Kennedy's true political credo

As you would imagine, the media culture here in Washington, D.C., remains in full virtual-state-funeral mode following the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, the final prince of the television-driven Camelot era.

The larger-than-life man who grew from Edward to Teddy to Ted is getting the political respect that he deserves, including a sobering salute from columnist George Will that states the obvious: Ted Kennedy was the most politically important Kennedy brother, in terms of his impact on the life and laws of the United States. Most of that impact has been positive and the degree to which other parts have been negative depend largely on whether the person passing judgment has any sympathy for modern liberalism and, of course, the moral doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.

This legacy is what led me to ask a loaded question soon after the news broke about Kennedy's death:

True or false? Based on the information available in the mainstream press coverage of his death, Edward Kennedy is the most influential American Catholic political leader in our nation's history.

I still think that this is an interesting question and I sincerely wanted to see the other names that GetReligion would propose as competition for Ted Kennedy for this "most influential" label. Should we consider a Supreme Court justice, for example? Are justices actually "political leaders"?

Now, many traditional Catholics might flinch before answering "yes" to this question. To understand why, consider this question: Who is the most influential Southern Baptist political leader in our nation's history? I think that one's a slam dunk, too. It's William Jefferson Clinton. The competition? That would probably be Harry Truman.

In terms of the major Kennedy coverage, the Washington Post -- unless I have missed something -- has been the most clinically faith-free. This is ironic, because one of the major reports there contains the most concise statement of the political philosophy that drove the senator's work and also served as such an irritant for many Catholics.

In wrapping up nearly 90 hours of interviews with the senator shortly before his diagnosis, oral historian James S. Young of the University of Virginia discovered a reflective man whose credo in his work was: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." If that pragmatic idea helped Kennedy struggle back from numerous personal failings, it also enabled him to wring a quality of life from his final 15 months, friends said, and move toward a good death.

In those months, Kennedy was determined to carry on as long as he could with his last projects. His memoir, "True Compass," which will be published Sept. 14, was just one that occupied him.

Again, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Of course, there are Catholics who believe that it's utterly wrong to compromise on political issues that are linked to ironclad Catholic dogmas. Thus, some attacked Kennedy for any compromise, but they were never in the majority.

The question for many traditional Catholics was why Kennedy never worked harder to achieve compromises on the hot-button cultural issues that dominated his era on Capital Hill. While it may have been impossible to achieve the "perfect," in terms of Catholic social teachings, why not strive for the "good"? Why not at least seek policies in the middle -- from the viewpoint of the church, of course, not the leadership of the Democratic Party (and many socially liberal Republicans).

In effect, the question was: If you can't be a progressive, pro-life Democrat in the manner of Gov. Robert P. Casey, why not compromise toward the middle and be Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan? Of course, for Catholics who are in favor of America's current abortion laws, Kennedy was a hero. But that's the point.

It is fair to ask what happened to the Catholic who, in 1971, wrote, in a letter made public by its recipient:

While the deep concern of a woman bearing an unwanted child merits consideration and sympathy, it is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized -- the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old. ... (Once) life has begun, no matter at what stage of growth, it is my belief that termination should not be decided merely by desire.

It's clear that Kennedy made his own choices.

ted-kenned-and-his-wife-vickiBut it's also clear that, in terms of faith, something important happened in Kennedy's life after his second marriage. As ABC News has noted, Vikki Kennedy was the woman who "tamed the lion" who had lived such a wild, reckless, scandalous life -- sometimes in front of cameras -- before their union.

Far and away the best story (that I have seen) on this subject is in the New York Times, a richly detailed feature story by Mark Leibovich that ran with this headline: "After a Grim Diagnosis, Determined to Make a 'Good Ending.' " I could quote many passages, but this section near the end will give you a taste:

Even as Mr. Kennedy became frustrated about his limitations, friends say his spirit never flagged. "This is someone who had a fierce determination to live, but who was not afraid to die," said Representative Bill Delahunt, a Democrat and a Kennedy friend whose district includes Cape Cod. "And he was not afraid to have a lot of laughs until he got there."

In recent years, friends say, Mr. Kennedy had come to lean heavily on his Roman Catholic faith. In eulogizing his mother, Rose Kennedy, in 1995, he spoke of the comfort of religious beliefs. "She sustained us in the saddest times by her faith in God, which was the greatest gift she gave us," Mr. Kennedy said, his voice stammering.

He attended Mass every day in the year after his mother's death and continued to attend regularly, often a few times a week. The Rev. Mark Hession, the priest at the Kennedys' parish on the Cape, made regular visits to the Kennedy home this summer and held a private family Mass in the living room every Sunday. Even in his final days, Mr. Kennedy led the family in prayer after the death of his sister Eunice on Aug. 11. He died comfortably and in no apparent pain, friends and staff members said.

His children had expected him to hold on longer -- Mr. Kennedy's son Patrick and daughter Kara could not get back to Hyannis Port in time from California and Washington.

But the senator's condition took a turn Tuesday night and a priest -- the Rev. Patrick Tarrant of Our Lady of Victory Church in Centerville, Mass. -- was called to his bedside. Mr. Kennedy spent his last hours in prayer, Father Tarrant told a Boston television station, WCVB-TV.

The senator told his family that he was ready for an eternal reunion with the members of his family who died before him, especially his brothers who died in the prime of life. While their careers had been cut short, Ted Kennedy marched to his own political drummer, and his own highly personal faith, until the end.

So kudos to the Times for this story. Clearly, more journalists need to include this element of the final Kennedy drama in their coverage.

Please respect our Commenting Policy