Kennedy’s true political credo

As you would imagine, the media culture here in Washington, D.C., remains in full virtual-state-funeral mode following the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, the final prince of the television-driven Camelot era.

The larger-than-life man who grew from Edward to Teddy to Ted is getting the political respect that he deserves, including a sobering salute from columnist George Will that states the obvious: Ted Kennedy was the most politically important Kennedy brother, in terms of his impact on the life and laws of the United States. Most of that impact has been positive and the degree to which other parts have been negative depend largely on whether the person passing judgment has any sympathy for modern liberalism and, of course, the moral doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.

This legacy is what led me to ask a loaded question soon after the news broke about Kennedy’s death:

True or false? Based on the information available in the mainstream press coverage of his death, Edward Kennedy is the most influential American Catholic political leader in our nation’s history.

I still think that this is an interesting question and I sincerely wanted to see the other names that GetReligion would propose as competition for Ted Kennedy for this “most influential” label. Should we consider a Supreme Court justice, for example? Are justices actually “political leaders”?

Now, many traditional Catholics might flinch before answering “yes” to this question. To understand why, consider this question: Who is the most influential Southern Baptist political leader in our nation’s history? I think that one’s a slam dunk, too. It’s William Jefferson Clinton. The competition? That would probably be Harry Truman.

In terms of the major Kennedy coverage, the Washington Post — unless I have missed something — has been the most clinically faith-free. This is ironic, because one of the major reports there contains the most concise statement of the political philosophy that drove the senator’s work and also served as such an irritant for many Catholics.

In wrapping up nearly 90 hours of interviews with the senator shortly before his diagnosis, oral historian James S. Young of the University of Virginia discovered a reflective man whose credo in his work was: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” If that pragmatic idea helped Kennedy struggle back from numerous personal failings, it also enabled him to wring a quality of life from his final 15 months, friends said, and move toward a good death.

In those months, Kennedy was determined to carry on as long as he could with his last projects. His memoir, “True Compass,” which will be published Sept. 14, was just one that occupied him.

Again, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Of course, there are Catholics who believe that it’s utterly wrong to compromise on political issues that are linked to ironclad Catholic dogmas. Thus, some attacked Kennedy for any compromise, but they were never in the majority.

The question for many traditional Catholics was why Kennedy never worked harder to achieve compromises on the hot-button cultural issues that dominated his era on Capital Hill. While it may have been impossible to achieve the “perfect,” in terms of Catholic social teachings, why not strive for the “good”? Why not at least seek policies in the middle — from the viewpoint of the church, of course, not the leadership of the Democratic Party (and many socially liberal Republicans).

In effect, the question was: If you can’t be a progressive, pro-life Democrat in the manner of Gov. Robert P. Casey, why not compromise toward the middle and be Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan? Of course, for Catholics who are in favor of America’s current abortion laws, Kennedy was a hero. But that’s the point.

It is fair to ask what happened to the Catholic who, in 1971, wrote, in a letter made public by its recipient:

While the deep concern of a woman bearing an unwanted child merits consideration and sympathy, it is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized — the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old. … (Once) life has begun, no matter at what stage of growth, it is my belief that termination should not be decided merely by desire.

It’s clear that Kennedy made his own choices.

ted-kenned-and-his-wife-vickiBut it’s also clear that, in terms of faith, something important happened in Kennedy’s life after his second marriage. As ABC News has noted, Vikki Kennedy was the woman who “tamed the lion” who had lived such a wild, reckless, scandalous life — sometimes in front of cameras — before their union.

Far and away the best story (that I have seen) on this subject is in the New York Times, a richly detailed feature story by Mark Leibovich that ran with this headline: “After a Grim Diagnosis, Determined to Make a ‘Good Ending.’ ” I could quote many passages, but this section near the end will give you a taste:

Even as Mr. Kennedy became frustrated about his limitations, friends say his spirit never flagged. “This is someone who had a fierce determination to live, but who was not afraid to die,” said Representative Bill Delahunt, a Democrat and a Kennedy friend whose district includes Cape Cod. “And he was not afraid to have a lot of laughs until he got there.”

In recent years, friends say, Mr. Kennedy had come to lean heavily on his Roman Catholic faith. In eulogizing his mother, Rose Kennedy, in 1995, he spoke of the comfort of religious beliefs. “She sustained us in the saddest times by her faith in God, which was the greatest gift she gave us,” Mr. Kennedy said, his voice stammering.

