Republicans loved and loathed Edward M. Kennedy, a duality reflected in the tributes and condemnation that flowed Wednesday across the political aisle -- and underscored the difficulty promoting the kind of bipartisan spirit that was Kennedy’s legislative hallmark.
Establishment Republicans showered the late Massachusetts Democrat with statements expressing their high regard and personal affection.
“For close to five decades, Sen. Ted Kennedy followed in his family’s long tradition and served his country with great distinction,” said Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “His legacy should serve as an inspiration to anyone interested in public service.”
Similar praise flowed from former President George H.W. Bush, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Nancy Reagan and a chorus of congressional Republicans.
But a far different message echoed amid the cacophony of talk radio and across the conservative blogosphere, where Kennedy was excoriated for his liberal politics and, especially, the 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a political volunteer, off Chappaquiddick Island, Mass.
Some said good riddance and even wished for Kennedy’s eternal damnation.
“If you can’t say something nice about a person then say mean things about them instead,” wrote Andrew Breitbart, a Washington Times columnist and a leading conservative blogger. “Especially if they are unapologetic manslaughterers.”
In that way, the response to Kennedy’s passing summed up one of the biggest political changes in his lifetime: from an era when courtesy was common and negotiation was a valued skill to an age when public conversation has coarsened and many of the loudest voices in both major parties treat compromise as surrender.
The current case in point: the growing gulf between Democrats and Republicans on healthcare reform, which Kennedy championed throughout his career.
“With cable TV and with talk radio, there is a tendency to go to the extremes: far right, far left,” said Republican Kenneth M. Duberstein, a former chief of staff in the Reagan White House and one of the wise elders of Washington.
“What Sen. Kennedy profoundly understood was that we are a nation of incrementalists who like our progress in bite-size pieces. . . . He made the art of compromise not a four-letter word and yet, for many [outside Congress] it is,” Duberstein said.
In remembering Kennedy (who, it should be said, never shrank from political combat) many Republicans bemoaned that shift in tone and attitude once the campaign season has ended.
Some, in a backhanded jab, questioned the ability of any other Democrat to work across political lines the way Kennedy did throughout his decades on Capitol Hill.
“He had this unique capability to sit people down at a table together -- and I’ve been there on numerous occasions -- and really negotiate, which means concessions,” Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican nominee for president, said on CNN. “And so, he not only will be missed, but he has been missed.”
The contrasting Republican response to Kennedy’s death, between the kind words of party professionals and the attacks from untethered activists, illustrates the forces tugging at the GOP as it struggles with its minority status in Washington.
The anger from the conservative base, manifested this month at town hall meetings across the country, helps explain why Republican leaders have chosen to fight rather than compromise with the Obama administration.
But the varied reactions also speak to something more elemental: the difference between knowing someone as an individual rather than a political caricature.
“If you’ve ever served in elected office, it really doesn’t take you very long to understand that people, while they have a different view than yours, may be just as sincere and just as honest in their views and have the same kind of commitment to a better society . . . as you do,” said Mickey Edwards, who spent 16 years in Congress, including a stint in the Republican House leadership.
“You give kind of a red-meat speech,” said Edwards, now a vice president of the Aspen Institute, a leadership training organization. “But you respect the other guy.”
“My friend, Ted Kennedy, was famous before he was accomplished. But by the end of his life he had become irreplaceable in the institution he loved and in the affections of its members.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)