Saturday, August 29, 2009

De mortuis nil nisi bonum

"Speak no ill of the dead," is one way to translate that classic Latin tag; but I prefer, "If you can't say anything good about a dead guy, don't say anything at all." Which is an excellent reason to say nothing at all about Teddy Kennedy.

But there are two problems with staying silent about "the Lion of the Senate." (Excuse me for a moment...okay, back. Sorry about that; had to rinse the bad taste out of my mouth there.) First of all, public figures become part of history and lessons must be learned from their legacy, and anybody who has gone to the trouble that Teddy Kennedy went to in order to remain a public figure, cannot reasonably hope to avoid blunt commentary on what that legacy is, even after his death.

But the bigger problem is that the Kennedy hagiography industry wants to tell the rest of us not to say anything bad about ChappaTeddy; which I would personally be happy to do for a decent period of mourning, at least, as long as the hagiographers would agree not to say anything false (including false by fallacy of emphasis) about Kennedy. If the hagiographers would restrict themselves to things along the line of the Anchoress -- "May God have mercy on his soul, as I hope to find mercy myself," basically -- then there would be nothing I would want to contribute to the conversation until a few months from now, at which point I would simply comment on Kennedy the same way I comment on FDR or LBJ, ad hoc, depending upon the political issue that happened to be under discussion.

But to have to listen to the 24/7 glorification of one the most repulsive public figures of twentieth century American, that really tries one's patience. It is especially trying when you remember, for example, how artfully Teddy turned Mary Jo's death into a "Kennedy curse" (if you have never watched Teddy's eleven-minute exercise in please-pity-me-so-that-I-don't-have-to-suffer-consequences-for-my-action speechifying, which we now know was in large part composed of lies, then you certainly ought to), in a speech containing what I consider to be the single most shamelessly hypocritical utterance in Cold-War-era American politics:
It has been written, 'A man does what he must, in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures, and that is the basis of all human morality.' Whatever may be the sacrifices he faces, if he follows his conscience -- the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow man -- each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of the [sic] past courage cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look in his own soul. I pray that I can have the courage to make the right decision.
You have to admire a man who can speak so honestly about struggling with the decision of whether or not to come clean and tell the truth about his actions, actions that cost an innocent young woman her life...oh, no wait a minute, he's not talking about how he ought to have done what was best for Mary Jo instead of spending time concocting an alibi to try to avoid persona consequences, and he's not talking about how he now needs to come clean with the people of Massachusetts about what he's done. He's talking about...well, let's just let him finish:
Whatever is decided, whatever the future holds for me, I hope that I shall have -- be able to put this most recent tragedy behind me and make some further contribution to our state and mankind, whether it be in public or private life. Thank you, and good night.
In other words, he's hoping that he can muster the "courage" to "put this most recent tragedy behind me" (instead of going to jail like anybody with a different surname would have done) -- and keep his Senate seat, as of course he did. "A man does what he must, in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures, and that is the basis of all human morality." The fact that Kennedy, under those circumstances, could utter those words, leaves one wondering how it is possible to avoid suspecting Kennedy of being completely bereft of either conscience or shame.

Then you hear a friend of his, who is trying to praise Kennedy with the standard line you get so often about how, "He wouldn't want us to be sad; he would be here making jokes to make us feel better..." Pretty standard thing to say at a wake, right? And Ed Klein is running along these lines, and he gets carried away since he's in a room full of fellow far-Left Kennedy-worshippers, and then...well, here's a transcript:
KLEIN: I think he'd be the last person who would want us...those he's left and, and full of bathos; I think he, he'd be...

DIANE REHM [hostess]: [helpfully, as Klein seems to be struggling to find words] He would come in with a big guffawing laugh and make us laugh too.

KLEIN: He would, and...yes, and he, you're so right, he would, and he'd probably have a joke to tell, as well...

REHM: [chuckling] At his own expense.

