The most revealing moment in Edward "Ted" Kennedy's political life came Nov. 4, 1979, just three days before he would officially launch his challenge to a sitting president of his own party, Jimmy Carter. In a televised interview, CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd asked the already stout Massachusetts senator a "giveaway" question, a question about as tough as a quiz show host trying to help break the ice with a nervous contestant by asking, "What color is grass?"
Roger Mudd asked: "Why do you want to be president?"
Ted Kennedy, 47, was about to challenge an incumbent president of his own party, with whom his ideological differences were minimal. Why not wait just four years more? Dividing one's own party in such a way must always weaken the party, creating an opening for the other party's challenger in the general election (Ronald Reagan, in this case) no matter who wins the primary.
Any mature politician considering such a move -- any thoughtful man who had seen two elder brothers assassinated for their trouble in seeking that office -- would have asked himself, not once or twice, but a hundred times, "Do I really want to do this? Is seeking the White House -- heck, even winning the White House -- the best thing for my family, my country, my party, for me? What can I accomplish that Jimmy Carter cannot, and how important is it?"
Instead, Ted Kennedy was caught flat-footed when Mudd asked him why he wanted to be president. This was not merely a "bad moment." His rambling, directionless answer -- vague bromides about the European nations doing better on energy policy and on fighting inflation -- made it clear he was merely being swept along by those who wanted to benefit from installing him in the seat of power. He was running because it was "his turn" ... or something.
The little boy who had always been overshadowed by his big brothers; the spoiled brat who was kicked out of Harvard for paying someone else to take his Spanish exam for him; the confused, panicked drunk who returned to the party and left Mary Jo Kopechne to drown in his car as it sank into the waters off Chappaquiddick Island (unless we choose to give the event a more ominous interpretation -- Gene Frieh, the undertaker, told reporters death "was due to suffocation rather than drowning"; John Farrar, the diver who removed Kopechne from the car, claimed she was "too buoyant to be full of water"; there was never an autopsy) was finally on his own, asked a question that any thoughtful man would have been rehearsing in his own mind for months.
And the second-term senator was revealed to have the quality of intellect we'd expect from some babbling beauty contestant, a creature whose life and purpose and ambition were, to be as kind as possible, unexamined.
Oh, some will moan, you're just concentrating on the bad parts. The man's body is barely cold, for heaven's sake. Can't you talk about his achievements, all the good he did?
Read the paeans from the left, praising him as a "lion of the Senate." They speak of his endless concern for the "underprivileged," though they're woefully short on specifics.
The socialists and redistributionists always seek forgiveness for their errors and excesses -- the policies that have driven this country to the brink of bankruptcy and hyperinflation -- in terms of what they meant to accomplish for "the poor and the downtrodden." But who suffers worst in the hard times their policies have brought about? The hardworking poor, who find their jobs gone, their mortgages upside down, the once-proud currency in which their savings and investments are denominated increasingly worthless.
The welfare classes will do all right -- for a while. But what favor have the condescending handouts of the Ted Kennedys of Washington done them, by locking them into multiple generations of fatherless, spiritless, smoldering angry dependence, while gradually sapping and enervating the larger, entrepreneurial, once-vibrant free market economy that could have offered them real opportunity?
Suits from central casting
I was raised a New England Democrat. Far from hating the Kennedys, I suppose I almost worshiped them. I wish John and Bobby had not been killed. Though you would have had to be deaf not to hear older New Englanders note that the family money had come from crime (bootlegging, specifically); that JFK's multiple adulteries (including with Sam Giancana's Mafia moll, Judith Campbell Exner -- in the White House!), creating so much cover-up work for the press and the Secret Service, so disrespectful of the lovely mother of his young children, only echoed his father's famous affair with Hollywood actress Gloria Swanson; that he was asking for trouble when he asked the unions and the mob to help him steal the presidency by rigging the returns in Illinois and West Virginia -- and then turned his back on them, actually siccing his younger brother Bobby on them like an attack dog, as soon as he got elected.
Republicans fail by losing the presidency when they do the sensible thing: nominating old Washington hands like Bob Dole, a perfectly decent fellow who knew the ropes and probably would have made a competent if uninspiring administrator. A "go-along" kind of guy with unarticulated (if any) economic principles who never stood in the path of the profligacies of Ted Kennedy and his ilk, Bob Dole was no hero of mine.
But Democrats do something far more interesting. Democrats fail -- not incrementally but massively, disastrously -- by winning the presidency, which they do by nominating virile younger men in whom Americans see the image of the brave, handsome, smooth-talking, dapper guy they wish they were.
John F. Kennedy was woefully unprepared to be president. His lack of experience and his health problems, so obligingly covered up by a press corps that loved him -- Addison's disease, colitis and back problems so severe he had to wear a brace, possibly caused by his decades-long steroid treatments, while all we got to see was touch football on the beach -- left him woefully inadequate in his summit meetings with Khrushchev in Vienna. Khrushchev read the callow young president as a playboy dilettante and decided he could get away with deploying missiles to Cuba, bringing the world to the brink of war.
Did Kennedy "bravely stand him down," as we were all taught? Kennedy agreed to pull our own missiles out of Turkey. (We're told "they were obsolete, anyway." We won the battle of Guadalcancal with stuff that was more obsolete.) Khrushchev won ... in the short run, which is all the victory a socialist can ever hope for, given that their underlying philosophy will always breed poverty and disaster in the end.
Bill Clinton was of the same mold but worse -- a greedy crook with his hand always out for a check (whether it be a corporation looking for a contract in Little Rock, or the Chinese military seeking our satellite and missile technology), but nonetheless a big, handsome teddy bear of a foul-mouthed multiple adulterer, if not (as I believe) something closer to a serial rapist.
