Monday, September 7, 2009

Ted Kennedy's Dead; Long Live Reagan

"When Cicero died Marc Antony nailed his hands to the door of the Senate chamber because they had written laws restricting the military powers. We're about the see the Right try the same thing again."
— A friend, on the death of Ted Kennedy, on Facebook of all things
I had no intention of writing up anything like an obituary for the Tedmeister, but I was tempted to say something after he died, probably something verging dangerously on sincerity with an escape joke tagged on the end. Instead, what I wound up doing was passively reading message boards and Facebook statuses, getting lost in how strangely angry people were at him. Instead of just being sad that a legislator who I supported had died, I wound up with something like outrage fatigue.

I'm nothing like a Kennedy idolator. Granted, I tend to think more positively of RFK than his record deserves (as is generally the case with lives cut short). At the nadir of the Bush administration's already basement-level rhetoric — when "Let's Roll" and "Bring It On" were national mission statements — I would occasionally listen to JFK's inaugural when really drunk and get a little misty. Even then, it was more for the rhetoric and the ideas the speech represented than the frequently uneven and shabby Kennedy administration.

As for the Kennedy children, I had and have no patience. America's burgeoning political aristocracy is no more tolerable just because the nepotism is on my side of the political fence, and in any case, all of them have sucked at pretty much everything, with flying being only the most concrete example. I deeply offended an older woman at my work, after she expressed her shock and dismay that Caroline Kennedy wasn't going to get the New York senate seat, when I said that it wasn't a surprise because she was talking about "a Kennedy kid: wind it up and watch it fail." Oddly, out of all of that doomed clan, drunk-ass Teddy was more politically reliable and could be mentioned with less blush.

Obviously there is still some blush. Chappaquiddick isn't easily dismissed, and I've arrived at my dismissal of it only after wrestling with how I feel about it for a couple decades. It wouldn't be difficult at all to explode this discussion with a full-bore heated back-and-forth over Chappaquiddick, so let me just say for the record that my ability to live with it stems from three things:
1. I don't expect people to be rational after suffering a concussion. After all, I've watched Brett Favre play quarterback.
2. I don't expect people to be rational after the shock of an accident and the terror of a mortal guilt, whether earned or no.
3. Probably half the wealthy and famous people in this country call their lawyers before calling the police, and I'm not so naïve that I'm going to think a guy calling people he was just hanging out with, who are actually lawyers, carries with it anything more sinister than what we commonly expect from rich people.
Maybe I accept those circumstances because I want to. I'm sure I'd be less generous if it were, say, Karl Rove in Kennedy's place. But, to be fair, even my mentioning his name in connection with a drowning is already making you wonder if he's already killed somebody. On purpose.

Like I said, I probably would have gone for some small equivocating comment and a joke, but all my attention to his death was taken over by the bizarrely histrionic online commentary. A conservative friend of mine posted a couple of digs at Kennedy and made the crack that he was just "getting some back" for the way people treated the death of Ronald Reagan. I'm not sure he knew it, but for his one tongue-in-cheek comment there were dozens of others who were posting online literally for this purpose. Only, in their cases, it was intensely personal.

You see, to them, when you brought up the bad things Reagan did, you weren't deriding a poor political legacy: you were directly insulting them as people. Ted Kennedy was just some northeastern liberal, so he probably had rat DNA and slept in a hyperbaric chamber and drank dissolved cultured pearls to harness "dick energy" or something. Whatever he was, he wasn't us, so anything said about him was fair game. As I was told over and over, I had to suck it up and take my lumps because I and the hiveminded liberal hordes had taken this shit directly into their homes when we talked about Reagan. I'm not really sure, but I think this is how the logic worked:
Ronald Reagan was a Real American.
These people are Real Americans.
Therefore, these people are all Ronald Reagan.
It would have been sort of galling if it weren't so predictable. Conservatism is the true American ideology; conservatives are universally good, and all good people are universally conservative. Conversely, anyone who is not is self-evidently bad. Moreover, this haughty and exclusive purchase on right and goodness entitles the bearer to one Play the Victim Card with endless punches on it to be cashed in at any opportunity when claiming a Mandate for Universal Truth uncomfortably abuts a contravening fact.

