The End of an Era
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.