He attended Mass every day in the year after his mother’s death and continued to attend regularly, often a few times a week. The Rev. Mark Hession, the priest at the Kennedys’ parish on the Cape, made regular visits to the Kennedy home this summer and held a private family Mass in the living room every Sunday. Even in his final days, Mr. Kennedy led the family in prayer after the death of his sister Eunice on Aug. 11. He died comfortably and in no apparent pain, friends and staff members said.

His children had expected him to hold on longer — Mr. Kennedy’s son Patrick and daughter Kara could not get back to Hyannis Port in time from California and Washington.

But the senator’s condition took a turn Tuesday night and a priest — the Rev. Patrick Tarrant of Our Lady of Victory Church in Centerville, Mass. — was called to his bedside. Mr. Kennedy spent his last hours in prayer, Father Tarrant told a Boston television station, WCVB-TV.

The senator told his family that he was ready for an eternal reunion with the members of his family who died before him, especially his brothers who died in the prime of life. While their careers had been cut short, Ted Kennedy marched to his own political drummer, and his own highly personal faith, until the end.

So kudos to the Times for this story. Clearly, more journalists need to include this element of the final Kennedy drama in their coverage.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • willie

    isn’t senator kennedy’s current wife an episcopalian?

  • Susan

    The Kennedys (John, Robert and Ted) brothers very publically de-linked religious commitment and political commitment. They all made it very clear that they were not representing a “Catholic” point of view. This willingness to separate religious beliefs from their political beliefs made it possible for them to be so successful. If anything, that was the impact they had on the American political scene.

    Yes, many if not most American Catholics were euphoric when JFK was elected as President (similar to Obama and American Blacks) thinking that it represented a level of acceptance previously denied to them. Now, many Catholics will say that it was probably one of the worst things to happen to the American Catholic community for the very reason that religious belief was not longer seen as the foundation for political and social belief and behavior.

  • Patton

    True or false? Based on the information available in the mainstream press coverage of his death, Edward Kennedy is the most influential American Catholic political leader in our nation’s history.


    The Answer is former Postmaster General of the United Sates and Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign manager James A. Farley. Farley was the first Irish American and Roman Catholic to achieve success on a National level as the Chief Patronage dispenser of the New Deal. All of the New Deal legislation was guided through Congress due to his use of the political patronage. Farley is the greatest political mind of the 20th Century, maybe not legislator since he only served one term in the state Assembly, but he guided Roosevelt to the largest electoral victories in history. In Addition, we owe the 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution to James A. Farley. The 22nd Amendment was the product of the Hoover Commission which was issued by President Truman. Farley was the #2 Commissioner on the Hoover Commission. The Hoover Commission was established as a result of F.D.R.’s unprecedented four terms, and the public opposition F.D.R. faced from Farley over the break when F.D.R. ran for the third term. Farley was Chairman of the Democratic National Committee at the time. Farley and Ted Kennedy both were nominees for the Democratic Parties candidate for President, Farley in 1940, Kennedy in 1980.
    Farley would have won if he had not faced a riggged convention, Catholic bigotry, and the breaking of the two term tradition. Joesph Kennedy pledged the Massachusets delegates for Farley in 1940. Ted dropped out and lost to Jimmy Carter…cmon.

    Farley was the Financial Adviser to the Vatican in the 1950′s.

    Ted Kennedy Killed Mary Joe.

    Ted Kennedy was a Senator for 43 years from Irish Mass.
    who fought for health care

    Farley was the Chairman of the Board of Coca-Cola Export from 33 years and helped destroy Communism.

    James A. Farley might not be the most well known, but he is by far the most influential American Catholic political leader in our nation’s history.

    Ted Kennedy is Pro-Abortion and a Knight of the Monarch for god’s sakes, Catholic is just a label to the Kennedy’s.
    They never practiced what they preached

  • Mike Hickerson

    As I posted in my comment on tmatt’s earlier post, I’m going to put forth Roger Taney, the Chief Justice (1836-1864) who presided over the Dred Scott case, as the most influential American Catholic political leader, if Supreme Court justices count as “political leaders.” It’s hard to argue that the man who led the high court for the 25 years leading up to the Civil War wasn’t one of the more influential figures in American history.

