Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy (1932-2009)

There are many tributes to Ted Kennedy that describe his life and accomplishments. I'm going to add my tiny bit to them. First, here's the text of a speech by Kennedy on the Iraq War, broadcast on C-Span 01/14/04:

I believe that this Administration is indeed leading this country to a perilous place. It has broken faith with the American people, aided and abetted by a Congressional majority willing to pursue ideology at any price, even the price of distorting the truth. On issue after issue, they have moved brazenly to impose their agenda on America and on the world. They have pursued their goals at the expense of urgent national and human needs and at the expense of the truth. America deserves better.

The Administration and the majority in Congress have put the state of our union at risk, and they do not deserve another term in the White House or in control of Congress. ...

War in Iraq was a war of choice, not a war of necessity. It was a product they were methodically rolling out. There was no imminent threat, no immediate national security imperative, and no compelling reason for war. ...

... we are reaping the poison fruit of our misguided and arrogant foreign policy. The Administration capitalized on the fear created by 9/11 and put a spin on the intelligence and a spin on the truth to justify a war that could well become one of the worst blunders in more than two centuries of American foreign policy. We did not have to go to war. Alternatives were working. War must be a last resort. And this war never should have happened. [my emphasis]



The Republicans are cynically praising Kennedy's willingness to compromise. They like to pretend that if Kennedy had been healthy, he would have caved in and helped them block health care reform by now:he would have caved on health care by now: The media miss the clear implications of Republican comments about Kennedy by Jamison Foser, Media Matters 08/26/09.

Joan Walsh is far more realistic in Ted Kennedy's last battle Salon 08/26/09:

Democrats must actively refute Hatch's (now multiple) statements insisting healthcare reform would have Republican support if Kennedy were still in the Senate, glad-handing and arm-twisting.

That's completely dishonest. If Kennedy moved hearts and minds in the Senate, it would be by moving Republicans towards sanity. Since I don't believe Republicans have any interest in bipartisan compromise, a healthy Ted Kennedy would be kicking Republican asses -- while possibly treating them warmly in person. A healthy Ted Kennedy would never have put up with the unhealthy politics of the Republican Party on healthcare -- and Orrin Hatch should be ashamed, on the occasion of Kennedy's death, to have said otherwise. [my emphasis]
Aimai at No More Mr. Nice Blog spanks the Republicans who think Democrats shouldn't find political advantage in Kennedy's memory: Friends, Romans, Countrymen... 08/26/09

As inevitable as the use of the funeral, or the memorial, by partisans is the attempt to repress the funeral or the memorial by the forces of reaction. Wherever funerals are an important social setting--a safe place for people to turn out, grieve, communicate, and organize there will be attempts from above or below to prevent any mobilization around the body, or the cause. In Iran, to give just one example, the state decides who is a "martyr" and whose death will be publicly solemnized, and it has for years interfered with families trying to publicize or socialize the deaths of their loved ones if those deaths looked like they would cause trouble for the government. The recent death of Neda was one such occasion. In the US, of course, we have struggled for years over who owns or appropriates public deaths like those of the 9/11 victims, the Katrina dead, and our soldiers.

Its not that Republicans don't use death, and death(s) to score political points or create policy. ... Not a Republican death per se, but certainly a recurring image in the pageant of right wing martyr funerals. Religious anti abortion rights activists routinely use the imagery of death and the fetus to compel policy changes they favor. Fred Phelps and his family routinely picket other people's funerals to make their political/religious points. And, of course, 9/11 was the greatest political funeral orgy in American History since Pearl Harbor. And the party that ran with the most necrophilic and abusive use of those deaths was, IIRC, tagged with an R. And they are still mourning their loss of the use rights to those deaths. A right which, apparently, goes with control of the Presidency.
Celebrity pundits Mark Shields and David "Bobo" Brooks discussed Kennedy on the PBS Newshour of 08/26/09, Kennedy Leaves Legacy as Champion for Health Care. "Liberal" pundit Mark Shields, one of John McCain's biggest fanboys, offered his "liberal" take on Kennedy which was, uh, identical to that of the Republicans, i.e., Kennedy was great because he compromised on stuff:

What it was, was an incredible ability, which has been touched on in the earlier discussions. He never demonized the other side, a colleague across the aisle. He always viewed today's adversary as tomorrow's potential ally. And it was a gift.

And whenever you stood in the Senate press gallery and watched him go on the floor, I don't care when it was, other senators would flock to him, and he always had a personal note for each of them, and a good-natured needle.

It was a remarkable ability to be at the same time someone you always knew where he stood on an issue and what he stood for, yet at the same time he was the one who could establish compromise and consensus. It wasn't just transactional trying to find the middle ground. It was an incredible gift, and he was a gifted, gifted legislator.
I've become so accustomed to our Big Pundits' obsession with the glories of "bipartisanship" - at least when it's Democrats going along with Republicans - that I'm hardly surprised by dreary recitations of the press script like Shields' any more.