KLEIN: Well, you know, he'd...[starts to chuckle happily, having just thought of something that will show what a cool guy his buddy Teddy was] I don't know if you know this or not, but one of his favorite topics of humor was indeed Chappaquiddick itself. And he would ask people, "Have you heard any new jokes about Chappaquiddick?" [in tones of fond admiration] I mean, that is just the most amazing thing. It -- [suddenly realizing what he has just said, as the producers, presumably in horror, hit the button to play the "we're going to commercial now" music, and then desperately trying to salvage the situation] it's not that he didn't feel remorse about the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, but that he still always other side of everything and the ridiculous side of things, too.

REHM: [firmly, no longer chuckling] Ed Klein, former foreign editor of Newsweek and author of a new book on Teddy Kennedy; we will be taking more of your questions after this short break...
You may think I have transcribed this bit unfairly and imputed tone and motivations unreasonably; so by all means listen yourself here and draw your own conclusions. But I see no reason not to think that Klein has let a perfectly legitimate cat out of the bag -- and the imagination reels.

By the way, if you want to say, "That was a long time ago, why can't you let it go?" -- well, if there was the slightest bit of evidence that Kennedy had ever genuinely repented for what he did at Chappaquiddick and in the weeks that followed, I would say simply, "The man did an evil thing; he repented and confessed and sought forgiveness; and I say it should be granted to him." I have, for example, not been able to get out of my mind these past few days the example of John Profumo, onetime up-and-coming politician, who was discovered to have cheated on his wife. (And it turns out that I'm not the only one; Mark Steyn compares Kennedy's behavior to Profumo's in this column.) In Profumo's case, unlike Kennedy's, the girl he was amusing himself didn't wind up dead. But still, Profumo made his public confession of guilt, after a brief period of trying to wriggle out the noose -- and then resigned his public office, walked away from his political career for good, and...let's let wikipedia take it from here.
Shortly after his resignation Profumo began to work as a volunteer cleaning toilets at Toynbee Hall, a charity based in the East End of London, and continued to work there for the rest of his life. He "had to be persuaded to lay down his mop and lend a hand running the place", eventually becoming Toynbee Hall's chief fundraiser, and used his political skills and contacts to raise large sums of money. All this work was done as a volunteer, since Profumo was able to live on his inherited wealth.
. Now, that is what an honorable man does when he commits an uncharacteristically evil action. One feels that Lord Longford was reasonable in feeling "more admiration [for Profumo] than [for] all the men I've known in my lifetime." And had Kennedy reacted by living a life of penance and good works, rather than using political connections and dishonesty to keep a grip on a position of immense personal power that he clung to grimly literally for the rest of his life, then I would say of Kennedy, as I say of Profumo, "I hope that when I find myself face-to-face with my own sin, I respond to it with the courage and honesty and humility that man showed." Probably I wouldn't; probably I am much more like Kennedy than I am like Profumo...but to be compared to me, is not to be complimented.

You know what else is difficult? It's especially difficult to sit in silence when you remember the unprecedented venom and dishonesty of his unspeakable and inexcusable personal attack on Robert Bork, a speech which marks a stark and apparently irreversible turning point in the way Supreme Court nominations in particular and Washington politics in general were carried out. Only a man utterly without honor and utterly without ethics could have said the things Kennedy said with a straight face, knowing them, as he did, to be lies and grotesque exaggerations; only a man dedicated to partisan politics at the expense of all else including simple human decency could have launched that attack.

And it is especially difficult to sit in silence when you hear the likes of Melissa Lafsky say things like this:
So it doesn't automatically make someone (aka, me) a Limbaugh-loving, aerial-wolf-hunting NRA troll for asking what Mary Jo Kopechne would have had to say about Ted's death, and what she'd have thought of the life and career that are being (rightfully) heralded.

Who knows -- maybe she'd feel it was worth it.
Um...I find myself speechless.


