Paul Greenberg

Now let the trumpets blare and the obsequies begin, as full of bombast as some of Ted Kennedy's own orations.

Let us begin in the spirit of nil nisi bonum: Speak nothing but good of the dead. Let us recall Sen. Kennedy's work with George W. Bush on the No Child Left Behind law:

If the senator's political record was a model of effective partisanship, he was also capable of making a bipartisan gesture against the bigotry of low expectations in public education. Even if he had to disappoint his political base, notably including the teachers' unions. Which was no small thing for one of the always politically savvy Kennedys. That was one time he inspired admiration rather than suspicion.

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But after that one landmark piece of legislation, it grows harder to find anything in Ted Kennedy's voting record besides the usual kneejerk liberaldom. No doubt he became a master of the legislative process in the U.S. Senate. And that will be more than enough to please the senator's easily pleased admirers, who tend to confuse ideology with principle.

The airwaves should soon be as satiated with fulsome tributes as the Congressional Record. There will be no shortage of fond memories and good words aplenty from those the senator favored with patronage or praise or just a word of support. Their number includes the current president of the United States when he was still a presidential candidate. Sen. Kennedy was never one to underestimate the power of doing a friend or even an enemy a favor.

Now, with the news of his death, the Kennedy mystique/myth will be dusted off and rolled out once again. A grand old Irish wake will be held -- a splendid custom -- while as counterpoint, the usual false notes will be solemnly trumpeted in pure NPR-ese. Preferably in a British accent to give them a little class. That final touch will surely amuse those lucky enough to be Irish.

In all the hubbub, it may scarcely be noticed that Ted Kennedy was a pol to the last, if not beyond. One of his last actions on this earth was to press lawmakers in his home state to change the way they would fill his seat in the U.S. Senate on his death. Instead of a special election, Sen. Kennedy wanted it arranged so the state's Democratic governor would appoint his successor. That way, there would be no unseemly gap in the current, filibuster-proof Democratic dominance of the U.S. Senate.

There was no need for the senator to go into detail when making his request, namely that he himself had been behind the idea of the state's holding a special election to fill any such vacancy in the U.S. Senate. That was back when his junior colleague, John Kerry, was running for president in 2004 and a Republican (Mitt Romney) was governor of the state. So it wouldn't do for the governor to fill a vacancy. Not then.

Now, with a Democrat in the governor's chair, Ted Kennedy wanted to go back to the old system. And the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will surely and obediently follow his suggestion/order. Such is the power of a political dynasty, as anyone who can remember the Longs' Louisiana will know.

It was fitting that Ted Kennedy would spend his last days in office thinking up another partisan maneuver, and that his last political bequest would be another power play. We all write our own epitaphs.

All of this will surely be airbrushed in the coming days of deep mourning and a mighty Last Hurrah for the last of the Kennedy brothers. Many tears will flow, some sincere, and there will be celebration if not cerebration as all the rites are performed in full. For does any people know better than the irrepressible Irish how to express both melancholy joy and bemused grief, often enough at the same time?

Surely one of the episodes expurgated from the senator's political career in the glorious retelling of it will be his tarring of Robert Bork when that jurist was nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan in 1987. Whether you think Judge Bork should have been confirmed or rejected, surely the job Ted Kennedy did on him will go down as one of the most vicious excoriations of an honorable man in the history of the U.S. Senate. ("Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters..." and so hysterically on.)

Amid all the ceremonial tributes to the senior senator from Massachusetts, another name will scarcely be mentioned in connection with his life and times. Though some of us have never forgotten it. For every time Ted Kennedy's jovial figure appeared at a Democratic National Convention to rouse the faithful, or when he raised his great frame and throaty voice to speak grandly of women's rights and other fine causes, her name would come back to us. Not that it ever really left after that long, dark night off Chappaquiddick Island:

Mary Jo Kopechne.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


 

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