The end of an era

They don't make families -- or politicians, or liberals -- like Teddy and the Kennedys anymore

Published August 27, 2009 10:31AM (EDT)

In this 1962 file photo, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, center, poses with his brothers U. S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, left, and President John F. Kennedy at the White House in Washington.
In this 1962 file photo, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, center, poses with his brothers U. S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, left, and President John F. Kennedy at the White House in Washington.

Teddy Kennedy's death marks the end of the Kennedy era in American politics. To be sure there are younger Kennedys, and -- who knows? -- perhaps one of them will overcome personal problems and political failure and rise to the top. Perhaps, but highly unlikely. These days, the Kennedy name may help you get a place in Congress from Rhode Island, but it is unable to secure a Senate seat for you from New York.

We nonetheless continue to be fascinated by the Kennedy mystique. Will there ever be another dynasty like this one? How did it achieve its prominence? Why are liberals such as the Kennedys still missed even in a country that has turned more conservative? To mourn Edward Kennedy is inevitably to raise and try to answer questions like these.

Part of the Kennedy mystique is surely due to the unusual nature of the family. Remember Roger Clinton? What about Neil Bush? The Kennedys, it is frequently said, were a political dynasty. Yet the Bush family constitutes one as well, and during that brief period when Hillary Clinton appeared to be the frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic nomination, the Clinton name was also burnished with dynasty status. While other families have many who seek power, however, none has had the success of the Kennedys. John, Robert, and now Teddy will all be remembered as major figures in American history. No one can say that about Hugh Rodman or Marvin Bush. Most parents would be happy to have one successful child. Joe and Rose Kennedy produced a slew of them.

The Kennedy family, like many Catholic families of its era, was a large one. It is also one that is unlikely ever to appear again. This is not just because many Catholics have found ways to have fewer children but because the Kennedys were products of a unique period in American history. The immigrant experience for most Americans lies further back in the past than it did with the Kennedy clan. Greater governmental regulation of the economy makes more difficult the kind of swashbuckling capitalism that made Joe Kennedy rich. Women are expected to work these days and not be, as Rose was, a full-time mother. Rarely are families nowadays identified with one particular place as the Kennedys are with Massachusetts; the Bush family is identified with three, Maine, Connecticut, and Texas. When marriages are unhappy, as the marriage of Joe and Rose was at times, people today, unlike them, get divorced; indeed, a significant number of Joe and Rose's grandchildren are divorced or separated. You could not buy a Cape Cod beachfront compound like the one the family owns in Hyannis even if you were sitting on piles of cash. The Kennedys were not only a family; they embodied the idea of a particular kind of family. Alas, for most Americans, that family simply is no more.

When we contemplate the death of Ted Kennedy, then, we retrieve memories of family life as it no longer can be lived. As much as we may prefer smaller families, part of us longs for the extended clan that made it possible for the number of people in a Kennedy family portrait to approach the population of a small Iowa town. We lead lives; the Kennedys were characters in a saga. We do not read "Pride and Prejudice" in order to find a spouse but to know something about the nature of love. For the same reason, we do not fill our television schedule with scenes of Hyannis to learn how to raise kids. Every retelling of Ted Kennedy's life will instruct us about success and sacrifice, the pleasures and puzzles of fame and the unbearable pain of loss. With Teddy's passing -- coming so quickly after the death of Eunice Kennedy Shriver -- we have lost not only two remarkable people but an entire way of life.

Besides the family there were the men. John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Teddy Kennedy are larger than life figures. It was not just their names that made them so dominant but their success. Jack Kennedy was not president all that long and especially compared to Lyndon Johnson did not accomplish all that much. But that is in many ways the point: He had the confidence to name an all-consuming politician such as Johnson as his running mate. Compare that to the selection of a Dan Quayle, a Sarah Palin or, forgive me, a Joe Biden. We are right to remember Jack Kennedy's guts; especially after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy encouraged dissent while George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, in the wake of their failure in Iraq, quashed it. The man cannot escape our memory life for a reason.


The same can be said of Robert and Teddy. Bobby Kennedy at the time of his death was, along with Martin Luther King Jr., the most impressive advocate for equality of any 20th-century American leader. Alone among American politicians of his era, he combined a prophetic voice with a pragmatic shrewdness. There is no knowing how great a president he would have been if only the violent streak in American life had been stilled long enough for him to take his turn.

But it may come to pass that we remember Teddy the most. Unlike his brothers, Edward M. Kennedy did not just give voice to the idea of making America a more just society but did more to secure that goal than either of his brothers. His accomplishments in education and healthcare recall the days when liberalism was not just the subject of books but the basis for one impressive piece of legislation after another. Although Republicans will no doubt still try their best to kill health insurance reform, the very fact that the country is on the verge of passing any legislation at all has more to do with Teddy than with Barack Obama.

Thirdly, there are the ideas. Something similar to what happens to us when we think of the Kennedy clan happens to us when we contemplate the Kennedys as politicians: We are reminded of an era that no longer seems to exist. It is not just that Democrats are more cautious than they were when Teddy first entered the Senate or that Republicans are more ideological. It is also that liberals lack the confidence in their own ideas that came as second nature to Jack, Bobby and Teddy. It is a sign of the power of the Kennedy legacy that in 2008 a young man ignored the advice of his betters, ran for president against determined opposition and won. It is also a sign of how far we have come from the heyday of the Kennedy years that Obama has little choice but to curtail the ambitions of his programs in order to get any of them passed. No wonder that Teddy Kennedy is being lionized. He reminds us of what politics used to be like before there were such things as Fox News, culture wars, 24/7 fundraising and sound bites.

Finally there are the flaws; no one can speak about the Kennedys without being reminded of their failings as human beings. Jack Kennedy lusted after women in a way that makes Bill Clinton look like a celibate monk. Bobby not only had his reputation as a cutthroat to live down, he also had to overcome his McCarthyite youth. And Teddy, of course, survived two political scandals that might have ended the career of any other politician: a case of cheating at Harvard and Chappaquiddick. It a certainly a cliché to speak of the Kennedys as characters in a Greek tragedy. But we do so for a reason: None of them were perfect.

These days we seem to be less tolerant of the flaws of our leaders. We were informed of George Bush's alcoholism, but only to emphasize his religiosity. Obama, an Eagle Scout if there ever was one in American politics, save for an occasional smoke, seems to have no flaws at all. We either elect people who are truly remarkable or elect scoundrels adept at making themselves over. It is as if were we to acknowledge flaws in our leaders, we might have to find them in ourselves.

And this, in the final analysis, may be the most unusual of the memories inspired by the death of Edward Kennedy. The Kennedys were rich. Their family was unusual. They were the stuff of myth. Yet compared to politicians who blow-dry their hair and speak only with the help of teleprompters, the Kennedys -- Teddy more than all of them -- strike us as people who have had to deal with real tragedies and excruciating dilemmas. They were all larger than life because they were not completely divorced from life. Teddy Kennedy will always be remembered for his failures as well as his successes. That, more than anything else, helps explain why we will miss him so much.

By Alan Wolfe

Alan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. The author and editor of more than twenty books, he is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harper’s, and the Atlantic. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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