To achieve equality we must first accept the undeniable existence of inequality. In a class-free liberal analysis, where individual responsibility for success or failure in life reigns supreme, structural division between the haves and have-nots is obscured. Ted Kennedy, like his brother Robert before him, not only accepted but embraced this key distinction. Doing so shaped his legislative and political agenda for his entire Senatorial career, thus providing him with a rich legacy of achievement unparalleled in US political history.
His personal life was, famously and perhaps appropriately (considering his lineage) mired in controversy. The infamous events of Chappaquidick, fictionally reimagined by author Joyce Carol Oates, overshadowed even the assassinations of his brothers. It is widely accepted that Kennedy’s role in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne and his subsequent cowardly actions dashed any hopes of ascending to the Oval Office, perhaps ironically saving him from sharing the lethal fate of Jack and Bobby.
20 years later, a night of raucous partying at the family compound in Palm Springs, Florida lead to his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, being charged with (and later convicted of) rape. As Melissa McEwan recounts, Ted and the rest of the Kennedy clan fell back on their privilege, using the full might of the Kennedy name and money to smear Kennedy-Smith’s victim. Here we see the paradox of Ted Kennedy: a man whose class privilege was both a burden and a boon. To be a Kennedy brought great expectations and no-little danger, but it also allowed its name bearers to escape responsibility when their appetites for excess resulted in self-inflicted tragedy.
Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch wonders if the totality of Ted Kennedy’s life should in fact be summed up by the lack of accountability faced for his role in the death of Kopechne. It is, as Bunch notes, a hard question to answer. Perhaps the true greatness of Ted Kennedy is that this and his many personal failings never prevented him from striving to narrow the gap between the upper class and those who didn’t enjoy the luxury of financial largess and a famous last name.
Ted Kennedy ultimately believed his role – his responsibility – in the US Senate was to give voice to the voiceless, those who couldn’t afford to hire expensive K-Street lobby firms or embark upon expensive ad campaigns to raise public awareness. With over 300 pieces of legislation passed during his lengthy tenure in the Senate that bore his stamp in some form or fashion, it is not hyperbolic to say that Kennedy helped steer the direction of American civil society in the latter half of the 20th century. This is reflected by the broad cross-section of organizations that hailed his life and legacy upon hearing of his passing. The National Center for Transgender Equality, NARAL, the United Farm Workers and the NAACP; these disparate groups (along with countless others) all heralded the tireless social justice efforts of a man who never allowed his personal wealth to stop him from fighting to fully extend the inherent rights contained in US citizenship.
Despite his myriad flaws, I would contend that’s the true legacy of Edward M. Kennedy: erasing the stain of class privilege smeared over what should be basic human rights. In a vocation where leaders seem to serve lobbyists and industry more than the people, Kennedy, part of a family that is the closest America has to royalty, epitomized politics as public service. As Michael Tomasky observed yesterday, by fighting for equality Ted Kennedy made his country “a dramatically better place”.