Great despite greatness
The death of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who finally lost his struggle with a malignant brain tumor on Aug. 25, did not leave us with an easy life to decipher.
On one hand we have to consider the man’s work. The “Lion” of the Senate for more than 40 years, Ted Kennedy was a standard for pragmatic liberalism. He was a champion of civil rights, health care, immigration, education, labor rights and more.
He was the dealmaker, often finding solutions by negotiating bipartisan deals with Republican colleagues. It was a practice that often earned him the scorn of liberal purists, but it built the man a list of accomplishments that stand to make him one of the greatest senators in the body’s history.
Kennedy’s time, however, was not exclusively used to further progressive causes. His most substantial failure was his negligence in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. It’s not clear how Kennedy managed to ditch his car and Kopechne in a Chappaquiddick pond, but it is certain that he did nothing to call the police for hours after the incident.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Kennedy developed a reputation for decadence. He was portrayed in numerous profiles as a boozer and rake. In ’91, Kennedy was caught up in a scandal involving two of his nephews, one of whom was accused of rape after a late night of partying and carousing.
So what sort of man was Kennedy? How do we reconcile his substantial personal failings with his many accomplishments?
For a man of so much wealth and privilege, Kennedy’s personal failing — barring Chappaquiddick — are pretty easy to understand. Bad behavior aided and abetted by entitlement is not unfamiliar to the children of aristocrats in American life. It may be cynical, but we expect men in Kennedy’s position to have a hard time playing by the rules.
What makes Kennedy great is that it would have been very easy for him to be one more blissfully unrepentant rich boy. He could have likely carried on his whole life and kept his senate seat without fighting for progressive causes. But he didn’t.
Even as his health failed, Kennedy continued to make public appearances when he felt they would help — first to help elect Barack Obama and then to help persuade the public to demand real health care reform.
In a Newsweek cover story Kennedy wrote, he made the case for health care reform by relating his experience treating his son Edward Kennedy Jr.’s bone cancer when the boy was only 12. He said his son’s treatment was possible because of the health insurance he enjoyed as a senator but that others with children suffering from the same illness were left struggling with the means to pay. Some were forced because of financial hardship to try getting by with half the prescribed treatment.
It was a hardship, Kennedy wrote, that no American family should face. He understood that the privileges afforded him should be extended to all Americans. It was a sense of fairness not many men in Kennedy’s circumstances come by easily.
Judged by his personal life, Kennedy might not have been a great man. But in his public life he always sought to improve the lives of those he served. It was that sense of decency and empathy, despite the entitlement and bad behavior, that places him head and shoulders above nearly all others.
Opinion: To forgive is not to forget
The last several issues of the Chestnut Hill Local had many commentaries on Michael Vick, only one of which suggested that he deserved a second chance. “A second chance” and “forgiveness” are not the same, but there are many similarities. Does Michael Vick deserve to be forgiven?
My thought is that there is no hope for the world without forgiveness. Without forgiveness there is no way to end the cycle of a damaging action, whether that action is torturing and killing dogs, torturing and killing prisoners or torturing and sometimes killing one’s spouse. Without forgiveness there is no reasonable possibility for the world to become better, because the problem continues to fester due to the desire for revenge.
To forgive does not mean to forget or to surrender. To forgive does not mean to pander or to ignore. Real forgiveness encourages good behavior by believing the person being forgiven can change. Realistically what were the chances that the Prodigal Son was going to change and stop being dissolute? Whatever those chances were, they were increased by his being forgiven so completely by his father. Had the father slammed the door in his face, the likelihood of his changing would have been slim.
How different, and how much better the world would be, if we all acted the way the Amish community outside Philadelphia did when the disturbed young man shot to death a group of children. Rather than calling for vengeance and thinking that “closure” would come when the boy was put in jail, they went to the killer’s home, to console his parents. They started the healing process.
Let us assume that Michael Vick is a really great quarterback and that the rules of the National Football League allow him to be hired into play. If those assumptions are true, one way the situation could have been handled would have been to offer Vick a position on the team, with no guarantee that he would play, with a salary of, let’s say $10,000 a year, and a contract that made it absolutely clear that inappropriate behavior would be followed immediately by termination of his contract.
If Vick was hired by the Eagles because he was available, he is a talented football player, he is a really horrible person who is willing to do anything, as proven by his past actions, and therefore can be counted on to damage the opposing players, then the criticisms along this line would be justified.
But if he were hired because he was available, talented and truly seems to have recognized the seriousness of what he has done in the past and now wants to live in a different, much better way, then he can become an internationally-recognized symbol of what Philadelphia is supposed to be about — brotherly love. Let us hope it was the latter and not the former.
Dr. George L. Spaeth is a former board member of the Chestnut Hill Community Association.