Last night, I made the mistake of flipping through the channels on my television. Whatever movie Robert Osborne was showing on TCM had failed to hold my attention, so I scrolled down with the channel button, and stopped on A&E Biography. It was a maudlin, fawning, sentimental puff piece on Ted Kennedy.
Worse yet, they were devoting the entire evening to Kennedy family biographies — a gigantic Camelot narrative extravanganza. They were also trying to tie it in with a Barack Obama biography, and it occurred to me that they’d love nothing more than to somehow collectively pass the Camelot torch to him. Obamalot? I don’t know.
But I’ll say this for Barack Obama. He doesn’t seem to have gotten kicked out of Harvard for cheating. Nor is he especially known for drunken womanizing. Or driving women into ponds and leaving them there. So maybe Obamalot won’t work.
Since time immemorial, there has been a sort of unwritten rule that we should never speak ill of the deceased. Ted Kennedy’s demise seems to be inviting wholesale violations of that rule (myself not excepted), but I guess why should anyone respect a man who spent his whole life flagrant disregard of rules he considered made for the little people to obey?
Years ago I read Leo Damore’s Senatorial Privilege, which dealt with Ted Kennedy’s conduct in the Kopechne case.
I think the title is a bid misleading, and it really ought to have been titled “Kennedy Privilege.” Maybe “Democratic Privilege,” for no Republican could ever have gotten away with this:

What was undeniable was that he waited ten hours to report the incident – all the long night. Even the next morning, he was seen chatting casually with an acquaintance at his hotel. There is evidence to suggest that Miss Kopechne was alive in the car for quite some time after the accident, breathing the last of the air caught inside.
Bad men can support good ideas. We can’t condemn liberalism itself on the strength of Kennedy’s character. It’s only a coincidence that the man who left Miss Kopechne to tap, tap, tap against the Oldsmobile window while he apparently tried to establish an alibi and otherwise cover his ass also spent a lifetime promoting policies that have endangered our freedoms, harmed our economy and damaged the lives of the poor people they were presumably intended to help.

I’ve been reading about Henry VIII, and the divine right of kings. In those days, there really was such a thing. Henry carried it one stage further when he threw out the one restraint which he couldn’t fully control and which stood in his way: the Catholic Church. Once he replaced that with himself, he was free to marry and divorce at will, and cut the heads off troublesome wives.
God forbid that I would ever compare Ted Kennedy to Henry VIII. For starters, I like Henry VIII, despite his many awful flaws. Besides, it’s a lot easier to say you “like” someone that far in the past than to like a recent tyrant. It’s almost like saying that you “like” Hadrian or Marcus Aurelius; it’s taken with a grain of salt and not too many people are going to start laying into you over their killings, tortures, or love of sadistic games.
But even if Ted and Henry were judged side by side, when all is said and done, the simple fact is that leaving a drowning girl to die does not rise to the level of beheading wives in the Tower of London. Going for the jugular politically (as in the case of Ted Kennedy’s vicious, unprincipled attacks on Judge Bork) cannot be compared with slowly pulling out the intestines of political adversaries.
However, Ted Kennedy does remind me of Henry VIII in one important sense. Both men believed in their ultimate unaccountability, and neither really was held accountable. In Henry’s day, though, the man in the Tudor street wanted his king to be strong, and unaccountable. They liked the idea of him standing up to the Pope and having as many wives as he wanted. They liked the fact that he was a bloated, dissipated gourmand who kicked anybody’s ass anytime he wanted. Unfortunately, there’s a strong streak of populism that loves unaccountability. This was something Republicans forgot during Monicagate.
Clinton was arrogant and shameless, and many people loved him for it.
I was 14 when Ted Kennedy drove Mary Jo into Poucha Pond, and I remember his TV appearance with the cervical collar, and a lot of arguing back and forth. In general, people who liked him sympathized, and people who didn’t like him didn’t. I noticed that it all seemed to come down to whether people agreed with his politics. Kennedy/Camelot lovers (invariably Democrats) used to say things like “That poor man has been through enough!” while Republicans said he should be held accountable the same as anyone else, despite the fact that they all knew he would get away with it.
The fact is that Republicans don’t get away with anywhere near as much. There is no Republican Camelot. A Democratic senator can get away with leaving a girl to tap, tap, tap on the windows while she slowly dies over a period of hours, and yet a Republican senator is politically ruined and permanently disgraced for tapping his foot in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Nothing fair about it.
I think the American people vacillate between liking accountability, and liking unaccountability, and I cannot explain it. It’s as if they think there’s a balance to be struck between two tyrannies, either one of which can go too far if unchecked. For some reason, a demagogic champion of the common man is often expected to live like a king and flout the rules — as many a union boss has and as the Kennedys did. However, Republicans are traditionally not allowed such privileges, for they were long associated with the patrician aristocracy (before that crumbled) and if they tried to act like that it would have been intolerable as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
But the old aristocracy is gone, and this has led to much resentment all around. We hear a lot of talk about the new aristocrats, and Barack Obama certainly acts like one. So do his unaccountable people, like Timothy “Leona Helmsley” Geithner. But this is a far cry from the populist Camelot flouting of the rules, nor does it resemble the old aristocracy of the Henry Cabot Lodge / Nelson Rockefeller Republicans. It’s just looking more and more like regular corruption, maybe with a pseudo-populist Peronist window dressing.
If Americans were fooled, it seems to be wearing off.