Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy, Existential Man

Jimmy Carter and Ronald ReaganImage by afagen via Flickr

By which I mean he exemplifies the whole existence-versus-essence paradigm. We are what we do, and given the mixed nature of reality we must not fall into the trap of saying here's a great thing because a Great Person says or does it, nor should we say the same of the Evil Person, though that's a shorthand category I find almost irresistible, particularly when Sarah Palin is on the television machine.

But I must resist. All the encomiums I am reading about Kennedy do fill me with admiration for so many of his accomplishments as a senator. It would seem that the longer he served, the higher the probability factor that if he pursued an aim, you could immediately buy in; you did not have to reason it through slowly and painfully before lending your support. It was worth placing your bet.

I suppose we must tweak our existential assumptions so that they read like a weather report: forecast is for continued courage with a 90 percent chance of wisdom. But I was slow in coming around to admiration of Kennedy because for a long time I resented his conduct in 1980 when he challenged Jimmy Carter, a sitting president, for the nomination.

At the time I thought it was a manifestation of raw entitlement: The country owed him the presidency, and Carter inconveniently stood in his way. I think I will now look for a good book on that period to explore the degree to which I did not understand the time nor the issues. Maybe Kennedy had done his own probability calculation and decided he could win and Carter couldn't, a cold view of things I might have sympathized with.

But I know that at the time Kennedy's challenge, and what I perceived to be his ungracious behavior at the Democratic convention, seemed -- at best -- a clear and simple example of letting the "perfect" be the enemy of the good, that Kennedy (in that familiar Utopian Democrat frame of mind) decided better to have Reagan for four years, if that disaster time would be followed by the Return of King.

We see how that all worked out, just like the Naderites rejection of Gore in 2000 worked out so beautifully. (It really is possible, you know, that eight years of Bush the Lesser may be the iceberg that sinks the old republic. How far below the waterline does the gash extend?)

But, as I say, Kennedy won respect from me as over the years he got things done in the Senate that I thought needed doing, and he at least tried to be a brake on Republican excess. I continue to resist calling him a Great Man, an attitude I know I should apply elsewhere: Watch closely. Look for tendencies, not perfection.

E. and I were talking about this the other day, about mutual trust. She said she sometimes wonders if she can really trust me. (It is true that a fat old man is catnip to the ladies. Santa Claus is only the first among many many examples.)

I said that after nearly 44 years of marriage, she probably could. If you are attentive to detail, probably is a very powerful word, and good enough.

1 comment:

Cheryl said...

Cannily observed, Michael.

Also, I love the iceberg metaphor and subsequent question.