Like all successful politicians, Ted Kennedy was a great actor -- I don’t think anyone I know could summon up moral indignation more convincingly than he did. I can remember him getting red in the face, and his jowls shaking, and pointing and gesturing and making some very, very emphatic point to one of the Republicans on the committee, whether it was Orrin Hatch or Jon Kyl. And then he would sit back in his chair with kind of a smug smile on his face, and put his arm around Chuck Grassley. He would make clear that none of it was personal.
But those dramatic moments were the ones that convinced all liberals that he was on their side, and after he’d delivered himself of these great and emotionally laden orations, he would say, “let’s deal.” That’s what made Ted Kennedy such a great senator. And if you talk to the other great Senate deal makers, like Bob Dole… he would tell you the same thing: that after all of the histrionics, this was a man who knew the art of the deal in the United States Senate.
Joyce Carol Oates' meditative essay on weighing up Ted's personal failings in the light of his public service is well worth a read:
The poet John Berryman once wondered: "Is wickedness soluble in art?". One might rephrase, in a vocabulary more suitable for our politicized era: "Is wickedness soluble in good deeds?"Kennedy was a Catholic. He believed in the possibility of redemption, and he went after it for all he was worth.
This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions. Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.
But you know, even his most honorable service on behalf of the most worth causes (civil rights, education, and of course health care) was surely not entirely selfless - I'm sure he loved the game, I'm sure he had an ego on him and liked for it to be stroked. And OK, let's be honest, for much of his life he was a drunk, a philanderer and occassionally a cheat (did you know he was expelled from Harvard for cheating on a Spanish exam?).
On the other hand, he may have done more good for more Americans than almost any man of his generation. He was one of the greats.
I think it's worth remembering that not only is human perfection not attainable, it may not be desirable. Our drives, our uncontrollable passions, our irrational stubborness can be as much the source of our greatness as it is of our downfall. For Ted Kennedy, they were both.