Saturday, August 29, 2009

The End of an Era

I have a very great deal to write about today, and may even divide it into two posts, one today and one tomorrow. But I must begin once again with the matter that has quadrupled the traffic here at historyunfolding: the totally fraudulent email that has been circulating since around April, attributing a right-wing rant comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler to myself. In addition to making me far more widely known than any of my books, this email has given me, interestingly enough, an indicator of the strength and virulence of conservative activism. For a while back in June it had raised hits on the blog from about 90 a day to about 300, but during July they had fallen back to about 200 a day. Now, undoubtedly because of the health care controversy, they have surged again, and during the last seven days there have been more than 3500 hits here, which I think must be a new record. I am also receiving more frequent phone calls from Americans--usually elderly Americans--who want to compliment me on my supposed insights, and my namesake in another university, who also gets a few emails on the topic every week, got one that asked if I had ever thought of running for President. (For the record, no.) I keep waiting for Rush Limbaugh, who has been shamelessly pushing the Obama-Hitler comparison himself, to call me to talk it over, but perhaps his researchers are smart enough to do the quick google search that will bring them here or to and learn the truth. In any case, conservatives are clearly agitating in cyberspace at a pace which liberals are not matching.

But the big news this week, of course, is the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, which has affected me far more than I would have thought. Of the three Kennedy brothers who at least made it to 30 he was the one I had not studied in detail, and I had never regarded him as presidential timber. His loss is however a shock because he is the only political figure of whom I had been continuously aware for more than 49 years, since I began reading about the Kennedy family in the 1960 campaign. He has been in the US Senate since I was 15, and he is a link, in many ways, to the more distant past. I shall now try to place him generationally and historically.

Two things about Teddy stand out in historical perspective: he belonged to what Strauss and Howe called an Artist or adaptive generation--those who spend their childhoods in periods of great crisis--and he was for decades a critical figure in our national legislature who never became President. The previous analogous generations in our national life were the Compromise generation, born in the last third of the eighteenth century, and the Progressive generation, born from about 1842 to 1862. It is in the Compromise generation, I think, that Kennedy's closest analogues can be found, specifically Henry Clay of Kentucky and John Quincy Adams from his own Massachusetts.

Although Adams did serve one term as President, his life shows more external parallels to Teddy's. To begin with, he owed his eminence, obviously, to his family connections, which gave him some diplomatic experience as a child (both his and Teddy's fathers represented the U.S. in London), and enabled him to reach the U.S. Senate at the age of 36. But he broke with the Federalist Party in 1808 and was soon dispatched by Madison to be Minister to Russia, where he played an important part in events leading to France's invasion of Russia in 1812 and Napoleon's downfall. Under Monroe, he became Secretary of State and is sometimes credited with the actual inspiration for the Monroe Doctrine.

Adams' first run for the Presidency in 1824 was actually not that much more successful than Teddy's only try in 1980. The party system had broken down at that point and Adams came in second, in both the popular and electoral votes, among four Democratic candidates, trailing Andrew Jackson in both. For the second and last time in our history the House of Representatives decided the election, and the fourth candidate, Henry Clay, who could not receive any votes, threw his support to Adams, who was elected. Jackson was outraged, all the more so when Clay became Adams' Secretary of State (and therefore, according to the precedent of the last quarter century, chosen successor as well.) Adams, whose Presidency therefore ranks as one of the three most disputed in our history, along with Rutherford B. Hayes and George W. Bush, never recovered from these circumstances--he was unpopular throughout his term and Jackson trounced him in 1828.

Adams' defeat was a terrible personal blow, because he believed he had found the solution to the great problem which, as he saw it, the United States had to solve: slavery. A vast national transportation system, he thought, could bring industry to the south, unify the country, and lead eventually to abolition. His defeat at the hands of a southerner seemed to put an end to such plans, but he did not retire. Instead he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Whig in 1830, and served there until his sudden death early in 1848. It is that part of his life which bears the most striking resemblance to Ted Kennedy's, especially in the last 28 years of Teddy's life.

