Let's let Teddy be Teddy

Keith Burris

May 08, 1991|By Keith Burris

WILLIAM Kennedy Smith, as everyone in America who has the leisure to notice such things knows, has been accused of rape by a Florida woman. The case has touched off a media feeding frenzy in Palm Beach, where it is portrayed as a good old-fashioned crime scandal among the rich and libidinous. But it has also rekindled the ongoing debate about the Kennedys and the last of their brave knights -- the seemingly least of the brothers -- Edward.

The Kennedy family appears to be permanently engaged in a struggle against tragedy, sadness and finitude. Trouble seeks them out and the Kennedys, in return, seem to wrap themselves up in it. We all know people and families of this kind. But few are treated -- or expect to be treated -- as American nobility.

Why should royalty be theirs? One reason is that the Kennedys epitomize something essential in the American spirit -- our belief in our own rectitude. Call it the myth of American exceptionalism. The Kennedys have been its priests and patron saints.

The Kennedy myth is a case study in an older, deeply ingrained vision of America as a people set apart. John Kennedy's inaugural address was a credo of exceptionalism. It championed the belief that the nation that is rich, smart and tough enough is a nation that will prevail. John Kennedy himself epitomized the belief that the man who is rich, charming and tough enough is a demigod. Such nations set themselves above history. Such men may set themselves above commonly accepted rules of conduct, and sometimes even the law.

The Kennedy family has been raised to believe in its own, and in America's, special qualities. The family elders have instructed their young in this belief. The Kennedy gravesites celebrate the family's separate status. Kennedy awards in journalism and other fields do, too. There is a Kennedy Center for the arts, Kennedy special Olympics and even a Kennedy school of government.

But set apart so long, the Kennedys have finally come to seem more like national pets -- a family in a bubble -- than demigods. Their specialness has isolated them and their isolation makes their tragedies seem all the more pathetic. It is time for them, and us, to grow up.

I believe Edward Kennedy is a highly able senator. Recently he introduced a bill to make Head Start an entitlement, a guarantee to poor children in America. That's a good idea. Almost everyone in Washington knows it. Head Start is one of the few programs in government that works. Kennedy is one of the few legislators who is willing to try to extend it.

But the very thing that makes it possible for the senator to take on this important issue makes it unlikely that he will create new law. He is Teddy Kennedy, so he is expected to speak out on bleeding-heart causes. He is Teddy Kennedy, so his supporters accept the costs of his proposals without complaint. But his support is also proscribed because he is Teddy Kennedy. There is little possibility that he will take his case to the nation and build a popular majority. He is, at once, politically untouchable and impotent.

It would take courage for Mario Cuomo to take the Head Start stand; for Edward Kennedy there is little cost because finally, it is only a stand. Neither does the nation expect to be convinced by him on national health insurance -- despite the obvious need for such a program.

Edward seldom gives a speech without talking about Jack and Bobby and what it means to be a Kennedy. "If Jack were here, if Bobby were here, they'd be for this bill . . . " Wouldn't it be better for him, and his ideas, to stand on his own? After 30 years in the Senate, isn't it time?

Kennedy could have had a very good political career -- and I suspect happier one -- as his own man. Just plain old Ted, not the surviving prince. But he has adopted the burden of leading the royal family of a chosen people.

Edward Kennedy is really not the least of the brothers. In many ways he is less of a chauvinist in foreign policy than his brothers were. He is certainly a better senator. But he will always seem small next to the legends that he himself has worked so hard to inflate. So long a martyrdom is the standard by which he is judged, he will never measure up. It is time for Edward Kennedy and the American public to put away childish things.

Kennedy agonistes. The Kennedy family, led by Ted, bears burdens the rest of the country would rather ignore and, in return, the country accepts the Kennedy family's continuing trials as its own. How much better it would be to let Teddy be Teddy. No more the keeper of the flame, he could be an aging senator, an incrementalist and insider, the happy pol in the St. Pat's parade.

If America let the Kennedy family alone they could begin to learn to live with themselves, not as heroic human beings, but as mere people. The United States could take one small step toward being a nation among nations, as opposed to an empire with regal heads.

Public life, as seen through the mythography of the Kennedys, is the worst of American politics. It is neither a raft, nor a vocation but a melodrama. In such a symbolic universe, the everyday work of statecraft is lost. The fundamental equality of citizens implied by the dialogue that is politics is lost. The humility necessary to democracy is lost. All is grandeur and tragedy, until it slowly degenerates into pathos and farce.

Keith Burris writes for the Hartford Courant.

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