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.
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.