What national health care was for Kennedy, slavery became for Adams. A few years ago I read a remarkable book by William Lee Miller, Arguing About Slavery, which focused on Adams' years in the House. The issue upon which Adams emerged as a leader was the annual presentation of anti-slavery petitions from abolitionist societies to the House of Representatives. So fearful of any frank discussion of slavery were the southern representatives that they habitually ruled such positions out of order, claiming that the subject could not be discussed by the national legislature. Over the course of more than a decade, Adams struggled to find a majority against this provision, and he eventually prevailed, opening the way for the great debates that led ultimately to the Civil War. Miller also showed, remarkably, that Adams, after much thought, had predicted how slavery would be abolished: either the federal government would be forced to intervene to subdue a widespread slave revolt, or the South would secede to preserve slavery, leading to civil war. In either case, the war power of the President would allow him to proclaim emancipation--exactly what happened when Abraham Lincoln, whose only term in the House coincided with Adams' last, came into office thirteen years after Adams' death. Meanwhile, he served as the chairman of several important committees, like Kennedy. And in 1841 he successfully argued the Amistad case before the Supreme Court, freeing a shipload of slaves who had overwhelmed their masters and managed to reach the northern United States. It is the role of Adams as the man who kept the slavery issue alive, helped bring it to the forefront of national politics, and anticipated its solution, which puts me most in mind of Ted Kennedy's role in health care, whose climax lies ahead.

Clay, born in 1777--ten years after Adams--came from very modest origins, but like Teddy, was certainly a boy wonder in politics. While Teddy was 31 when elected to the Senate in 1962, Clay was actually elected to fill out a term in 1806 when he was only 29! (He reached the legal age of 30 before Congress convened.) Elected as a Kentucky representative in 1811, he was immediately elected Speaker of the House--something that has never happened before or since--and played a major role in getting the US into the calamitous War of 1812. He remained speaker until 1824, when as we have seen his lost his first bid for the Presidency and became Secretary of State. In 1831 he was elected once again to the Senate where he remained for the rest of his life.

Clay played in the Senate the same role as Kennedy, that of the skilled legislature who worked on both sides of the aisle. He believed in a relatively strong national government, in a national transport network (what was then called "internal improvements"), and in the gradual emancipation of the slaves, which he also practiced in his own life. He enjoyed both liquor and gambling. He was the idol of a younger generation of anti-slavery Whigs, including both Horace Greeley, the newspaper editor, and Abraham Lincoln, who had begun his life in Clay's Kentucky. ("I revered Abraham Lincoln," Greeley wrote after both men were dead, "but I loved Harry Clay.") His last and most famous achievement was the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state and helped save the union for another ten years. Like Kennedy, he was the last great proponent of bipartisanship of his time, a man whose personal qualities allowed him to rise above controversy despite his own belief in issues.

For almost unique historical reasons, Edward Kennedy was that rarest of animals in modern American politics, a liberal with independent financial means and a totally safe seat. He used that position to keep the idea of liberalism alive until its time might come once again. In his last political master stroke, he realized that Barack Obama rather than Hillary Clinton held the key to the future, and helped swing the Democratic nomination Obama's way. (And although the President is weathering a heavy storm at the moment, I have not the slightest doubt that she would face opposition at least as heated, and that she would deal with it with much less grace.) And meanwhile, as so many articles have shown, he was a tireless legislator, truly interested (as his brothers never seemed to be) in the details of laws and their impacts, and enjoying the Senate for what it was.

On Wednesday night I attended a Town Hall about health care in another part of my state, hosted by both our Senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse. That most interesting experience will be the subject of another post, but I shall mention now that I had a chance to speak to Senator Reed. The meeting, I said, had illustrated the problem the Administration faces: while much of the country wants health reform, all the intensity seems to be on the other side. "That's where we miss Teddy," he said. So we do--and it is hard to think of any Boomer Democratic Senators whose speeches have aroused any particular attention. They must now step forward. Members of Artist generations, having been born during one crisis, almost never live through another one, and certainly not at an age when they can play a major part in events. Kennedy did what he could, and now it is up to us.



