On Teddy Kennedy's 60th birthday, in look...


February 29, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

LAST SATURDAY, on Teddy Kennedy's 60th birthday, in look back to an earlier "character issue" campaign, I promised to quote this Saturday what I described as "one of the best, most succinct comments" on character in politics and relate it to Chappaquiddick.

The quote involved the 1884 presidential contest between Democrat Grover Cleveland, who had fathered an illegitimate child, and Republican James G. Blaine, who had engaged in highly unethical financial dealings while speaker of the House of Representatives.

Out of a babble of negative campaigning that would make this year's seem mild, a voice of great wisdom was heard from an anonymous Chicagoan at a New York conference of Mugwumps. As quoted by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the Wall Street Journal recently:

"We are told that Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in private life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in his personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is well qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private status which he is admirably fitted to adorn."

The conflict between political and private morality has occupied deep thinkers over the years. It has produced good drama, for example Gore Vidal's "The Best Man." I, myself, once wrote a book based on the premise that, "What happened during several hours on Chappaquiddick Island tells us something about what kind of president Ted Kennedy would be. But what has happened in thousands of hours on the Senate floor tells us more."

I don't apologize for that view. At least I didn't go as far as Schlesinger Jr., who once said that not only didn't Chappaquiddick disqualify Teddy but that it improved his presidentialness! ("I think that with Chappaquiddick the iron went into Edward Kennedy's soul.")

I'll say this: Chappaquiddick made Kennedy a better senator. It did because it focused his attention on his Senate duties. And because it kept him in the Senate. He probably would have been elected president in 1976 or 1980 if it had not been for Chappaquiddick.

I assume my regular readers don't need to have explained to them what a Mugwump is. My regular readers are very smart. In fact, smart alec.

I'll come back to that in a second. But first, for you newcomers to the political trivia game, a Mugwump is a maverick, originally a Republican who bolted the party in 1884 to support Cleveland over Blaine. It's an Indian word meaning "chief."

Another definition, popularized in the 1930s and aimed at fence straddlers, is bogus: "A sort of a bird that sits on a fence with his mug on one side and his wump on the other."

Now about those smart alecs. Last Saturday I made a tiny, insignificant little error about the 1884 election. It prompted a stream of gleefully abusive mail, which I shall report on next Saturday.

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