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August 31st 2009 print

Philippa Martyr

14 things about Teddy

In retrospect, I don’t think many of Teddy’s really great achievements have been praised enough. It’s easy to remember minor achievements like driving his first wife to drink and Mary Jo Kopechne into a pond, and yet so many other things go unacknowledged. So here is a list of what I think are the defining achievements in his career.

De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bunkum 

Teddy Kennedy died last week, in case you missed it. Being his co-religionist, I have prayed for his soul. But amid the grief – which extended to a leading story on the 7.30 Report  – I find myself asking: just what did Teddy Kennedy actually achieve in his (for a male Kennedy) unusually long life, and his five glorious decades in the US Senate? 

Teddy Kennedy – or (as we must apparently now call him) Senator Edward Kennedy, elder statesman and pillar of reform – is currently being described as ‘the brother who mattered most’, and a champion of many great causes. He is being credited with everything from achieving peace in Northern Ireland to saving schools and healing the sick.  

In retrospect, I don’t think many of Teddy’s really great achievements have been praised enough. It’s easy to remember minor achievements like driving his first wife to drink and Mary Jo Kopechne into a pond, and yet so many other things go unacknowledged. So here is a list of what I think are the defining achievements in his career. 

  1. He achieved birth into a rich, insanely competitive and grotesquely ambitious family. 
  2. He achieved expulsion from Harvard for cheating. 
  3. He achieved the defeat of his brother in the 1960 presidential campaign in 10 of the 13 states with which he, as campaign manager, had been entrusted. 
  4. He achieved election and repeated re-election to the Senate in a seat recently vacated by his brother, and in their home town. I’d have loved to see Teddy run for election outside the Democratic oxygen tent. 
  5. He achieved defeat in an attempt at the White House himself. Say what you like about Jimmy Carter; we’ve got to thank him for that one.
  6. He achieved decades-long support of the IRA. 
  7. He achieved the blocking of legislation for a wind farm to be built off Cape Cod in sight of his home, while insisting that he was staunchly pro-alternative energy. (They should have built it in the Senate; Teddy could have powered an entire wind farm there single-handed). 
  8. He achieved the moral high ground over womanising Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, despite his own very public drinking and adultery track record. 
  9. He achieved the mention of at least one of his dead brothers in practically every speech he made on any topic to an audience of more than three people. 
  10. He achieved the passage of a considerable amount of largely unhelpful, petty and bureaucracy-spawning legislation, usually other people’s. 
  11. He achieved ongoing opposition to the smoking and tobacco (but not, strangely, the alcohol) industry – scarcely the cutting edge of radical politics. 
  12. He achieved vigorous blocking of the Marriage Protection Amendment in 2006, despite it being supported by the US Catholic episcopate.
  13. He achieved an annulment of his 24-year marriage before remarrying in the Catholic Church (cf. 12, above). 
  14. He achieved a net worth which in 2007 was estimated to be anywhere between US$43 million and US$163 million. 

There you have it. Shall we try inserting the name ‘George Bush’ above this list, and then see how we feel about the man? And what would we have seen on the 7.30 Report if this had been Dubya’s obituary? 

The harm that a rich and not terribly bright (but very ambitious) person can do in politics is not inconsiderable, if they live long enough and really put their mind to it. And yet outside the United States, really rich people who go in for politics tend to do things like organize international terrorist networks, destroy the economies of small countries, and build gigantic hotels on reclaimed lagoons with unpaid labourers working in drastically unsafe conditions. 

Perhaps that is the real legacy of Teddy Kennedy. He is a poignant reminder that, in the United States, really rich people do so much less harm there than elsewhere.