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September 1, 2009
Remembering Kennedy, and Cooling the Rhetoric
It was 1998, and
President Clinton and Vice President Gore were working with Senate and
House Democratic leaders to stage party “unity” events around the
country, hoping to build the grassroots enthusiasm that would help elect
as many Democrats to Congress that year as possible.
At an event in Boston,
Clinton and Gore were joined on stage by Ted Kennedy, who did his best
to rally the troops. Alluding to that year’s home run competition
between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, however, Kennedy mangled the names,
calling McGwire Mike and mispronouncing Sosa’s name as Sooo-sa.
When Kennedy returned
to his seat, and with the crowd still snickering, Gore whispered in his
ear to explain his mishap. “That’s OK,” Kennedy replied with a laugh,
“I’ll blame it on my accent.”
Kennedy had clearly
come to mean what he had said 18 years earlier at the 1980 Democratic
National Convention: “We have learned that it is important to take
issues seriously, but never to take ourselves too seriously.”
It was among Kennedy’s
most endearing attributes, one about which we have heard much in the
last week. Over many years in the spotlight, through personal tragedies
both self-inflicted and otherwise, with his family name shaping public
expectations about him, the fourth of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s sons had
finally achieved a personal self-confidence and professional
No, he would never be
president. Nor was it clear, from his troubled 1980 campaign to unseat
fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter, that he really wanted the job. That he
could not, in an interview that year with CBS’ Roger Mudd, provide a
coherent answer to the softball question, “Why do you want to be
president?” may have said more about his ambivalent feelings than we
suspected at the time.
Kennedy was most at
home on Capitol Hill, where he served as the Senate’s leading liberal
voice, mastered the arcane machinery of law-making and compiling a
record of accomplishment – in, for instance, health, education, labor
and civil rights – that puts him in the very top ranks of lawmakers in
While not taking
himself too seriously, he also learned another key to legislative
success: He would not take seriously the harsh words directed at him.
And he would launch harsh attacks at others with the same thought in
mind – that they were deployed for the battle at hand and nothing more.
So, Kennedy would seek
to lambaste his opponents one minute, cut deals with them the next and
drink with them after that. He was the party leader as bipartisan
bridge-builder, the fighter as conciliator.
That it was key to his
success, however, says something not just about Kennedy but about our
politics – something worth mulling at a time of enormous challenge and
bitter partisanship in Washington.
In normal life, words
matter. They can soothe or sting, strengthen or fray ties, generate
warmth or leave scars. At their harshest, they can split a family, end a
friendship and poison a working environment.
Only in politics are
words supposed to affect just the battle at hand and leave no permanent
damage to relationships.
When President Reagan
tapped Robert Bork for the Supreme Court in 1987, Kennedy set the tone
for the angry confirmation battle ahead, unfairly asserting on the
Senate floor that day: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women
would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at
segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors
in midnight raids, (and) school children could not be taught about
evolution . . .”
Then, during Bork’s
courtesy calls on senators in early July, Kennedy told Bork privately
that his opposition was “nothing personal, you understand,” according to
Battle for Justice, Ethan Bronner’s book about the highly-charged
nomination. Bork did not understand, nor did his wife and family.
Kennedy’s Senate speech
about Bork was unduly harsh, but political discourse in America has only
grown coarser in recent years. Opponents of President Obama’s health
care proposal, for instance, have paraded doctored pictures of him with
a Hitler-style mustache at town hall meetings.
The harsher the
rhetoric, the harder for anyone on the receiving end – politician
or otherwise – to let bygones be bygones.
So, while we celebrate
Kennedy’s example and urge lawmakers to set aside their differences and
work together, we should all tone down our rhetoric. Otherwise,
both they – and we – will have too much anger to overcome.
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