Sunday, August 30, 2009

Another Last Hurrah

I knew I was in Massachusetts when I visited a restaurant with a JFK room. We ate there when we were still looking for houses, I think, and still brand new to the place. (You wouldn't find a Kennedy room in the godless badlands of Connecticut.) Hey, can we sit in that roo...umm? Every wall was covered with Kennedy kitsch: commemorative plates, oil portraits, framed photographs. Positively creepy, like dinner in a church with all the saints watching you eat from the stained glass. I'm the wrong age to have idolized John Kennedy. His sudden loss, and Bobby's, shocked my parents' generation. As presidencies go, I'll just say there are better and worse interpretations, and I'm an amply rewarded pessimist when it comes to politics. As far as nobility goes, I think we could have asked for better camera fodder in the age of snapshots and video footage, but I realize I'm in the minority about that one.

One of things to go right in the American experiment was the abolition of royalty, and this whole Camelot thing really bugs me. Pushing privilege through generations may be another inevitable pimple on the pizza-face of governance, but I refuse to celebrate it. Although if there were titled aristocracy here, I admit I could see the Kennedy family as a good Yankee version. Count old Joe Kennedy as the American product of balls, charisma, amoral investment strategy, and political networking, raising himself to the level of raucous nouveau noblesse, inventing tradition on the fly, but meaning, without question, to make it stick in the family through his heirs. What the family did with the power, once established, was as interesting as these things always are.

Ted Kennedy was a senator for longer than I have been alive. Young, irresponsible Kennedy was well before my time. Memories of a failed presidential contender are also vague. The Ted Kennedy I "knew" had the physique of a life-long drinker (who'd have guessed cancer would do him in?), spoke large, seemed sincerely and indiscriminately genial, and supported government programs without apologizing to conservatives, which is impressive for his time. Leave the political eulogy for the people who actually love this stuff.

For his efforts to help out the people, a sense of noblesse oblige is often thrown around, but while it gets to the point, it doesn't feel like the right term. Ted's grandfather was a Boston machine politician, and the give-back tradition is as much a system of an elaborate patronage, a dynamic, connected, interaction with the community, than it is a duty of the aristocracy. A political machine used to move, power had to be bought, and the system had to be maintained--city machines were run by bosses, not lords. Ted Kennedy's unapologetic caring for the little guys as he saw them, his garrulousness, his chumminess and comfortable movement within the bureaucratic sphere, seems like a throwback to the old urban versions. Ted strikes me as the Frank Skeffington of a modern age, now connected to a bigger web, better educated, evolved past the city, and incorporating contemporary electoral mechanisms and national avenues of power, but still able to gladhand every Joe on the street.

Like in Edwin O'Connor's novel, it feels like some era is passing with Ted Kennedy's death. I'd be hard pressed to tell you what era it is though. Politicians operating on some straightforward model of public morality? Political family legacies? Personable bureaucrats? These don't really seem to have left us. You can never quite shake out the last hurrah.


Aaron said...

Well said.

Schmutzie said...

Ambiguous would be the word to describe my feelings about Ted. I was 10 years old, all hyped up about these dudes about to walk on the moon, and he takes a long drive off a short pier on Chappaquiddick.

His salvaging of a legacy after that has to be acknowledged. Anybody else would have dropped off the friggin' political map.

Hell of a summer when I think about it. Moon landing. Chappaquiddick. Manson. Woodstock. Cubs collapse.

artandsoul said...


Keifus said...

That degree of money and influence buys you all the second chances you need. (Why, didn't I just read that yet another Kennedy is worming his way into Illinois politics? Ain't rid of 'em yet.) It's backhanded praise to say that he could have done worse with them, but he certainly came out looking better in the end than, say, the problem child of the Bush family.

Didn't the cubs collapse about sixty years before that?

K (and thanks, y'all)

twif said...

don't the cubs collapse every year?

Schmutzie said...

Uh, did I say "ambiguous?"

Forgive me, I meant to say ambivalent (bet you figured that out already.) There's a whole new generation of Kennedys positioning themselves for careers in politics. Ted wasn't the end of the line.

Yeah, good point, the original Cub collapse was in '08, and Twif is also right, as they tend to collapse annually.

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