kids, taps out a few words on her Facebook page — and presto! ObamaCare has a torpedo amidships! Without doubt this causes Palin’s rivals, just as it once did with Churchill’s and Teddy Kennedy’s, to fret and fume if not foam.
Can you imagine how you must feel if you are an in-state rival like Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski? Who? Exactly. No one in Washington much less the rest of the country is huddled in a corner whispering — “what did Lisa say?” Nor does America take much notice of Palin’s potential 2012 rivals like Romney, Huckabee or Minnesota Governor Pawlenty. The New York Times isn’t wasting ink being catty about Ms. Murkowski because, with no disrespect intended to Senator Murkowski, like most of her Senate colleagues her “head of the table” factor is exactly zero. There are no thundering editorials of disapproval for Romney, no Maureen Dowd snipes at Huckabee, no Keith Olbermann tirades about Pawlenty. It’s Sarah Palin they can’t stand, and it’s visceral — an immediate tip off to her Kennedy-like “head of the table” status.
There are a zillion talk radio hosts in America these days. I need not mention the “R” word for everyone out there to know who is, instantly, understood by all to be “talk radio.” This is Churchill’s head of the table factor on radio. She may be quiet over there in the State Department at the moment, seething about her treatment in the White House or elsewhere, but there isn’t an American awake who doesn’t know Hillary is there, plotting, planning –well, something. This is Churchill’s head of the table factor momentarily setting up shop in the State Department. America has former Speakers of the House all the time, two past Speakers in the moment. Is anyone gnashing their teeth over Republican Dennis Hastert or Democrat Tom Foley? Of course not. There is only one who has a first name acquaintance with Americans, who simultaneously, like Teddy Kennedy or Churchill, causes people to applaud with zest or tempers to rise through the roof at the mere mention of his first name. Newt is Churchill’s head of the table factor personified.
If you have this capability, what do you do wit h it?
It is clear looking back this last week that Teddy Kennedy found himself in exactly that spot, and for a considerable period simply didn’t know the answer. Let Mayor Daley push his name forward at the 1968 Democratic Convention — an action that surely would have ended with Teddy at 36 at the top of the ticket or as Hubert Humphrey’s number two? Get elected to the Senate Majority Whip job? Run for president in 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984? All of these options, some taken, others not, played out against a not so private canvass of heavy drinking, serious womanizing and family problems. Some of which doubtless resulted in Kennedy trying to cope with things he had not bargained for — patriarch status for his assassinated brothers’ kids and torch bearer for the Jack and Bobby legacy, whatever he imagined that to be.
Churchill had this problem as well, setting out to prove himself to a brilliant but soon dead father who was once expected to be prime minister. Never once was he able to turn to that cherished figure in the flesh and receive the paternal acknowledgment of success he is said to have craved. Thinking his career finished by the1930s, Winston too was known to love the champagne and brandy life. But in the end he got himself under control, the rise of Adolf Hitler electrifying him, focusing his enormous talents to finally give him the prime minister’s office denied his father.
None of these “head of the table” types have gotten where they are without some considerable personal struggle along the way. One has no idea at this moment what that might be for Sarah Palin, beyond knowing those things that are already well-out there on the public record.
But like Ted Kennedy, Sarah Palin has a gift. An ability to make Americans focus on the issue of the day — and likewise the head of the table ability to lead the country in a specific direction. In fact, she just did it on health care, making her sentiments plain with a Kennedy-style “Robert Bork’s America” pronouncement. No other losing vice-presidential candidate in American history has drawn this kind of attention — whether the passionate applause or the enraged disdain — as Sarah Palin. Every time her enemies disparage her it only serves to underline the point, just as Ted Kennedy’s enemies did the same with him.
She may be President of the United States. Or like Ted Kennedy, she may never be President of the United States.
But without doubt, Sarah Palin has demonstrated that she has exactly the opportunity that Ted Kennedy eventually found for himself in the United States Senate. The ability, whether she receives applause or scorn, to get the American people saying:
Did you hear what Sarah Palin said today?
Chances are excellent that just as was true of Ted Kennedy, the answer will be “yes.”
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