Ted Kennedy was a hypocrite and an
elitist. To me, he was the poster
child of what is wrong with not only Washington, DC but America in general. He was the head of the
DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO SOCIETY which pervades much of our society today, and it is not limited to Liberals, Democrats, Republicans or Independents. As I recall, he was the architect of the plan for "retirement" for all of the elected politicians in DC. In the first place, no politician should EVER stay in office long enough to
retire, much less get handsomely paid for doing so. To get elected and "serve" your country should be an honor, not a career. Once they got away with doing that, they discovered that people were not paying attention and that they could do pretty much whatever they pleased as long as they kept it under everyone's radar screen.
Then you can look back on his personal life which was a trail of shame. Let's face it; without his Kennedy name he would have been relegated to the dung pile of failures both educationally, politically and personally. Anyone else who left their secretary to drown in their car and wait 10 hours to report it would have been sent to prison. But not a Kennedy!
So, on what level can this man be
revered? I have none!

Anonymous said...

OUTTAHERE posits the proposition, that public service as a legislator should be a stint and not a profession, among other things.

What other endeavors are better served by people with only a small amount of experience rather a lot of expertise besides paperboy and barista? Does historian fall in that group?

Sonja Foxe said...

i thought about your comparing clay to kennedy, you are kind of right -- though clay's polarity severe with jackson provides the seeds of our party system tody, clay was the political mentor of mary todd via friendship with her father robert s, who served with harrison in thames ontario when samuel merton johnson felled tecumseh -- mary's unka henry was lincoln's beau ideal as a candidate, their relationship was forged in the whig campaign of 1840 clay lost out in the primaries to harrison who won.

my latest bon mot on kennedy: (or bons mots) predicted by nostradumus -- 3 brothers -- political parallels to the gracchis of rome who were 10 years apart in age and both assassinated, ted's the quintessence: a fifth of the spirit of the blended essences of the 3 kennedies & 2 gracchis

adds up doesn't it

sonja foxe

Peter said...

In my opinion, Ted Kennedy was a sad, pathetic figure. He was also a very powerful figure in both the U.S. Senate and the Democratic Party. Despite his apparent elitism and hypocrisy, he was repeatedly re-elected by the voters of Massachusetts. Why and how did this happen?

Anonymous said...

How can you ever overlook Chappaquiddick '69 in your assessment of Ted Kennedy? I always regret not having bought a bumper sticker that read, "Ted Kennedy's car has killed more people than my gun." This man was a menace to the "real" American way of life, and to see the liberal media make such a production over this man's death and funeral is disgusting. Has anyone ever thought to ask the Kopechne family how they feel about all this unwarranted hoopla?


Anonymous said...

David - My first thoughts went to the Progressive Era Senate - was there an Adams, Clay or Kennedy in the first quarter of the 20th Century?

I think Robert LaFollette Sr, born in 1855, fits the bill. He was the "Lion" of that era, who died just a year (1925) after mounting a strong 3rd Party challenge to Coolidge and Davis in 1924.

But a quick reminder view of Senate history at Wikipedia, generated two close "misses." Sen. Nelson Aldrich, who represented your current home state of RI was born in Nov. 1841 and long-time Sen. Majority Leader and 1928 VP nominees, Joseph Robinson of Arkansas - born in 1872. Robinson may have been more Harry Reid than Kennedy, but his blustering speeches are remindful of some of Kennedy's best moments on the Floor of the Senate.

Thank you for all your contining efforts at this blog and at I think you have correctly captured why this man and this moment dominated the media and our attention in the past week. Truly Ted Kennedy was the one non-Presidential political figure whose life story was so compelling to be this newsworthy and attention-getting.

Now, there are many here who haven't let go of their Kennedy-hate, or rather their Ted Kennedy-hate. I have, which is amazing. I grew up in an anti-Kennedy household - in fact the book "Teddy Bare" remained on my parent's bookshelves more than 20 years after Chappaquiddick. I long ago grew to admire his historical place in our society and the great efforts he made on behalf of working men and women and the poor. For me, two turning moments were shown repeatedly last week - his 1980 Convention speech and his "Not in Robert Bork's America" remarks at that confirmation hearing in 1986.

Not a perfect person, by any means, but truly one whose heart was in the right place these past 15 years. As to Chappaquiddick, I don't ascribe to the accidental tragic death of Mary K. as a form of murder, as an intentional act, or even as a malicious cover-up. In historical retrospect, I believe the man who addressed the publiuc with his apology in 1969. I wonder how an "Edward Moore" would have fared in that situation accidentally causing the death of a "Mary Kaye?" That great fishbowl he was under heaped great attention to the incident that a Mr. Moore would have never faced; however, did he get off with less punishment as a Kennedy than a Moore would have? We'll never know. I do think he was a cionfused distressed young man who accidentally caused the young woman's death, and should have deal;t with it so much differently than he did. But he didn't. And he came forward trulty a day late and a dollar short to have ever really secured sympathy for what happened.

