WASHINGTON — The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy will cost the United States not just a passionate voice for economic and racial justice, but also its irreplaceable champion of a liberal, less belligerent, humanistic foreign policy.
Step back to Friday, October 11, 2002, when only 23 U.S. senators voted against the resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq.
The anger and fear spurred by the 9/11 attacks was too raw, and Democrats named Clinton, Kerry, Biden and Edwards, nursing ambition, dared not look “soft” on terrorism. Election Day was just weeks away. The two Democratic leaders — Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Dick Gephardt — gave Bush the green light for war. Kennedy’s pal, Sen. Chris Dodd, voted “yes.” Even Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the Democrat from Rhode Island, voted for war.
But not Patrick’s dad. Not Ted.
In what seemed, at the time, a quixotic performance, Ted Kennedy returned to the Senate floor time and again, warning Americans and his fellow senators of the catastrophe ahead. His prestige gave cover to other Democrats, and the number of “no” votes doubled, then tripled.
“Just one year into the campaign against Al Qaeda, the administration is shifting focus, resources and energy to Iraq,” Kennedy warned. “The change in priority is coming before we have fully eliminated the threat from Al Qaeda ... Even with the Taliban out of power, Afghanistan remains fragile.”
In the end, Kennedy still got creamed that day — 77 to 23. But a few years later, when asked what vote made him the proudest, in all those thousands of roll calls in almost five decades of service in the Senate, he pointed to his vote against the Iraq war.
And that is what I, you, we, the world will miss: the big guy with mighty shoulders and international stature, willing to shout “No!” when the drums of war are being pounded by the cons and neo-cons, the neo-libs and triangulators, the chicken hawks and profiteers.
“It is possible to love America while concluding that it is not now wise to go to war,” Kennedy said in 2002. What American politician will have the guts to say something like that, at a pivotal moment in US history, after Ted joins Jack and Bob beneath the grassy slope at Arlington?
Sure, the guy was no saint. Great politicians, in my experience, rarely are. Kennedy’s personal failures have been amply catalogued. And the same senator who could rail against the military arms industry did pretty well over the years, using his roster of behind-the-scenes tricks to add fighter planes and advanced research funds to the Pentagon budget in order to protect jobs and promote industry in Massachusetts.
Nor can we forget how the Kennedy family legacy mixed such gems as the “missile gap” and the Bay of Pigs debacle with genuine accomplishments like the nuclear test ban treaty, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Alliance for Progress. Or how Jack Kennedy’s inaugural vow to “pay any price, bear any burden” led us into the bloody swamps of Vietnam.
It was the Vietnam War, and Lyndon Johnson’s relentlessly ineffective prosecution of that war, that split the Democratic Party, shattered the liberal consensus, and gave Ted Kennedy his voice.
Kennedy’s initial venture into foreign affairs occurred in 1965, when he helped steer a historic immigration reform bill through the Senate; it was an issue he would stick with, and a cause he would champion, for more than 40 years. As Kennedy’s biographer, Adam Clymer, relates in “Edward M. Kennedy, A Biography,” he used that same Judiciary Committee perch, with its oversight of American refugee policy, to hold hearings and fact-finding missions about Vietnam.
In 1966 and 1967, Ted and his brother Robert began to split with Johnson over the war. After losing a second brother to assassination in 1968, Ted picked up the fallen colors. He quickly became a leader of the New Left — in both domestic policy and foreign affairs. It was a job he never relinquished.
In the Senate, Kennedy fought Richard Nixon’s Vietnam and nuclear weapon policies and vexed the White House with his strong human rights stands on Biafra, Chile and Bangladesh. He tangled with Ronald Reagan over nuclear arms, El Salvador and Nicaragua. And throughout his career, he was an outspoken critic of the British crackdown on Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Soviet government’s brutal treatment of dissidents and South Africa’s racist system of apartheid.
As Conor O’Clery, Andrew Meldrum and Pascale Bonnefoy will tell you here at GlobalPost, Ted Kennedy will be mourned in Ireland, South Africa and Chile, as well as in Massachusetts tonight.
The culmination of Kennedy’s Irish ventures came during the Clinton administration, when I happened to be covering the White House for a Boston newspaper. It was a great perch, and given my own Irish ancestry, I took an abiding interest in what was going on.
Oh it was fun. For years, Kennedy and a few other Irish-American politicians — Tip O’Neill, Pat Moynihan, Hugh Carey — had resisted the sentimental blarney, rampant among their constituents, that glorified the violent acts of the hard men of the Irish Republican Army. Then their friend John Hume called from Derry with a message: the IRA might be ready to deal.
And suddenly there was Teddy, mischievous and grinning and determined as hell, employing his skillful staff, exploiting his contacts with former Kennedy staffers at the White House, and mightily pissing off the English, the British desk at State, and some of Bill Clinton’s own advisers by suggesting that a visa be granted, and a hand extended, to Gerry Adams and his Sinn Fein brothers-in-arms and their Protestant counterparts on the other side of the divide.
Teddy had Bill’s back, and Clinton responded with nerve and verve and insight. George Mitchell earned his own brand of sainthood negotiating the Good Friday peacemaking agreement. And, typically, Teddy cashed in by getting his sister, Jean Smith, appointed as U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Honey Fitz and PJ would be proud.
I will miss the big guy. There are few in American politics who loved the game, and played it so well, for so many years — who did so much for so many, despite the inevitable tragedies. Kennedy joins an elite handful — Clay, Webster, Calhoun and the like – who never made it to the White House, but define the word “senator” in American history.
Yeah, I will miss him. But I fear we all will miss him, in the pitch of a crisis, when our baser instincts come to the fore, and we need that bellowing independent voice, reminding us what America means. And I’m hoping tonight that, like John Steinbeck's ghost of Tom Joad, Ted Kennedy will never leave us:
“Well maybe … a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one ... Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there … I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.”