A SOBER LOOK AT TED KENNEDY
As we celebrate fifty years of GQ, we take a look at some of the best journalism the magazine has published. In 1990, Michael Kelly—who later became the first American reporter to die in the Iraq war—gave us this memorable and devastatingly candid portrayal of the last Kennedy brother
“He does work at being a senator,” says Michael Barone of The Almanac of American Politics. “And that’s impressive. He could easily sink in a life of alcoholism and do-nothingism. He doesn’t have to do anything to get elected.”
There are times, however, when patience and collegiality do not meet the occasion. When it comes to a clear-cut Left-versus-Right fight, says Hatch, Kennedy “will murder you, he’ll roll right over you…He’ll trample you in the ground and then he’ll grind his heel in you.”
Robert Bork still has Kennedy’s heel marks on his forehead. Forty-five minutes after President Reagan nominated Bork for a Supreme Court seat in 1987, Kennedy was on the floor of the Senate and on the attack: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police would break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids…”
It was, in the words of Kennedy’s former aide Thomas Susman, “outrageous…pretty tough and pretty early on and pretty judgmental and very aggressive.” Bork recently told me with still-hot bitterness, “There was not a line in that speech that was accurate…It was a series of untruths. I didn’t want police breaking down your door. I didn’t want evolution banned from public schools. I didn’t want to force women to have back-alley abortions. The whole thing was false.”
Even Judiciary Committee Chairman Biden, Kennedy’s close ally and coleader of the stop-Bork forces, says Kennedy’s speech was “technically accurate but unfair” and that it “drew lines in ways that were starker than reality.” Biden says he wouldn’t have made such a speech. But, he admits, he is glad Kennedy did. Both he and ranking Republican committee-member Hatch say that without that speech, and without Kennedy’s aggressive personal lobbying against Bork with hundreds of civil-rights leaders and liberal activists around the country, the candidate probably would have been confirmed.
Kennedy’s role in the Bork fight stems from and illustrates his overarching position in American politics. In a rare moment of irritation with the American Civil Liberties Union, the senator once said, “The ACLU thinks that it defines liberalism in the country. I define liberalism in this country.” He was exaggerating only a little. In the religion of liberalism, Kennedy is the guardian of orthodoxy. He is the voice of the interest groups that define the Democratic Party; the black activists, the trade unions, the feminists, the environmentalists, the teachers’ unions and the perennial progressives.
Kennedy is strong and unswerving in his beliefs because they are personal, rooted not in theory but in an emotional commitment to government activism—a continuation and expansion of the leftward direction in which his brother Robert had been heading before his murder. Milton Gwirtzman, who wrote speeches for both Bobby and Ted, says the latter does not have “an articulated set of principles” that rises to the level of an ideology. “There’s no such thing as ‘Kennedy’s thoughts,’ ” says Gwirtzman. “It’s reactions, gut instincts. And they’ve been bent occasionally, but they have always remained the same.”
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