August 26th, 2009

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#73 – Dick Bernard: Sen. Ted Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

I awoke to a New York Times on-line headline “Edward M. Kennedy, Senate Stalwart, Dies at 77.”  He passed away late Tuesday night, August 25, coincidentally, my daughters 40th birthday.  He was a veteran U.S. Senator when she was born in 1969.

Today and following days, there will be endless commentary about this larger than life actor on the American political stage.  The comments will speak for themselves.  Everyone will have their own spin on this very public life.

The Times headline basically signalled what is to come. The headline continued:  “Gifted and Flawed Legislator, 77, From a Storied Family.”  Some will emphasize the gifts, others the flaws.  In Kennedy’s case, the entire family history will again become news fodder. 

The first “real person” e-mail about Sen. Kennedy’s death came from long-time friend Mary.  I resonate with what she has to say: “I am sad today with the loss of one Senator who stood for the poor and his convictions while respecting the other side.  Always feel I have that lesson to learn and it is a hard one  (respecting the other side).”

I tag in Martin Luther King, Jr., with Senator Kennedy in the subject line because in a political sense they were, in my opinion, very similar.   They knew politics.

Not everyone looks back to MLK with reverence.  Even today one can google his name and one of the first page references is to a website devoted to attempting to destroy his image and legacy, and promoting its materials for use in American classrooms.  This will happen with Senator Kennedy as well.

But there is another more important reason for include King’s name in this essay, and it goes to Mary’s comment .

In 1964, MLK wrote “Why We Can’t Wait”, a chronicle primarily of the watershed civil rights year of 1963.  King was 35 years old when he wrote his book.  Edward Kennedy was in his first year in the United States Senate.  President John F. Kennedy had, just a few months earlier, been assassinated. Now-U.S. President Barack Obama was two years old.

In the last chapter of “Why We Can’t Wait”, King talks politics.  I’m drawn to a particular section of the book (which is still in print) which I think is very pertinent and indeed instructive for today’s issue du jour and Ted Kennedy’s passion: Reform of Health Care in America.  Change the political names, and replace Civil Rights with Health Care Reform, and muse a bit about the present in context with the past….     

King:  “I have met and talked with three Presidents, and have grown increasingly aware of the play of their temperaments on their approach to civil rights, a cause that all three have espoused in principle.

No one could discuss racial justice with President Eisenhower without coming away with mixed emotions.  His personal sincerity on the issue was pronounced, and he had a magnificent capacity to communicate it to individuals.  However, he had no ability to translate it to the public, or to define the problems as a supreme domestic issue.  I have always felt that he failed because he knew that his colleagues and advisers did not share his views, and he had no disposition to fight even for cherished beliefs.  Moreover, President Eisenhower could not be committed to anything which involved a structural change in the architecture of American society.  His conservatism was fixed and rigid , and any evil defacing the nation had to be extracted bit by bit with a tweezer because the surgeon’s knife was an instrument too radical to touch this best of all possible societies.

President Kennedy was a strongly contrasted personality.  There were, in fact, two John Kennedys.  One presided in the first two years under pressure of the uncertainty caused by his razor-thin margin of victory.  He vacillated, trying to sense the direction his leadership could travel while retaining and building support for his administration.  However, in 1963, a new Kennedy had emerged.  He had found that public opinion was not in a rigid mold.  American political thought was not committed to conservatism, nor radicalism, nor moderation.  It was above all fluid.  As such it contained trends rather than hard lines, and affirmative leadership could guide it into constructive channels.

President Kennedy was not given to sentimental expressions of feeling.  He had, however, a deep grasp of the dynamic of and the necessity for social change.  His work for international amity was a bold effort on a world scale.  His last speech on race relations was the most earnest, human and profound appeal for understanding and justice that any President has uttered since the first days of the Republic.  Uniting his flair for leadership with a program of social progress, he was at his death undergoing a transformation from a hesitant leader with unsure goals to a strong figure with deeply appealing objectives….

I had been fortunate enough to meet Lyndon Johnson during his tenure as Vice-President.  He was not then a Presidential aspirant, and was searching for his role under a man who not only had a four-year term to complete but was confidently  expected to turn out yet another term  as Chief Executive.  Therefore, the essential issues were easier to reach, and were unclouded by political considerations.

His approach to the problems of civil rights was not identical with mine – nor had I expected it to be.  Yet his careful practicality  was nonetheless clearly no mask to conceal indifference.  His emotional and intellectual involvement were genuine and devoid of adornment.  It was conspicuous that he was searching for a solution to  a problem he knew to be a major short-coming in American life.  I came away strengthened in my conviction that an undifferentiated approach to a white southerner could be a grave error, all too easy for Negro leaders in the heat of bitterness.  Later, it was Vice-President Johnson I had in mind when I wrote in The Nation that the white South was splitting, and that progress could be furthered by driving a wedge between the rigid segregationists and the new white elements whose love of their land was stronger than the grip of old habits and customs….”

MLK had much more to say in this powerful book.  “Why We Can’t Wait” is a masterful primer in politics, as well as a window into a critical year in our nation’s history.  Buy a copy and read it.