WASHINGTON - To understand American politics — and what we are losing with the passing of Ted Kennedy — you need to know Ireland.
For 150 years, Irish-Americans have been lubricant in the machinery of public life. Their jovial, boastful, shrewd, and calculating (but ultimately companionable) sense of politics has been the heart and the hope of who we are as Americans.
With Kennedy’s death we have lost the last of that confident Irish ease — that gift for gab and the deal — and need to find it elsewhere, in some other ethnic tribe or immigrant group or groups. This is crucial if we are to survive this next great grinding of our governmental gears.
Ted Kennedy was the last of the great bipartisans, and that’s because he was the last of the great Irish-American politicians.
It has taken me a lifetime of work as a political reporter to acquire a sense of this game — one equivalent to that of an average Dublin bartender.
From whence that genetic knack? In ancient days, every chieftain had a bard to sing his praises — they were the first political consultants and spin doctors. Then the Irish learned the art of public debate as itinerant preachers, roaming the continent with leather-bound Psalters on their belts. And later still, they used those skills to protect their own — their lives, their families and their pride — from the depredations of the lordly British.
All of that accumulated skill and fierce determination they brought here, massing into the cities of the New World and becoming sinews of the nation their labor helped construct.
And all of that history told them that — while a bloody fight was sometimes necessary — a deal among adversaries was usually a better course for all, not to mention more fun. They revere Strongbow in Dublin (you can see his effigy in the city’s Christ Church Cathedral) but they value poets and politicians more.
Ted Kennedy was the Kennedy closest to that spirit. The other brothers were different – all of them heroes in one way or the other, all dying young. Ted was the prosaic survivor, not a hero, and not so much a romantic as the one who carried the load.
Let us not sugarcoat that lack of heroism. Forty summers ago, on a warm might, the car he was driving on Martha’s Vineyard skidded off the bridge at Chappaquiddick. The passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. Kennedy later called his decision to swim to safety and abandon the scene “indefensible”.
That event, coupled with the failure of his 1980 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, left him with an air of rue and regret that forever lurked inside his hale and brassy frame.
More than his brothers, he was the realist. He kept the family ideals but used them in the bipartisan arena of the U.S. Senate.
The Senate was made for people such as him. There are rules, to be sure, but everything depends — or used to depend — on personal relationships: on past deals cascading forward into new ones; on understanding the egos and eccentricities of the men (and now women) around you; on the small gesture, the thoughtful gift, the pat on the back, or the wink of the eye.
No one in modern times understood all of these arts — for want of a better term, these Irish arts — better than Sen. Ted Kennedy.
He would write no one off; make no permanent enemies. Perhaps his own sense of guilt and failure amplified his willingness to withhold any final judgment of others.
At times, his good cheer failed him. Passion overtook him. Kennedy’s diatribe against Judge Robert Bork is one example. In a floor speech, the senator, arms waving and voice thundering, conjured a nightmarish (and grossly unfair) image. The nation, he said, would be a ruined landscape of poor women getting back-alley abortions — all because Bork had criticized Roe v. Wade. The speech all but killed the nomination.
But mostly, Kennedy’s love of the deal resulted in a steady flow of legislation, much of it crafted with an assortment of Republican presidents and conservative senators. And he was willing to incur the wrath of his fellow Democrats to make those deals.
For instance, he fashioned the “No Child Left Behind” education bill with President George W. Bush. Kennedy saw the opportunity to establish the idea of national education standards, and was willing to take Bush at his word.
A staunch Democrat, Kennedy understood that the best way to enshrine some measure of his liberal ideals was to get the whole country — including his erstwhile opponents — to accept them.
It’s a lesson President Barack Obama should remember as he tries to reach Kennedy’s beloved goal of guaranteed health care for all Americans. But it’s also a lesson that GOP members shouldn’t forget. We are still all in this together, aren’t we?
Perhaps the Irish era is over in America, but let’s pray that a spirit of fellowship somehow lives on. We can’t survive without it. And it’s the best way to honor the memory of Ted Kennedy.