And now the Democrats have given us Barack Obama, a handsome, dapper, smooth-talking, virile younger president who is -- hard as it is to believe -- vastly less qualified for the presidency than John F. Kennedy.
He has no idea he has taken an oath to protect a Constitution that promises us a government of sharply limited powers. (Where in that Constitution does he find any authority for federal bureaucrats to manage auto companies? To meddle in medicine or insurance?) He has no experience commanding even the small military units once officered by JFK or Jimmy Carter -- let alone the mighty administrative experience in matters of life and death once shouldered by Washington, Jackson, Eisenhower.
He has never worked in, let alone managed, a small business that had to meet payroll by selling actual merchandise to actual customers. (At least Harry Truman once sold shirts.) He is the perfect creature of the arrogant leftist academy -- actually believing in the magic power of rhetoric to alter reality, seeing no need to test out such theories on some little hamburger or yogurt stand before attempting to micro-manage the largest economy in the world.
For six months, Barack Obama has had it all his way, with a populace virtually hypnotized into allowing him to advance a far-left agenda learned at the knees of his mother's communist friends, aided by such powerful and privileged yet philosophically hollow allies as Ted Kennedy.
Oh, son, what have you built?
America now awakens from a 50-year dream. Where have we been transported, during the 50 years of our infatuation with the virile Kennedy boys in whom we wished to believe? When John F. Kennedy took office, the Democratic Party was actually still capable of tax-cutting and pro-business policies. (Yes, John Kennedy called for a cut of 20 percent in top tax rates -- actually signed by his successor, Lyndon Johnson.) Today, the Republican Party is much further to the left than the Democratic Party of 1962, while the Democrats themselves ...
For 50 years, America has fancied itself as the fictional character which was reportedly one of John Kennedy's favorites -- dapper, swinging, love-em-and-leave-em James Bond. We could go where we wanted, never a concern about footing the bills (that's what government is for) and always shoot our way out of trouble.
Am I "skipping the good parts" about Ted Kennedy? I hope there were some. But he was, from all I can learn, a drunken lout, wandering around Palm Beach with his pants down around his ankles, encouraging and covering up the love-em-and-leave-em sprees of the younger males of the family, just as he had seen done by most of the males of the Kennedy family from the time he was a spoiled, cheating little boy.
He was rich and secure enough that he could at any time have taken a year off, read Hayek and Rothbard and Hazlitt and Bastiat and von Mises, contemplated what he might accomplish if he were to bend his inherited wealth and power to making Americans more truly prosperous and free. (Heck, even George McGovern finally retired and invested in a New England motel, coming to learn the terrors of the very regulatory government bureaucracies he had once so cheerfully fostered.)
Ted Kennedy never did. It was not in his nature. There does not appear to have been a contemplative, self-questioning bone in his body.
I have never hated the Kennedys. I do not hate wealth, nor the personal freedom it brings. All Americans should seek wealth, at least for the betterment of their own families, and if they can do so by flouting stupid government prohibitions, selling an honest product to willing buyers, as Joe Kennedy Sr. did, well, more power to them. (Though I do wonder why us little guys are no longer "allowed" to set up immortal family trusts as useful and tax-proof as those established by families like the Kennedys and the Rockefellers, so many decades ago. Why them, and not us? Are we now governed by some kind of feudal aristocracy, after all?)
The more interesting question is what one sets out to do with wealth, power and privilege.
The family wealth, power and privilege got Ted Kennedy back into Harvard after that little cheating thing. It got him a suspended sentence for "leaving the scene of an accident" after his drunken driving caused the death of Mary Jo Kopechne -- if that's really what happened -- just as the family wealth and power covered up that little security problem when young Lt. John Kennedy ignored all advice and continued his affair with that married lady and suspected Nazi spy during World War II. The Kennedy boys were taught that their family wealth and power would get them out of anything.
But will they get us out of anything? Are Americans more free today than before Ted Kennedy put on his engineer's cap and started running the little toy train set he inherited from his older brothers?
The liberals will lie to themselves and to us, screeching, "Yes! The poor are more 'free' of hunger and poverty and fear of guns and drugs, thanks to all the wise new prohibitions we have enacted, all the loot the Left has seized and redistributed from you greedy rich guys!"
Perhaps I should have said, some of us now awaken from a dream of 50 years.
Government still runs -- at massive expense, funded by unprecedented looting and borrowing, in part thanks to Teddy Kennedy -- a compulsory confinement school system designed to indoctrinate successive generations in the wisdom and righteousness of government looting and coercion, though it's no longer so good at teaching spelling, geography, history or even "counting change."
Government has bureaucratized and thus seriously degraded large parts of the best medical system in the world, and seems determined to finish the job, since they know their socialized Medicare and Medicaid schemes will soon go bankrupt unless the vampires are given large new docile herds to feed upon.
Now they even threaten to punish through economically crippling taxation the production of energy. Energy!
Everywhere we look we see government, as vast, terrifying and powerful as Shelley's famous statue of Ozymandias. It is the monument of Ted Kennedy, the man who could not explain why he should be -- or even why he wanted to be -- president. An achievement of those who accrue votes and wealth and power as ends in themselves without ever stopping to contemplate why everything they do requires some new and even larger exercise in Draconian coercion, some new and even larger allocation of looted wealth, to supposedly "fix" what they messed up the last time.
This is Ted Kennedy's monument. It is built on sand.
Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal and author of the books "The Ballad of Carl Drega" and "The Black Arrow." See www.vinsuprynowicz.com/ and http://www.lvrj.com/blogs/vin/.