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Memories of Ted Kennedy | The Nation

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Memories of Ted Kennedy

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When Senator Edward Kennedy died, he was not only the proud heir of a remarkable family tradition of political engagement, he was the uncontested voice of the conscience of American progressivism and its most effective agent in government. Indeed, had Kennedy been active in the Senate in the past few months, the miserable debate on healthcare reform might have taken a very different course.

About the Author

Norman Birnbaum
Norman Birnbaum is professor emeritus at the Georgetown University Law Center. He was on the founding editorial board...

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The senator did not, however, simply follow in the footsteps of his murdered brothers. At first, his path was not only hesitant but self-destructive. He redeemed himself by hard work and what must have been a large amount of inner discipline--and by a strong if not always directly evident attachment to the social traditions of Catholicism.

Kennedy was noted for recruiting to his senatorial staff promising younger people who went on to splendid careers of public service. He had access to the many in civil society who regarded working for him on specific projects as an honor and a privilege. In a very minor way, I was one of a thousand in this category.

My first if indirect contact with Ted Kennedy was very different. When he first ran for the Senate, in 1962, even the most loyal of the supporters of President Kennedy were dismayed. The future senator as a young man seemed callow, devoid of substance, his candidacy sheer effrontery. He was opposed not only by a Republican but by an independent candidate of the left--H. Stuart Hughes.

Hughes was an eminent historian at Harvard, grandson of former Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes (and the Republican presidential candidate in 1916, who narrowly missed ousting Woodrow Wilson). H. Stuart Hughes campaigned as an antagonist of the cold war course of the Kennedy White House.

To Hughes's misfortune, the Massachusetts Senate election coincided with the Cuban missile crisis--in which the president held off his generals and bellicose civilian advisers and provided Khrushchev with a path to withdrawal. I spent the summer of 1962 teaching at Harvard and rented the Hughes house in Cambridge--where the owner retained a room. I had returned to the United States for some months from my post at Oxford and my activity in the British and European New Left. I was obdurately immune to the thought that working within conventional American politics made any sense--a view shared by many Americans who were beginning the tumultuous 1960s.

By the time I returned to the United States permanently in 1966, my views had begun to change. After all, the European New Left had as its aim the revitalization of the great parties of the left: British Labour, French Socialists, the German Social Democrats and the Italian Communists. Encouraged by Robert Kennedy's presidential candidacy in 1968, I was drawn to an idea that should have been mine much earlier: that the Democratic Party, with its New Deal tradition and strong trade union elements, its fusion of Social Catholicism, Protestant social conscience (and no small amount of Jewish messianism, roughly translated into American idiom), was the one vehicle available to the American New Left for a journey back into American history from its agitated margins.

Alas, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were martyred, the movement divided and flagged. George McGovern's candidacy against Nixon in 1972 provided a very brief revival. In the meantime, Edward Kennedy was suffering the personal tribulations epitomized by the accident on the bridge at Martha's Vineyard--and beginning a quickening march to responsibility and sobriety. It was in these years that working for or with Kennedy became an almost obligatory passage for those who identified themselves with American social reform. In areas as diverse as foreign policy, education and healthcare, and the judiciary, Kennedy's achievements were considerable. Most of all, his iconic status for younger people convinced thousands of them of the dignity and worth of ordinary politics.

That was certainly true of myself. In 1968 I moved to Massachusetts to teach at Amherst and became one of the senator's constituents. I kept my ties to the European left, especially to the French Socialists, the German Social Democrats and the Italian Communists. Through his staff, Kennedy occasionally asked for the kind of advice the CIA and the State Department was certain not to provide.

When the first European parliamentary elections were held in 1979, André Fontaine of Le Monde had the inspired idea of asking Kennedy and Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov to write about them. Kennedy asked me to do a draft of his contribution, and I was delighted that he used it.

That year I moved to Washington, where I worked for a while with Kennedy's close allies in the trade union movement, the United Auto Workers, and had another occasion to appreciate his persistence in matters large and small. It was, in fact, his defeat in the 1980 attempt to replace Jimmy Carter as the Democratic presidential candidate that enabled him, later, to consolidate his position as the leader of the liberal and left segments of the party. Freed of presidential ambition, Kennedy was also free to concentrate on a long-term strategy.

In 1980, on the eve of the Reagan presidency, the UAW and some other groups organized in Washington a meeting between American progressives and European Socialists (Benn, Brandt, Ehmke, Gonzales, Joop den Uyl, Mitterrand, Palme, Rocard). I was one of their hosts, and I noted that the one person they wanted to see was the senator. The rest of the world was right to recognize Kennedy as the authentic spokesman of a very different America. Kennedy himself said that if Europe could vote, he would long since have been president.

One aspect of Kennedy's life and work is sometimes, oddly, overlooked. He was not ostensibly devout, and he had his differences with some of the American bishops. But his political choices (like those of his brothers) were suffused by the social legacy of an American Catholicism that had been the church of immigrant workers. His day-by-day attention to the minutiae of politics connected him to the daily lives of millions of ordinary Americans. There was something about this that made this undoubtedly worldly figure, who enjoyed the good things of the earth, a sacerdotal figure.

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