Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hey, Ted Kennedy: 'Why Do You Want to Be President?'

The New York Daily News cites Chris Matthews' comments on Ted Kennedy from yesterday's Today show (video here). At about 2:03 minutes, Matthews says, "Roger Mudd asked him the perhaps the best journalists' question of modern times: 'why do you want to be president?' ... it took Ted Kennedy 70 words to get to the answer, which was 'restoration'. He just wanted to bring back what Bobby and Jack had given us."

Matthews, an Irish Catholic Democratic Party insider, practically
creams himself in talking about Kennedy. No, Kennedy didn't take 70 words to say why he wanted to be president. Kennedy didn't know why he wanted to be president; and Roger Mudd's interview is a classic in the history of modern presidential politics. CBS has the short video clip here, with this caption:
In November 1979, Sen. Ted Kennedy was preparing to run against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter for president. CBS News broadcast an hour-long special report on Kennedy, reported by correspondent Roger Mudd. Kennedy's rambling answer to Mudd's question "Why do you want to be president?" dealt a strong blow to the senator's presidential hopes.

Note that the Boston Globe ran a special earlier this year, "Ted Kennedy, A Life in Politics," and the clip above from that broadcast includes footage of Roger Mudd's recollections of the moment. It's both dramatic and devastating. I especially like Ellen Goodman, at 2:15 minutes, who just nails it with no left-wing spin: "He didn't want to be president."

And this really goes to the heart of not just what was going on for Kennedy in 1980, but what was going on for Ted Kennedy and the crisis of Democratic Party liberalism. As strange as it may be, it's as if Kennedy was struck by a lightning bolt between the eyebrows, and this is from a man whose brother famously extolled Americans to "ask not what what your country can do for you ..." Ted Kennedy had no vision of his own. He was a follow-on Kennedy who could not pick up from where is brothers left off to offer a new vision for America. If you watch the CBS clip at the link above, Kennedy goes on in the Mudd interview about "inflation," about how the U.S. was falling behind other counties in whipping inflation. Michael Dukakis sounded more interesting in 1988. And why? Why was Ted Kennedy so out of it? Couldn't Kennedy use the "malaise" crisis of the Carter years as a vehicle to announce a new vision of political economy. Other Democrats could. Gary Hart went on in 1984 to challenge Walter Monday for the Democratic nomination by building a reputation for "
new ideas," including calls for industrial policy and innovative investments in workers as stakeholders in their future.

There was, in short, no "new Democrat" in Kennedy's version of Democratic politics, and hence he had no driving vision to animate his quest for the presidency in 1980. That's not to say that Senator Kennedy was a spent force. Indeed, his influence kept growing as the clarity of his role as Kennedy patriarch brightened. It is to say that Kennedy himself became something of a travesty of the ideology he sought to champion. As far as we can see here, Kennedy stood for the raw acquisition and retention of power. After he failed to resurrect the Camelot mystique in the White House, he perhaps soothed the pain of his own inability with his endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008 - an Obama presidency would vindicate the hardline leftist program that he himself was impotent to effect. Interestingly, President Obama is likely more of a radical standard-bearer than Kennedy had anticipated. And thus, it's perhaps fitting that Kennedy's passing comes precisely when the Democrats are now facing the brutal letdown of the electorate's repudiation of their program. To paraphrase Senator Kennedy's words at the 2008 Democratic Convention, "the failure lives on."

YouTube has posted a bunch of clips from the "Live in Politics" series,
here. See also the Boston Globe's series on Kennedy's life, here.


Bob Belvedere said...

Well done, professor.

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