But here outside of Pundit District 9, that doesn't really make jack for sense. By virtually all accounts, Kennedy was a very skillful legislator. But that can't be reasonably equated with a willingness to compromise. Any fool can do that. Using compromise to usher decent legislation through the Senate is a real accomplishment.

And Kennedy sometimes go rolled, as he memorably did on the No Child Left Behind program, one of George W. Bush's few semi-credible claim of bipartisanship. But the deal was that the Democrats would approve the dubious national testing requirements in exchange for the Republicans providing substantially increased education funding in the following years. So the bill with the testing was passed, and then Bush and the Republicans refused to provide the increased funding. I wouldn't fault Kennedy for that. He presumably had reason to think the Republicans would stick with their deal. They didn't. So in the end, that "bipartisan" compromise had a bad result.

Shields' portrait of Kennedy as a saintly character above that petty partisanship that is considered so unseemly (in Democrats!) there in Pundit District 9 is also ludicrous. Shields' word "demonized" is a weasel-word in the context. Because Kennedy could certainly make partisan and policy judgments on the often severe failings of those on "the other side of the aisle". In the 2004 speech linked above, we find Kennedy saying of Bush and the Republicans, in addition to what I've already quoted:

The Administration and the majority in Congress have put the state of our union at risk, and they do not deserve another term in the White House or in control of Congress.

I do not make these statements lightly. I make them as an American deeply concerned about the future of the Republic if the extremist policies of this Administration continue.

By far the most extreme and most dire example of this Administration's reckless pursuit of its single-minded ideology is in foreign policy. In its arrogant disrespect for the United Nations and for other peoples in other lands, this Administration and this Congress have squandered the immense goodwill that other nations extended to our country after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. And in the process, they made America a lesser and a less respected land. [my emphasis]
The advocates of war in Iraq desperately sought to make the case that Saddam was linked to 9/11 and Al Qaeda, and that he was on the verge of acquiring a nuclear capability. They created an Office of Special Projects in the Pentagon to analyze the intelligence for war. They bypassed the traditional screening process and put pressure on intelligence officers to produce the desired intelligence and analysis.

As the world now knows, Saddam's connection to 9/11 was false. Saddam was an evil dictator. But he was never close to having a nuclear capability. The Administration has found no arsenals of chemical or biological weapons. It has found no persuasive connection to al-Qaeda. All this should have been clear. The Administration should not have looked at the facts with ideological blinders and with a mindless dedication to the results they wanted. [my emphasis]
Barely four months had passed since the worst terrorist atrocity in American history. Five bin Laden videotapes had been broadcast since September 11th, including one that was aired after bin Laden escaped at the battle of Tora Bora. President Bush devoted 12 paragraphs in his State of the Union Address to Afghanistan, and 29 paragraphs to the global war on terrorism. But he had nothing to say about Bin Laden or al-Qaeda.

Why not? Because of an extraordinary policy coup. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz -the Axis of War - had prevailed. The President was changing the subject to Iraq. [my emphasis]
And there's more, just in that one speech. I wouldn't call any of that demonizing, because he was describing the situation straightforwardly. But it was far from the powder-puff, Republican-friendly image that McCain fan Mark Shields offered.

Ted Kennedy fought for peace and nuclear disarmament, for education and civil rights, for universal health care and against the disgusting and criminal Cheney-Bush torture program. In Pundit District 9, his significance lies in the fact that he "could establish compromise and consensus." For we Earthlings, his significance was in the fact that he contributed to substantial positive accomplishments and kept fighting for critical needs like universal health care. Obama and the Democrats will not get a solid health care reform is they insist on "reaching across the aisle" the way the star pundits insist they must. Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick in the PBS segment linked above did manage to make a similar point:

... what's remarkable about Ted Kennedy is that, for a 50 -- almost a 50-year period, a half a century, he provided a very visible reminder of a kind of liberal idealism that first came to the fore with the election of his brother in 1960, and that was kept alive after his brother's assassination with the candidacy of Robert Kennedy in 1968, and that Ted Kennedy himself then carried through in the ensuing years.

There's a kind of continuity to the story, and it's one that is intertwined with that of the nation itself over almost a 50-year period. Whether liberalism was in or out of fashion, the idea was to use the power of the federal government to assist those most in need, to ensure that all Americans had a decent standard of living, decent health care, access to education, to a good job, and to a clean environment, to their most fundamental rights.

Think about the fact that, when Ted Kennedy began his senatorial career, he worked first on legislation to get rid of the poll tax and then lived to see Barack Obama elected as the first African-American president, something that could never have happened had they not gotten rid of the poll tax and segregation itself. So the two are totally intertwined, in my view.
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