The Late Ted Kennedy

An especially insightful review of Ted Kennedy’s memoir True Compass appeared on The American Prospect over the weekend. It may be of interest to members of the Unsilent Generation, not only because so many of us grew up—and grew old—with Teddy, but also because it is a homage to the wisdom and fortitude that came to him with age. In a review titled “He Kept the Flame,” Harold Meyerson points out that Kennedy’s real achievements were made late in life, when he was bucking the dominant political tide. “The essential Ted Kennedy,” he writes, “only truly emerged as he sought to keep the nation and his party from moving rightward”:  

For decades, the [Democratic] party had been losing the support of working-class whites (and gaining support among professionals). It had been complicit in the evisceration of American manufacturing and had generally grown more centrist in its economics. For Kennedy, however, the Democrats had an enduring compact with working Americans, one they had to renew every generation by enacting such policies as universal health care. Though the party moved rightward during the age of Reagan, Kennedy writes, “I maintained my conviction that the working-class majority forged by Roosevelt remained our best hope for justice and progress.” 

The appreciations of Kennedy’s achievements that followed his death this summer noted, of course, that he was the only one of the Kennedy brothers to be given a long career and that his list of accomplishments was, accordingly, a long one. But in measuring Ted’s work alongside that of Jack and Bobby, another key difference also emerges: His brothers were liberal political leaders during an age of liberalism. Ted was liberalism’s leading standard-bearer in a time of conservatism, a time when conservatism made inroads into his own political party. 

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