Yet he moved on, he raised fine children, he nurtued his extended family, he protected and advocated for the people who needed it.

Ted Kennedy's gone now - time to movev on for the angry anti-Kennedy crowd.

Wes Volkenant

David Kaiser said...

Neil Howe also brought up LaFollette. He was a symbol of the Progressive era but I think he made his name with many reforms as Governor of Wisconsin, and he didn't give his name to much legislation. His run for the Presidency in 1924 was similar to Teddy's in 1980, actdually--that's probably the most similar thing about them. I always thought that Aldrich was a conservative and while I remember Robinson I'm not too sure of his career. A real parallel to Teddy would be George Norris, but he was a Missionary.(Actually, checking, Norris should be classed as a Progressive. He was born in 1861. Dating the Missionary gen from 1860 didn't make much sense, and I strongly suspect that S & H did that just to slip W J Bryan into it.)

8:48 AM

Jim Baxter said...

HUMANISM's self-chosen disability.....

Deterministic systems, ideological symbols of abdication
by man from his natural role as earth's Choicemaker,
inevitably degenerate into collectivism; the negation of
singularity, they become a conglomerate plural-based
system of measuring human value. Blunting an awareness
of diversity, blurring alternatives, and limiting the
selective creative process, they are self-relegated to
a passive and circular regression.

Tampering with man's selective nature endangers his
survival for it would render him impotent and obsolete
by denying the tools of variety, individuality,
perception, criteria, selectivity, and progress.
Coercive attempts produce revulsion, for such acts
are contrary to an indeterminate nature and nature's
indeterminate off-spring, man the Choicemaker.

Until the oppressors discover that wisdom only just
begins with a respectful acknowledgment of The Creator,
The Creation, and The Choicemaker, they will be ever
learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth.
The rejection of Creator-initiated standards relegates
the mind of man to its own primitive, empirical, and
delimited devices. It is thus that the human intellect
cannot ascend and function at any level higher than the
criteria by which it perceives and measures values.

Additionally, such rejection of transcendent criteria
self-denies man the vision and foresight essential to
decision-making for survival and progression. He is left,
instead, with the redundant wreckage of expensive hind-
sight, including human institutions characterized by
averages, mediocrity, and regression.

Humanism, mired in the circular and mundane egocentric
predicament, is ill-equipped to produce transcendent
criteria. Evidenced by those who do not perceive
superiority and thus find themselves beset by the shifting
winds of the carnal-ego; i.e., moods, feelings, desires,
appetites, etc., the mind becomes subordinate: a mere
device for excuse-making and rationalizing self-justifica-

The carnal-ego rejects criteria and self-discipline for such
instruments are tools of the mind and the attitude. The
appetites of the flesh have no need of standards for at the
point of contention standards are perceived as alien, re-
strictive, and inhibiting. Yet, the very survival of our
physical nature itself depends upon a maintained sover-
eignty of the mind and of the spirit.

It remained, therefore, to the initiative of a personal
and living Creator to traverse the human horizon and
fill the vast void of human ignorance with an intelli-
gent and definitive faith. Man is thus afforded the
prime tool of the intellect - a Transcendent Standard
by which he may measure values in experience, anticipate
results, and make enlightened and visionary choices.

Only the unique and superior God-man Person can deserved-
ly displace the ego-person from his predicament and free
the individual to measure values and choose in a more
excellent way. That sublime Person was indicated in the
words of the prophet Amos, "...said the Lord, Behold,
I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel."
Y'shua Mashiyach Jesus said, "If I be lifted up I will
draw all men unto myself."

As long as some choose to abdicate their personal reality
and submit to the delusions of humanism, determinism, and
collectivism, just so long will they be subject and re-
acting only, to be tossed by every impulse emanating from
others. Those who abdicate such reality may, in perfect
justice, find themselves weighed in the balances of their
own choosing.

"No one is smarter than their criteria."

Jim Baxter
semper fidelis
- from "2010 AD: The Season of Generation-Choicemaker"

Anonymous said...