Further, I also noticed this formulation:
Ted Kennedy kills people.
I like Ted Kennedy.
Therefore I must kill people.
Or enjoy it — otherwise why would I try to suggest that nearly 50 years in the senate had any worth to anybody? The killing topic came up a lot because, well, Chappaquiddick, but it was surprising how short-sighted its use was. For instance, my conservative buddy said something about it, and I tweaked him a bit with a comment, and I wound up repeating the nugget of that comment on various fora. The exchange basically went like this:
THEM: Ted Kennedy was inhuman garbage because he killed someone and tried to cover it up, and I'm gonna spampost this on every page of this "RIP Ted Kennedy" thread because of what you liberal assholes did to Reagan.
ME: Really? That's what you're gonna go with? That he's bad because he killed a single person and covered it up? Would it have been more permissible, then, if he'd ignored an act of congress to sell arms to a terrorist-sponsoring country (a country he flogged Jimmy Carter with on the stump in 1980 because he was too "soft" on them) to fund illegal Central American proxy wars wherein the paramilitary groups we funded raped and murdered nuns — and then covered it up?
Responses to this varied amusingly. Some offered false equivalency: they both killed people, so they're equally bad — if we just ignore that one drowned lady versus raped and murdered nuns and violated federal laws and the arming of a terrorist-sponsoring regime are somehow pretty much the same in the ledger. Others offered general ignorance or outright denial of anything negative, while others riposted with absurd declarations of pity that I was so desperate to make Reagan look bad that I had to "bring something that old and off-topic." This, of course, from people harping on a car accident that happened over 40 years ago.

The most common response, though, was changing the subject, usually to an absolutist moral response to Ted Kennedy — e.g. Ted Kennedy was objectively bad, and his whole life was objectively bad because he killed someone, or because he was an adulterer, or because he was both.

And that's fine. I admire anyone who believes strongly enough to come to that conclusion if they have the strength to apply that across the board. But, to a person, they didn't. I was passive and patient, and I trolled a little bit, and via their replies it became painfully clear that absolute morals applied only situationally depending on the R- or D- prefix added to the place the politician in question represented. Adulterers should never be elected; but it was a pity McCain didn't win last year, and they were crossing their fingers for Newt in '12, despite both of those champion husbands rushing to upgrade wives as soon as entropy broke their old ones.

That left only the death, but you'd be surprised how many people you can find who believed Kennedy should have quit the public sphere entirely after Chappaquiddick who nonetheless spent the last eight years thinking Laura Bush had a wonderful smile. DC insider rumor always had it that she was on a daily handful of Xanax for that smile, but I suppose I might be in the same place if I'd killed someone with a car when I was 17, too. Of course, there's an answer for that as well: 17-year-olds and 37-year-olds have a different margin of responsibility in a car accident. Or in this case they do: usually the law-and-order party is all about trying a 17-year-old as an adult. On that note: if Laura Bush had been a black man, do you think she'd have been paroled or released in time for the 2001 inaugural? I'm tempted to say yes, but given that it's Texas, maybe she'd be dead.

And here we are: someone is dead, and it's been nearly a two-week's hate, and maybe this would make more sense to me if I feared immigrants and black people and, as some sort of residual nod to my retroussé-nosed protestant antecedents, the Irish. I suppose it's a testament to the selective focus of modern conservatism that any impulse I might have had toward celebration or thanks was almost instantly quashed by a need to point out the lack of shortage we have for modern examples of adulterers and murderers. And, further, the urge to say that wanting to have a beer with one group of them — ironically, what we might consider the most Kennedyesque impulse — doesn't exculpate your side while permanently disfiguring the opposition with sin.

In the interest of ending on a positive note, I'd like to include these thoughts for all the Americans I personally wronged on June 5, 2004: