Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Edward M. Kennedy, 1932-2009

US Senator Ted Kennedy was, to an even greater degree than most of those protected by law and process designed to favor incumbency, a de facto "Senator for Life," having held his seat for nearly 47 years. At the time of his death, he was the second most senior incumbent US Senator (trailing only West Virginia's Robert Byrd) and had racked up the third longest tenure in that office in US history.

He was also, of course, a symbol of political dynasty: The younger brother of two other US Senators, one who became president, one who tried to become president, both of whom died at the hands of assassins; and the father of US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy and uncle of former US Representative Joseph Patrick Kennedy II.

None of those facts bode well for an evaluation of his political career. They seem tailor-made to the description of a corrupt, self-serving, power-seeking politician ... and maybe that's all he was.

Or maybe not.

As a junior Senator, he took on LBJ's administration and attempted to get an elimination of the poll tax written into the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He failed, but he tried. Linkage of the right to vote to payment of a tax had been outlawed in federal elections by the 24th Amendment in 1964; it was eliminated in state elections by the Supreme Court (Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections) in 1966.

Also in 1965, he was a main force in passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act which abolished national origin quotas. During the Dark Ages of Dubyah, he also worked, with Dubyah himself, to turn immigration policy in the right direction.

He certainly deserves a share of the credit for saving what was left of the republic as of 1987 from the judicial ministrations of Robert Bork (some libertarians will no doubt take exception to that one; read Bork's book, The Tempting of America, in which he explicitly rejects what he calls "the libertarian theory of jurisprudence" -- government limited only to enumerated powers -- and asserts unlimited authority on the part of the legislature in the absence of explicit constitutional prohibition).

He voted against both US-Iraq wars.

Like most politicians, Ted Kennedy was a very mixed bag. There have certainly been "better" US Senators -- and worse ones.

Today, with his body still warm, the reaction to his death seems to fall into two broad categories:

I'm already getting email from the Democratic left (Howard Dean, for example), using his death as cheap political theatre to promote the passage of Obamacare. Sorry, no sale: It's a bad bill and no number of big-name corpses stacked on top of it in advance can obscure the much larger pile of bodies visible beyond its passage.

From the Republican right, it's obviously going to be the Chappaquiddick Channel 24/7 for awhile. If a 40-year-old car wreck is the best they can come up with, that says a lot more about their lack of convincing arguments (or principles upon which to build such arguments) than it does about Ted Kennedy.

The third, and only appropriate, category of reaction is this: For better or worse, he's gone. Requiescat in pace.

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