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Hollow champion

by Alexander Cockburn

Hollow championTeddy Kennedy’s disasters were vivid.His legislative triumphs, draped in thisweek’s obituaries with respectful homage,were far less colorful but they were actuallydevastating for the very constituencies— working people, organized labor — whosechampion he claimed to be.He had the most famous car accident in political historywhen he drove off a wooden bridge on ChappaquiddickIsland in July 1969, saying later that he had failedin several attempts to dive down 10 feet to rescue MaryJo Kopechne, a former aide of his dead brother Robert.She was in the back seat and drowned.Ted quit the scene and called a Kennedy speechwriterinstead of the police, a misdemeanor that cost him atwo-month suspended sentence and any chance of everfollowing his brother Jack into the White House.He made only one overt bid for the presidency andthat was a colorful disaster, too. He challenged theDemocratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter, then seeking reelectionin 1980. After three years, the left in the DemocraticParty was bitterly disappointed in Carter’s cautiouscentrism and Kennedy placed himself in the left’svanguard, declaring in a famous speech that “sometimesa party must sail against the wind.”In those days, I was reporting on national politicsfor the Village Voiceand Rolling Stone andcovered Kennedy’s bid.It got off to a shakystart when Roger Muddof NBC, a well-knownpolitical reporter andTV newscaster, asked Ted on prime time why he wantedto be president. The 30 seconds of silence that followedthis easy lob didn’t help Kennedy’s chances.The campaign plane shot backward and forward acrossAmerica, seeking photo opportunities. On one typicalmorning, we left Washington DC at 6 a.m. and headedfor the Rust Belt, where Kennedy stood outside a shutteredPittsburgh steel mill and pledged to get the steelindustry back on its feet. We shot west to Nebraska soKennedy could stand outside a corn silo and swear allegianceto the cause — utterly doomed — of the smallfamily farmer. Then we doubled back to New York so hecould stand on a street corner in a slum neighborhood inthe Bronx and promise a better deal for urban blacks andHispanics.I asked one of Kennedy’s campaign people why theydidn’t simply equip a studio in Washington with the necessarybackdrops — steel mill, silo, urban wasteland —but he said it wouldn’t be honest. As things were, the locationswe flew to may have been genuine, but the campaign pledges were asdishonest as a studio backdrop, which is why Kennedy — bellowing outhis speeches like a mammoth stuck in a swamp — sounded utterly fake. By1980, the die was cast. Disdaining the left option offered by oratelandscape, the labor unions and the other foot-soldier constituenciesof the party would be flung empty rhetorical bouquets, as they havebeen every four years since 1980. Though the obituarists have glowinglyrelated Kennedy’s 47-year stint in the US Senate and, as “the lastliberal,” his mastery of the legislative process, they miss the factthat it was out of Kennedy’s Senate office that came two momentous bitsof legislation that signaled the onset of the neoliberal era:deregulation of trucking and aviation. They were a disaster fororganized labor and the working conditions and pay of people in thoseindustries. The theorist of deregulation was Stephen Breyer,who was Kennedy’s chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee.Breyer now sits on the US Supreme Court, an unswerving shill for thecorporate sector. We also have Kennedy to thank for “No ChildLeft Behind” — a nightmarish education bill pushed through in concertwith Bush Jr.’s White House that condemns children to a treadmill ofendless tests contrived as “national standards.” And it wasKennedy who was the prime force behind the Hate Crimes Bill, AKA theMatthew Shepard Act, by dint of which America is well on its way tomaking it illegal to say anything nasty about gays, Jews, blacks andwomen. “Hate speech,” far short of any direct incitement to violence,is on the edge of being criminalized, with the First Amendment gone theway of the dodo. Of course, Kennedy did some decent things, which isscarcely surprising in a political career of half a century. But asmuch as his brothers Jack and Bobby, he was adept at persuading theunderdogs that he was on their side. To this day there are deludedsouls who argue that Jack was going to pull US troops out of Vietnamand that is why he was killed; that Bobby, who supervised the US“Murder Inc.” in the Caribbean was really and truly on the side of theangels; that Ted was the mighty champion of the working people, eventhough he gave them deregulation and backed NAFTA, the “free trade”pact that was another body blow to American labor. By hiscrucial endorsement last year, he helped give them Obama, too, nowholidaying six miles from Chappaquiddick, on Martha’s Vineyard. Butbecause his mishaps were so dramatic, no one remembers quite hownoxious his political triumphs were for those who now mourn him astheir lost leader.

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