Our national media are treating the passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy as an historic event, more historic even than the deaths of presidents like Gerald Ford. Is this level of attention warranted?
We can all grant that Ted Kennedy was a major legislator with his hands in a lot of historic government action. He was at times a very eloquent speaker and was always a passionate fighter. To his side of the aisle, he was their inspirational leader.
Now add the personal story: Two of his brothers were mercilessly assassinated. He was the final Kennedy from that generation. Clearly, when the media spent countless hours mourning the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., a man who never had a political career, the death of an actual Senator of 46 years should be a greater event.
It is not the amount of coverage that bothers, it is the quality of reporting. "[The Kennedys] are the closest thing we have in this country to royalty, the clan's iconic images engraved on our national consciousness." That's how ABC's Claire Shipman put it on the August 26 Good Morning America, echoing what others have been saying across the dial. CBS anchor Harry Smith began this way: "He bore the unspeakable grief and overwhelming hopes of a nation."
This suggests a popularity that simply did not exist. The last time Gallup polled nationally on Kennedy (in February of 2008) his favorable rating stood at 40%, his unfavorable a whopping 48%. Even earlier this month, with the news of his mortal illness known by all, still his favorables according to CNN could not climb past 51%.
Along with the inaccurate suggestions we're hearing from the press that he was beloved by all are the suggestions, again echoed across the dial, that Ted Kennedy was a great bi-partisan leader. His was "a life that was able to bring friends and enemies together," said CBS anchor Maggie Rodriguez.
That is also inaccurate. It is not questioned that he enjoyed many friendships across the political aisle, but that has no bearing on political bi-partisanship, and it is simply not true to suggest that Kennedy was committed to bi-partisanship. What did he do to help Nixon with Vietnam? Reagan with tax cuts? Bush 41 with Clarence Thomas? Clinton with welfare reform? Bush 43 with Iraq?
Senator Kennedy was smart enough and pragmatic enough to reach across the aisle to get deals done - but only to the degree that they advanced his agenda. He worked across the aisle to ensure the never-ending growth of federal taxes and spending, consistently opposing American foreign policy abroad while working tirelessly to defeat conservative nominations and initiatives at home.
And when he felt it necessary to wear brass knuckles, he did so. Conservatives (especially) will quickly recall his initial floor speech in 1987 against Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork:
"Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government," and on and on.
It was vicious, and untrue, but for a liberal like Kennedy, for whom ends justified means, it was also strategically necessary and therefore appropriate. "The statement had to be stark and direct so as to sound the alarm and hold people in their places until we could get material together. I was confident we could win this one." That's how Ted Kennedy justified his action to Ethan Bronner, author of "The Battle for Justice."
Bronner added that Kennedy later sought out Bork's wife to say "I hope you understand it is nothing personal."
The networks cast every law Kennedy passed as an achievement. This is true -- if you're a liberal. It's the opposite if you're a conservative. Despite their surprising generosity to Ronald Reagan when he died, the TV elite nonetheless questioned his policies. On ABC, Peter Jennings asserted "a great many people [read: liberals] thought he'd made the wealthy wealthier and had not improved life particularly for the middle class." On CBS, reporter Bill Plante asserted the Iran-Contra affair helped "set the stage for the first Iraq war and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism." And so on.
Edward M. Kennedy was a liberal's liberal. His supporters can cheer his intense commitment to a leftist agenda. His opponents can -- and should -- respect his dogged refusal to compromise on that philosophy. But his detractors (which, let us remind ourselves, outnumbered his supporters) also found his leftist agenda destructive. And the national news media are doing a great disservice by omitting that from their Camelot narrative.