  • dalea

    From a DKos diary on EMK:

    Bush, Sarah Palin and the entire lot of the GOP constantly remind us what an important role Christ plays in their lives when they’re not trying to deny funding for the sick and poor. Ted Kennedy never had to discuss his relationship with Christ. He knew that by his works ye shall know him.

  • kellyt

    He was influential as a corrosive catholic political figure, more Democrats would be pro-life if he had stuck to his brothers and his earlier stance. Ted is on the list but in the middle, surely not the top, all of the above mentioned are worthy.
    None of us are perfect, he deserves to rest in peace and deserves a place in history.

  • MattK

    I thought Sen. Kennedy was out of communion with the Roman Catholic Church since his divorce. Doesn’t that make him a former Catholic?

  • Julia

    Interesting article in Time magazine which starts out by noting that Obama gave the Pope a sealed envelope containing a personal letter from Ted Kennedy but there’s be silence from the Pope.

    But ultimately, beyond his personal travails, Kennedy’s relationship with the Church hierarchy was destined for conflict because of politics. The Senator became both the face and engine of the liberal wing of the Democratic party that has long led the battle for abortion rights, stem cell research and gay marriage, all of which Catholic doctrine strictly forbids.

    The article goes on to say that Kennedy was not a big deal at “the Vatican”.

    The Vatican’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano reported Kennedy’s death, praising his work on civil rights and fighting poverty, but noted that his record was marred by his stance on abortion. As of yet, unlike some other world leaders, Pope Benedict has not commented or issued an official communique in response to Kennedy’s death.

    “Here in Rome Ted Kennedy is nobody. He’s a legend with his own constituency,” says the Vatican official. “If he had influence in the past it was only with the Archdiocese of Boston and that eventually disappeared too.” Some say the final sunset on the Kennedy name within Catholic halls of power was the Vatican’s decision in 2007 to overturn the annulment of the first marriage of former U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, the eldest son of Robert Kennedy. The successful appeal by Joe Kennedy’s ex-wife Sheila Rauch, an Episcopalian, was another blow for the Kennedy image in Catholic circles.

    Source at Yahoo:

    So – the question might be: why on earth would Ted Kennedy be seen as the most influential Catholic politician in the US?

  • Julia

    isn’t senator kennedy’s current wife an episcopalian?

    Somebody who has written a bio of Ted Kennedy said on TV yesterday that his widow is a “Lebanese Christian”.

    He must have meant a Maronite, an Eastern Catholic rite that has always been in union with the Pope. Their liturgical language remains Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.

  • tmatt

    A private email, shared with permission:

    True or false? Based on the information available in the mainstream press coverage of his death, Edward Kennedy is the most influential American Catholic political leader in our nation’s history.


    True. I don’t think you even need the qualifying phrase. He was, for better or worse, more influential than any other Catholic political leader.

    Philip F. Lawler
    Catholic World News

  • Julia

    kellyt says Kennedy might have rallied his fellow Democrats to stay anti-abortion, but he went the opposite direction. Here’s an article that directly supports her observation and how the culture wars could have been averted. In that regard he certainly was incredibly influential.

    And here’s an article about how Kennedy put together his anti-abortion stance. It attributes the change to realizing that standing up for abortion was politically adventageous. I really wonder what was behind the change, because the strategy session mentioned in the article was in 1964.

    But that all changed in the early ’70s, when Democratic politicians first figured out that the powerful abortion lobby could fill their campaign coffers (and attract new liberal voters). Politicians also began to realize that, despite the Catholic Church’s teachings to the contrary, its bishops and priests had ended their public role of responding negatively to those who promoted a pro-choice agenda.

    In some cases, church leaders actually started providing “cover” for Catholic pro-choice politicians who wanted to vote in favor of abortion rights. At a meeting at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Mass., on a hot summer day in 1964, the Kennedy family and its advisers and allies were coached by leading theologians and Catholic college professors on how to accept and promote abortion with a “clear conscience.”

  • FriarTom

    Yes I agree with Farley as #1 and I would challenge anyone to argue differently, especially from the standpoint of public service as viewed through the eyes of the Vatican. Farley and Al Smith. Smith was treated very badly, Farley has the edge because he was a more prominent national and global figure.