America’s conscience

Neal Gabler is at work on a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.

In assessing the legacy of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, most eulogies have begun by celebrating his legislative achievements, which have touched virtually every American. He is routinely -- and rightly -- placed among the greatest senators who ever lived. Others have pointed to his less tangible contributions to the nation -- that as his brothers’ heir, he kept the Kennedys’ progressive flame lit and continued to carry the torch for the least powerful among us.

Both of these, however, were more than a matter of his fulfilling a role as America’s foremost liberal. Ted Kennedy’s own, perhaps even larger and more enduring legacy is that he also became America’s guilty conscience. In a time of rampant individualism, national self-satisfaction, international preening and bullying, and constant self-justification, he kept reminding us of our better angels -- of how great we should and could be, if we chose compassion over complacency.

Of course, Kennedy was no scold. He arrived at his position of national conscience not through some moral perfection, God knows, but through a nearly 50-year psychodrama that became one of the nation’s most riveting spectacles. It was a drama in three powerful acts. In Act One, handsome young Ted Kennedy arrived on the political scene as a result of his brothers’ ascension and, through a sort of primogeniture, assumed his own role on the national stage. He was a diligent, deferential legislator, but everyone knew that he hadn’t earned the seat; he had inherited it, just as it was assumed he would one day inherit the presidency after Jack and Bobby.


In the tragic second act, after his brothers’ deaths and after he had inherited not the presidency but their political mantle, Kennedy compromised all that he had been given. It began with Chappaquiddick, continued with a decade of womanizing and debauchery, and climaxed with his nephew’s arrest for rape in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1991, on a night when Kennedy had induced the young man -- who was later cleared -- to go out for drinks at a local bar. He remained a great senator, but he was now also America’s fallen angel, his halo badly bent.

And then came the levitating third act. Publicly confessing his errant ways, committing himself to do better, and then marrying a woman who helped him fulfill that promise, Kennedy achieved redemption. He fought even more ferociously for the powerless and voiceless. He demonstrated personally and politically what it meant to be rehabilitated. He reassumed his moral authority.

It was an extraordinary performance, not least because Kennedy’s personal psychodrama mirrored the nation’s. His divisions were our divisions; his struggles, our struggles. Kennedy was us.

It was said of him that he was the least complex of the Kennedys. Jack was coolly ironic -- still waters that ran very deep. Bobby was black Irish, tough, passionate and mercurial. And Ted was the family jester -- a boisterous, backslapping Irishman.

But Ted was very much a bifurcated man. He was torn between a rich boy’s self-indulgence and very real altruism; between a darkness of soul born of tragedy and inner demons and a lightness of spirit. What we saw over the course of his long career was how Kennedy, fallible where his brothers seemed infallible, human where they seemed godly, attempted to work through his contradictions, to reconcile them, to call on his own better angels to defeat his lesser ones.

Just as he worked these things through, the nation, gifted as he was, was torn between its self-indulgent and altruistic sides; its pragmatic and idealistic sides; its dark and light sides, especially as it moved into the Reagan years.

It is not incidental that the three acts of Kennedy’s life correspond to the three stages of anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s stages of the life cycle of a hero. The hero arrives; he undergoes an awful test, usually in some netherworld; and then, having survived, he returns to share with us what he has learned from his trial.

The lesson Kennedy shared with us through the Reagan and then the Bush years, after having survived his own dip into the netherworld, was just how critical it was for us to be more compassionate, more generous, more tolerant, more courageous. In short, to be greater.

In the end, he won his battle with the forces that had engulfed him because he came to realize what he meant to the people who needed him. The nation wasn’t as lucky, or rather as perspicacious, as he was. Kennedy was redeemed. We are not. Self-interest, pragmatism and darkness have too often triumphed, and the recent history of the country is, by almost any measure, a history of national smallness, not greatness.

That is precisely why Ted Kennedy matters. What we loved and admired in him, what we hope for ourselves and our country, is his sense of moral largeness, his unbounded capacity to care, not because he was a saint but because he wasn’t. By challenging us as he challenged himself, and reminding us where we fall short, Kennedy shames us, a gift that, one suspects, will linger in the national soul.