Okay, here's the deal. If you want to take the line the Anchoress takes, I'll happily take it with you: Teddy Kennedy is somebody God loved, and there was no doubt a priest with him most of the way in his final months, and we may hope that he found his way to the repentance and mercy that we all will have to find when our time comes. And if that's all you want to say, then that's all I'll say, and we can be in agreement. And you can stop here; the rest of what I have to say, is not addressed to you.

If you want to try to convince me that Teddy Kennedy's life is being "rightfully heralded," in the sense that you want to try to convince me that Kennedy was a good man and a good Catholic, then the politest thing that I can tell you is that you are passing judgment on him when you call him good, in apparent refusal to weigh his actual behavior by any standard that I consider to be moral or rational, and that I can only do my best to refrain from passing my own judgment -- given that all the evidence available to me points to the conclusion that he spent most of his life as an evil and manipulative man, and therefore only the knowledge of my own ignorance of his spiritual state can stand in the way of my condemning him unservedly. His actions in personal life were, when he thought he could get away with it, shockingly often downright evil actions, and I know of no evidence that he repented of them. I can only plead ignorance of the psychological pain and motivations that lay behind those actions (any son of Joe Kennedy could hardly escape psychopathy of some sort), and my further ignorance of what happened spiritually in Kennedy's last days...which is to say, I can at best say, "I do not know for sure that Kennedy was an evil man, though he did many evil things." But then by that standard you cannot possibly say, "I know for sure that Kennedy was a virtuous man, for he did many virtuous things." I will agree not to spend the next two months saying that Kennedy was a sociopath, if you will agree not to spend the next two months saying that he was a nice guy once you got to know him. Fair enough?

But of Kennedy the politician, we most certainly can pass judgment. There is hardly a piece of catastrophic legislation from the past fifty years that doesn't bear his fingerprints, and insofar as he has influenced the way in which politics are done, that influence has been disastrously negative. It is not possible to calculate the price in personal devastation that has been paid by the citizens of this country, and especially the poorest and most vulnerable among us, by the folly and influence of this deeply wrongheaded but deeply powerful man. I cannot speak with confidence to the question of whether Kennedy's impact on those he knew privately was a net positive or a net negative, though certainly he would have to do a great deal of private good indeed just to get back to break-even after what he did to Mary Jo, and to his wife, and to the powerless waitresses and star-struck political groupies he used and discarded along the way. But I know that those harmed by all the statist legislation that Kennedy's hagiographers assure us would not have been passed without Kennedy's influence, number in the tens and perhaps hundreds of millions.

Now, God is able to bring good even out of great evil, and therefore my faith tells me that on that Day when all is revealed, we will be able to see how God has used Kennedy's folly and dishonesty and partisan malice to accomplish things Kennedy himself would never have imagined. But that is no excuse for Kennedy; "these things must come, but woe to him through whom they come." And these are great mysteries, of which we can but profess ignorance. If you are willing to say with me, "Whether the direct and humanly inferrable consequences of Kennedy's political actions was good or bad, Romans 8:28 still applies, and therefore we should focus on the good God will accomplish rather than on the harm that Kennedy did" -- well, I'm happy to go there with you, too; though that marks the end of the useful part of the conversation since the "good God will accomplish" is almost by definition something presently invisible to our fallen vision. But, yes, I'll very happily agree not to talk about how much harm Kennedy did to the country if you'll agree not to rhapsodize about how much good he did it.

But if you are going to insist on carrying on and on about what a wonderful human being Kennedy was and what a great Senator Teddy was, then at a certain point you had better be prepared to hear me eventually say two things:

1. On the humanly observable (non-8:28) level, the world in general, and America in particular, is a worse place today because Teddy Kennedy was born in 1963. He left the world worse than he found it, and his influence was profoundly negative. God save this nation from more politicians like that one.

2. God forbid that my personal life and my moral choices should remind anybody of Teddy Kennedy's, and may God forgive me for those times in my past where it already does.

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