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Will We Ever Let Kennedys Rest in Peace?

Another death revives the morbid chatter. Recall instead what they've given the country.

January 06, 1998|Robert Scheer | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail:

Give the Kennedys a break. They are hardly saints, but what other clan in the history of this country has given more, and where do the rest of us get off being so judgmental about them? A skiing accident is now being blown up into a definitive character analysis of the family as if no one else has ever done anything dangerously stupid while on vacation.

The death of Michael Kennedy reminds once again how much we have expected from these folks and how often, in this sick national love/hate obsession with the Kennedys, we feel they have let us down. Rarely do we judge them as ordinary mortals capable of serious lapses along with real achievements, instead treating the family, down to the most errant junior member, as a collection of failed gods. In some sense the Kennedys asked for it, surrounding themselves with courtiers and otherwise effecting a lace-curtain Irish pretension to aristocracy, which in the heyday of the Kennedy presidency rivaled the hollowness of England's royals. As with all monarchists who hang on past their time, they have been forced to contend with the inevitable season of public scorn.

The once pliant media that thrilled to every gesture of the Kennedys now pay attention only in moments of embarrassment and distress. Harsh judgment of the Kennedys has become a favorite blood sport of journalists. Consequently, a whole generation will grow up thinking of the Kennedys as a family founded by a mob-connected rum runner whose president son had no distinguishing claim other than marital infidelity and whose surviving senator son is best known for a drowning at Chappaquiddick. This is the stuff of character assassination--unsubstantiated, disproportionate to events and reeking of misrepresentation. It is as off the mark as the earlier Camelot celebration.

Anyone who has studied the history of the robber barons who drove American capitalism knows that family patriarch Joe Kennedy was no less ethical than the rest of that bunch. But whether through the inspiration of, or aversion to, his example, his offspring were marked by a larger commitment to the good of the country. Say what you will, the Kennedys generally have not devoted themselves to the accumulation of greater wealth or servicing the interests of their class but rather by the compulsion to give something back through civic service.

The eldest son, Joe Jr., died in World War II, and the most famous, Jack, came close to making that sacrifice himself. I was never in the camp that uncritically admired President Kennedy. I held him responsible for the Vietnam War and, indeed, organized the picketing that greeted his appearance at the University of California Berkeley campus. But JFK as rhetorician, as poet of idealism, inspired the world to a vision of universal justice as few Americans have.

Nor should it be forgotten that Kennedy was the first to convince Americans that a practicing Catholic could be trusted to be president, to be loyal to this country and its Constitution. We have heard much recently about what was done to turn out the votes in the Catholic precincts of Chicago but too easily forget the vicious grass-roots campaigning that pictured Kennedy as a puppet of the pope.

Recent attempts to paint Kennedy as a puppet of the Mafia are equally absurd. No one fought organized crime more ruthlessly than did his attorney general, Robert Kennedy. So much so that civil libertarians criticized Bobby for trampling on constitutional protections. The younger brother was the zealous one with the guts to deal boldly, as have few other white politicians, with this country's apparently intractable problems of racism.

Finally, there is youngest brother Ted Kennedy, who stands convicted in the minds of many Americans for a crime with which he was never charged. The right wing continues to vilify him not because of anything that happened at Chappaquiddick, but rather because he has proven to be the most indefatigable fighter for progressive causes. There is not a working person in this country who doesn't owe an enormous debt to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for labor and occupational safety laws that would not be on the books except for his efforts. Whether it's funding for AIDS, Head Start, health care for the poor, boosting the minimum wage or protecting the environment, Kennedy has held the line when many liberals ran for cover.

All in all, a good, if varied and even contradictory record for the brothers Kennedy, but none of this suggests an inheritable patrimony justifying the anointment of their young as destined for greatness. The best thing we can do for the vast Kennedy progeny is to treat them the way we deal with our own relatives, with sharply lowered expectations.

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