Ted Kennedy was a despicable human being in many ways. His constant reelection speaks to the public's lack of serious interest in the most important function they have-voting. Our professional politicians keep getting reelected by knee jerk voting habits. The vote the straight party line lever is a travesty. But none of this matters as our education system is a complete failure(except for those who have perverted it). As Dr. Kaiser points out elsewhere our history, founding documents, and accomplishments are no longer taught- in fact, denigrated when even mentioned. Hitler knew the minds of youth were the way to hold power. America as we knew it is over unless some miraculous awakening occurs.

Stan Kreis said...

You (David Kaiser) wrote of some Town Hall meeting on health care, "The meeting, I said, had illustrated the problem the Administration faces: while much of the country wants health reform, all the intensity seems to be on the other side."

I want health reform, but not by this administration (I just don't trust this administration in anything they might do) and not without a thorough vetting before the public. Yet I am one who can be counted "on the other side."

In other words, your logic does not hold because your logical classes overlap. Bottom line: You're not that clever, and not that convincing to those who can see through your sophist arguments.

Sorry, I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I do mean to get the point across. I think this does.

And Kennedy was a murderer (not necessarily legally, but certainly at a minimum morally responsible) who got away with it because of priviledge and political connections unavailable to others. Interesting how you can so easily ignore that. We'll never know his responsibility precisely because of those connections. He probably spent his life trying to compensate by being uber liberal to wash his dirty linen.

Also, I think Rasmussen polling would be the basis for disputing your thesis that only a vocal minority are arrayed against the Obama Administration on healthcare. We are decidedly stronger.

Furthermore, you seemingly lack experience in accounting and economics, the basis to make the judgements in your blog regarding the government role in Medicare as a logical basis for a furtherance of an additional public option. That observation is just plain silly. I would make the case, instead, that the healthcare crisis is a result of mismanagement of Medicare. For instance, the government has so starved the medical community that we now face a dearth of doctors whose higher numbers would bring down costs to an equilibrium, sustainable level. Medicare was never and is not now sustainable. It is a poor model for a public option.

It might have been a better use of the money to create an insurance pool to backstop rather large tort awards. That is the sort of thing the government can do if the market is not available to provide the needed insurance. Or spend the money creating transparency in the insurance markets for doctors, for instance on accounting oversight.

One thing conservatives are about is just plain fiscal responsibility. Government spending must be in line with an economy's wealth and the projection of that wealth into the future. As a nation, we have been on a wrong-headed developmental trajectory since at least the 1930s. We need more of Reagan and less of FDR.

Longbow said...

Do you believe that Social Security is in danger over the next 50 years? If so, do you believe that if those individuals in Government who do not participate in it were forced to do so, then it would be fixed? If so, then apply that logic to Medicare and government control of the whole healthcare system.

Anonymous said...

Those essays attributed to you were interesting not so much in it's content but because the writer hid behind your credentials as if that might give it more substance. I do not put much weight on a persons academic background when it comes to the real world, the political and social problems we face. It's hard not to stereotype when 90% of the teachers I know, including some family members, are pompous and inflexible. Those I most respect in my life have been people with good common sense who struggled and achieved success through hard work. My uneducated grandparents were immigrants and labored to buy a better life for their children. My parents, neither were college graduates, worked in blue collar fields but supported all their children through college. They were still able to save, travel and enjoy their life before their deaths. My father died at 50 and my mother at 54. It's a shame that our government today is making it harder for honest working people by coddling those who refuse to do the same. No one gave my grandparents any breaks when they first arrived in this country yet they had wonderfully enriched lives.

Anonymous said...

I know this is well past the date you wrote this essay, but I only recently was forwarded the comments wrongly attributed to you and Googled your name to learn more about you.

Since your introduction to "The End of an Era" spent quite a few words making commentary on the "right-wing rant" I had hoped to see you actually use some of your insight to rebut the arguments made in that piece. Regardless of who the author is, the parallels cited between 1930s Germany and present day America deserve discussion and not simple disparagement of their point of view. I would expect an educator of your reputation to willingly take on this debate. With thousands of new hits, you missed a great opportunity. Perhaps you do not believe you can make effective counter-arguments?

David Kaiser said...

To anonymous:

Search the blog for "Weimar Republic" and you will find quite a few posts in which I have discussed those parallels without any difficulty at all.