Before Aisle Became A Chasm, There Was Ted Kennedy

August 30, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

Camelot, Schmamelot.

Despite some of the headlines, what died this week was something that never actually was: The Kennedy Camelot, we now know, was largely myth, created in the wake of a president's assassination and offering a context in which to process so traumatic a national event.

But when Ted Kennedy died this week, it was as a man, not a myth. That is the price, or actually the gift, of living to be an old man rather than dying as a young one.

What he left behind was something more earthbound than lofty, more practical than poetic. And yet, given our current fractious politics, perhaps it is exactly what we need.

The deceptively simple ability to cross the aisle.

In the tide of tributes and personal reminiscences since the senator's death Tuesday night, among the most touching have been the ones from across the political aisle - a phrase that may need updating now that the aisle seems to have widened into a veritable canyon.

It shouldn't be so noteworthy, but sadly it is, that the standard bearer of Democratic liberalism had so many deep and abiding friendships with conservative Republicans.

Among those friends were Senate colleagues like John McCain and Orrin Hatch, who spoke at Kennedy's memorial service Friday night, and even, as Peggy Noonan wrote about in her Wall Street Journal column this week, Ronald Reagan.

That such political polar opposites had such a warm personal relationship is one of those things that initially seems surprising, but ultimately makes perfect sense. As Noonan characterized their meshing, "grace met grace."

Today, when the dominant mood of politics seems to be anger, the concept of grace seems quaint, naive even.

It's hard to imagine a less graceful political moment than now, although of course it is part of living in such hyper-aware, self-referential times to imagine that everything is the best or the worst that it has ever been.

But the fact that health care reform, a cause near and dear to Kennedy's heart, would become the battleground of a particularly vicious, take-no-prisoners political war makes his death seem even the greater loss.

Not that any one person, even one so skilled a legislator as Kennedy, could change the perfect-storm dynamic that we find ourselves in today. The usual pressures from industry and political groups, coupled with the beet-faced anger of the town hall protesters, have a chokehold on efforts to reform the health care system.

The lines are hardening by the day, and you have to wonder who, if anyone, will be able to broker the kind of compromises that Kennedy once was able to hammer out, whether he was working with President George W. Bush on No Child Left Behind or with McCain on immigration reform. Even if those efforts didn't end entirely in success - immigration reform remains an even hotter political button than health care reform - at this point, any bipartisan efforts seem like a bit of a victory.

Instead, we are at the point that even talking, let alone walking, across the aisle is viewed in some quarters as treasonous. A county GOP official in Iowa was able to draw cheers at a recent town hall meeting by demanding that his senator, Charles Grassley, a Republican, drop out of bipartisan talks with colleagues, the so-called Gang of Six, who are trying to develop a health care bill in the Senate.

"I have a great deal of concern with your continuing to negotiate," the county chairman said, according to a Bloomberg News report. This to a senator who already seems to come up with daily deal-breakers for any health care bill - it can't have a public option, it can't have end-of-life counseling, it should have not just 51 but 80 of 100 Senate votes.

One man's passing in and of itself is never the end of an entire era, and yet it is sometimes only after the death of someone as looming on the landscape as Kennedy that there is pause to consider just how much that landscape had been changing all along.

The clubby, collegial Senate that he came to symbolize no doubt died before he did. And it wasn't just the Senate, but everything about politics - the way politics is practiced, covered by the media and followed by the public.

You have to wonder what it was like to serve over a span of time that encompassed so much change, from a time when it was a largely patrician institution, to now, when the heated debates on the Internet and cable news and talk radio tend to outshout those of the so-called greatest deliberative body in the world.

And you have to wonder what it was like for Kennedy in particular to live long enough to "comb gray hair," as he once quoted an Irish poet - during a eulogy for yet another Kennedy, JFK Jr., who died dark-haired.

His own was a messy, complicated life, one not easily placed in the good-or-evil, utter-failure-or-total-triumph, one-or-the-other categories that we use as instant score cards these days.

It's ironic, but we've heard more about how great compromise is these last few days in regard to the late legislator than to the current health care legislation. Any sign of moving toward the middle in the health care debate from either the left or the right, is viewed as caving in rather an attempt to compromise.

Perhaps that will be one of Kennedy's legacies - to restore the idea that to compromise is, well, compromising.

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