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Sat., Aug. 29, 2009, midnight

Privilege tempers Kennedy legacy

They called him “The Liberal Lion.” Ted Kennedy deserved that title, though with some asterisks added. There’s no reconciling Kennedy worshippers with the Kennedy haters. But those who can deal with shades of gray will pay tribute to the legendary Massachusetts senator who championed landmark legislation through bipartisan cooperation – but whose sense of family privilege didn’t always serve the interests of democracy.

No one can deny Kennedy’s contributions. He pushed through the Civil Rights Act, Freedom of Information Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Through his odd-couple relationship with Utah conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch, Kennedy helped win major AIDS legislation. And we hope that his four-decade crusade to extend health coverage to all Americans will end in victory this year.

Less commendable was the senator’s penchant for capitalizing on Kennedy nostalgia to further family interests. Ted’s three brothers died young and under tragic circumstances. Joe fell heroically in World War II. Two brothers, President John F. Kennedy and New York Sen. Bobby Kennedy, were assassinated. Kennedy used the powerful brew of public emotion to fuel unwarranted political ambition.

Ted did not create the Kennedy Dynasty: While he was in diapers, his father Joe was already long on the project. True democrats (with a small “d”) frown on the notion of ruling families, but Ted tirelessly worked the “Kennedy mystique” to advance himself and kin.

After Bobby died, Ted made this claim to the presidency: “Like my brothers before me, I pick up a fallen standard.” That would have been a fine speech for a Shakespearean prince assuming his father’s throne. But it should have troubled a country born out of opposition to hereditary rule more than it did.

Then Chappaquiddick happened, and the closest he would ever come to the presidency was a 1980 protest challenge against incumbent Jimmy Carter. Questions still swirl around Kennedy’s conduct that night, when he drove a car off a bridge and a female passenger drowned. That and his expulsion from Harvard for cheating on a test would have ended most political careers, but Kennedy had the family name to propel him into a 47-year tenure in the Senate.

Kennedy subsequently “placed” his son Patrick into a House seat from Rhode Island. Patrick is a very appealing person, but his serial problems with drugs and alcohol – crises that continue – should have disqualified him for this kind of responsibility.

Earlier this year, Kennedy tried to slip his niece Caroline Kennedy into the New York Senate seat left vacant when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state. Several hard-working New York Democrats were already vying for that office. Caroline had never run for anything and proved herself temperamentally unsuited for the rough-and-tumble. Still, it was startling to see an airhead faction of the Democratic elite so eager to throw their longtime public servants overboard for Kennedy sparkle.

In the year since Ted’s dire diagnosis, Massachusetts Democrats have been pondering which Kennedy will take his Senate seat, as though the voters have little to do with it. “According to local conventional wisdom,” writes Joan Vennochi in the Boston Globe, Bobby’s son Joe “has the right of first refusal.” (Tom Paine must be turning in his grave.)

America was founded on ideas, not royal families. That’s why recent talk of lawmakers voting for health care reform as “a tribute to Ted Kennedy” is so off base. Congress should pass it because the legislation would be good for the country. And if in doing so, they wish to praise Kennedy’s fine ideas and hard work in creating the reforms, that would be entirely appropriate.

May the good that Ted Kennedy has done live after him.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for the Providence Journal.

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