Thursday, August 27, 2009

Taps for health care or for Teddy

By Don Klein

The passing of Sen. Ted Kennedy brings to mind the inaugural address of his older brother, John F. Kennedy. On January 20, 1961 he said, "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans."

With the last of the Kennedy brothers gone that "new generation" is history.

The question is what happens with today’s generation? The American era that started with JFK brought Olympian changes to the American scene – a period of nearly a half century of social, political and emotional upheaval in the history of the country. Sadly it also brought virtually endless military conflicts of ignoble and nasty circumstances.

Ted Kennedy played an important role in those years and even might have been president if it weren’t for the fact he was perceived as a womanizer and an inebriate. When he first entered the Senate at the minimal age of 30, he was considered a lightweight riding on the broad shoulders of his more accomplished and influential bigger brothers, Jack and Bobby.

Still many looked at him as the heir to the Massachusetts senate seat and possibly even presidential timber. Then there was the Chappaquiddick incident in which a young woman died in his car after he drove it off a road and it sunk into the harbor. They had just left a party of former Kennedy campaign volunteers at which much boozing occurred.

But the new era to which Jack Kennedy envisoned was kept alive and Teddy played important roles along the way. Civil rights legislation was passed, the Supreme Court knocked down school segregation, there was abortion relief, laws helping the disabled and aimed at improving educational opportunities were enacted. New acts on immigration, minimum wages, women’s issues, mental health care and children’s health insurance came into being.

Teddy may have started out as a lightweight and got himself into a lot of unnecessary and unwise troubles associated with a spoiled rich kid but he eventually straightened out. One can only guess what kind of country we would have today if Teddy had won the Democratic primary against Jimmy Carter in 1980 and went on to defeat Ronald Reagan for president in the general election.
The new generation his brother Jack talked about in his inaugural address went on with the first Bush moving into the White House following Reagan and Bill Clinton coming along after him. Then there was the calamitous second Bush presidency, making a mockery of the high ideals Jack Kennedy had aimed at 40 years earlier.

But the Kennedy generation was still alive as long as Teddy was alive.

Today there are no successors to the Kennedy dream now that Teddy is gone. There are no senators, Democratic or Republican, who can carry the title of a bona fide political leader. And we have a president who has yet made his mark on the public, let alone history. With Barack Obama, however, we have the hope a new generation of leadership which at this point still needs definition.

Obama won a stirring victory in the primary and the general elections last year, true, but had a rocky first seven months in office. It is hard to imagine this is a new era of great accomplishments unless an achiever emerges. There are none in Congress at the moment, so we will have to settle for Obama, the only potential mover of the body politic, the only current inspiration for a new generation.

It is never fair to compare leaders from different times. The Jack Kennedy and Obama circumstances were and are different. The problems were and are not the same. The opposition was and is dissimilar. It may be just that Obama may not have the intestinal instincts to go after his opponents like a Kennedy would.

Obama has been soft-selling his health plan even though he had a filibuster-proof majority. He has been seeking bipartisanship that doesn’t exist. Tragically he has lost that trump card with Teddy’s death.

Now the Republicans hold the trump card. We all knew the 60-40 majority was in danger with Teddy’s mortal ailment yet the White House diddled the time away and is now in grievous straights with the bill. If this period is to eventually be called the Obama era, the president has to move quickly and start twisting arms of resistant Democrats and making deals with disobliging Republicans.

We will soon see if this new president is all promise and little clout.

The Kennedy era will fade away as they lower Teddy’s coffin into the earth near his assassinated brothers in Arlington National Cemetery. Army buglers will play the plaintiff strains of Taps and a major question will remain: Are they playing it to honor Teddy’s nearly five decades of public service or are they playing it for Obama’s failed drive for a national health plan.