When then President Bill Clinton spoke at former President Richard Nixon’s funeral, he suggested that the “day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.” The speaker had no clue at the time how much he would need that kind of big-picture graciousness later on, but these sentiments are common on such occasions.
Having been a member of the clergy for 32 years, it has been my duty to officiate memorial services, comforting mourners while doing my best to eulogize the deceased. The word eulogy is rooted in scripture, most often translated as some form of “bless,” it literally means “to speak well of.” It is actually not intrinsically a word for funerals, but that’s where the concept shows up for the most part in our culture.
Apparently the idea is that to eulogize someone before death is, well, premature.
Of course, it is easier to eulogize some people more than others - always the minister’s dilemma. What do you say when there is a shortage of good anecdotal material? Vernon Johns, the legendary, eloquent, and controversial forerunner to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, reputedly once made quick work of a funeral sermon for a particularly notorious man. Against the grain and at the risk of offending the sensibilities of his very proper audience, he uttered a few sentences about the dead man’s notable wickedness and then ended with an abrupt: “Now, carry out the body!”
But usually it’s nice stuff that is said. Much of it is true and most of it is presented with a positive spin. It is, of course, this way with the various tributes, remembrances, and yes – eulogies - about Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, who died the other day after a valiant battle with brain cancer.
Mr. Clinton’s fantasy about no bigger-picture judgment notwithstanding, it is simply not realistic, nor is it very honest to ignore the “warts-and-all” aspects of someone’s life en route to putting it all into perspective. His executive order delivered to a crowd of mourners in Yorba Linda, California on April 27, 1994, was not obeyed. In fact, it was almost instantly dismissed, largely because Nixon wasn’t one of “them” – the liberal media elite.
Of course, if someone is a liberal lion and has made a career of championing the “right” (the term used in the sense of “liberally enlightened,” not as a directional cue) causes, it is generally more acceptable to give the person a pass on other embarrassing stuff. Therefore, the scandalous death of a young woman is not a crime, it’s a tragedy that means - in the ultimate example of missing the point – an anointed man won’t ever be president. Yet, even in that “tragedy” there are seeds of hope, because the man gets to become the greatest senator since, like, Cicero.
I have tried very hard to find the basis for authentic eulogy in the current hagiographic moment, but in the final analysis (a pet Kennedy phrase – Jack, Bobby, and Teddy all used it), I find myself frustrated. You see, I really think there are some good things that can be said – and were I speaking at the service, I would emphasize those.
Mr. Kennedy was a surrogate father, and effectively so, to the children of his fallen brothers. I find that endearing and worthy of commendation. He also seemed to mellow in later years, following his marriage to Vickie Reggie in 1992. She may have tamed, or at least tempered the lion. And he once helped conservative columnist Mona Charen parallel park her minivan on a busy Washington, D.C. street.But again, in the final analysis (it really is a very good phrase) it is hard, in fact virtually impossible, to ignore the enormous body of evidence that so obviously speaks to the fact that Ted Kennedy was a deeply flawed man, who could here-and-there do some good things.
Most of his flaws are being noised about right now, but one that seems to regularly escape public view has to do with the Lion of the Senate’s machinations at a particularly crucial moment during the Cold War.
The year is 1983, and it is beginning to appear that Ronald Reagan will be virtually unbeatable for reelection the next year. One of the Gipper’s passions is to end the Cold War – and he is a strong advocate of peace through strength. Reagan is playing hardball with his Soviet counterpart, former KGB (once KGB, always KGB) chief, now premier, Yuri Andropov over the potential deployment of Pershing II missiles in Western Europe.
Years later, a letter from that time (May 1983) held in KGB files surfaced, one that reflects very badly on the man being remembered right now. It was written to Andropov by KGB head, Viktor Chebrikov and labeled “Special Importance.” The subject head read: “Regarding Senator Kennedy’s request to the General Secretary of the Communist Party Y.V. Andropov.” Apparently, long-time Kennedy friend, former U. S. Senator (D-CA), John Tunney – the son of Dempsey-beating heavyweight boxing champion, Gene Tunney – had recently visited Moscow and acted as Ted’s emissary.
The would-be Lion was reaching out to the big-bad Bear.
The letter is interesting to say the least – and also a window into the political soul of Mr. Kennedy, who is now being remembered for his propensity for bi-partisanship (?). The senator from Massachusetts was clearly interested in undermining Mr. Reagan politically, and flying close to the flame of actual treason. Among the things the letter said were:
“Kennedy believes that, given the current state of affairs, and in the interest of peace, it would be prudent and timely to undertake the following steps to counter the militaristic politics of Reagan and his campaign to psychologically burden the American people. In this regard, he offers the following proposals to the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Y.V. Andropov.
1. Kennedy asks Y.V. Andropov to consider inviting the senator to Moscow for a personal meeting in July of this year. The main purpose of the meeting, according to the senator, would be to arm Soviet officials with explanations regarding problems of nuclear disarmament so they may be better prepared and more convincing during appearances in the USA. He would also like to inform you that he has planned a trip through Western Europe, where he anticipates meeting England’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Mitterand in which he will exchange similar ideas regarding the same issues.
Wait, there’s more:
“2. Kennedy believes that in order to influence Americans it would be important to organize in August-September of this year, televised interviews with Y.V. Andropov in the USA. A direct appeal by the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the American people will, without a doubt, attract a great deal of attention and interest in the country. The senator is convinced this would receive the maximum resonance in so far as television is the most effective method of mass media and information.
If the proposal is recognized as worthy, then Kennedy and his friends will bring about suitable steps to have representatives of the largest television companies in the USA contact Y.V. Andropov for an invitation to Moscow for the interviews. Specifically, the president of the board of directors of ABC, Elton Raul and television columnists Walter Cronkite or Barbara Walters could visit Moscow. The senator underlined the importance that this initiative should be seen as coming from the American side.”
This entire episode is described in detail by historian Paul Kengor in his book, “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan And The Fall Of Communism.”
Had this all come to light back then, would Ted Kennedy have been able to survive politically? No one, of course, knows the answer to that question, but it is possible that the brightness might have faded from Camelot’s apparently endless “brief and shining moment.”
Now, here we are more than a quarter of a century later, with the Cold War a fading memory – a conflict won by our side largely through the work of Mr. Reagan and in spite of Mr. Kennedy – reviewing a life writ large. With all the eulogies – all the attempts, rightly so, to “speak well of” someone in the tender moments following his passing - let us resolve “in the final analysis” not to give him a complete pass on the things he did that fell short. Some of those things really mattered.