Teddy Kennedy, Hollow Champion
by Alexander Cockburn, September 2, 2009
Teddy Kennedy's disasters were vivid. His legislative triumphs, draped in last week's obituaries with respectful homage, were far less colorful but they were actually devastating for the very constituencies — working people, organized labor — whose champion he claimed to be.
He had the most famous car accident in political history when he drove off a wooden bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in July 1969, saying later that he had failed in several attempts to dive down 10 feet to rescue Mary Jo Kopechne, a former aide of his dead brother Robert. She was in the back seat and drowned.
Ted quit the scene and called in standby Kennedy speechwriters instead of the police, a misdemeanor which cost him a two-month suspended sentence and any chance of ever following his brother Jack into the White House. He made only one overt bid for the presidency and that was a colorful disaster too. He challenged the Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter, then seeking re-election in 1980. After three years, the left in the Democratic Party was bitterly disappointed in Carter's cautious centrism and Kennedy placed himself in the left's vanguard, declaring in a famous speech that “sometimes a party must sail against the wind.”
In those days I was reporting on national politics for the *Village Voice* and *Rolling Stone* and covered Kennedy's bid. It got off to a shaky start when Roger Mudd of NBC, a well-known political reporter and TV newscaster, asked Ted on prime time why he wanted to be president. The 30 seconds of silence that followed this easy lob didn't help Kennedy's chances.The campaign plane shot backwards and forwards across America, seeking photo opportunities. On one typical morning we left Washington DC at 6am and headed for the rustbelt where Kennedy stood outside a shuttered Pittsburgh steel mill and pledged to get the steel industry back on its feet. We shot west to Nebraska so Kennedy could stand in front of a corn silo and swear allegiance to the cause — utterly doomed — of the small family farmer. Then we doubled back to New York so he could stand on a street corner in a slum neighborhood in the Bronx and promise a better deal for urban blacks and Hispanics.
I asked one of Kennedy's campaign people why they didn't simply equip a studio in Washington with the necessary backdrops — steel mill, silo, urban wasteland — but he said it wouldn't be honest. As things were, the locations we flew to may have been genuine, but the campaign pledges were as dishonest as a studio backdrop, which is why Kennedy — bellowing out his speeches like a mammoth stuck in a swamp — sounded utterly fake.
By 1980 the die was cast. Disdaining the leftward option offered by George McGovern in 1972, the Democratic Party had thrown in its lot decisively with Wall Street, and the big players across the American corporate landscape. The labor unions and the other foot-soldier constituencies of the Party, would be flung rhetorical bouquets with decreasing fervor every four years.
Though the obituarists have glowingly evoked Kennedy's 46-year stint in the US Senate and, as “the last liberal,” his mastery of the legislative process, they miss the all-important fact that it was out of Kennedy's Senate office that came two momentous slabs of legislation that signalled the onset of the neo-liberal era: deregulation of trucking and aviation. They were a disaster for organized labor and the working conditions and pay of people in those industries.
The theorists of deregulation were Stephen Breyer who was Kennedy's chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Alfred Kahn, out of Cornell. Prominent on Kennedy’s dereg team was David Boies. Breyer now sits on the US Supreme Court, an unswerving shill for the corporate sector.
In the mid to late 1970s these Kennedy rent-a-thinkers began to tout deregulation as the answer to low productivity and bureaucratic and corporate inertia. Famous at that time was a screed by Breyer, then a Harvard Law School professor, quantifying such things as environmental pollution in terms of assessable and fungible “risks” which could be bought and sold in the market place. (The Natural Resources Defense Council, adorned by Ted’s nephew, Robert Kennedy Jr., has long espoused this disastrous approach.)
The two prongs of Kennedy’s deregulatory attack — later decorated with the political label “neo-liberalism” — were aimed at airlines and trucking, and Kennedy’s man, Alfred Kahn was duly installed by Jimmy Carter at the Civil Aeronautics Board to introduce the cleansing winds of competition into the industry. By and large, airline deregulation went down well with the press and, for a time, with the public, who rejoiced in the bargains offered by the small fry such as People’s Express, and by the big fry striking back. The few critics who said that within a few years the nation would be left with five or six airlines, oligopoly and higher fares, were mostly ignored.
No one ever really wrote about the terrible effects of trucking deregulation outside the left press. It was certainly the most ferocious anti-labor move of the 1970s, with Kennedy as the driving force. Some of Kennedy’s aides promptly reaped the fruits of their legislative labors, leaving the Hill to make money hand over fist trying to break unions on behalf of Frank Lorenzo, the Texan entrepreneur who ran the Texas Air Corporation and its properties, Continental Airlines and its subsidiary, Eastern.
Did Kennedy fight, might and main, against NAFTA? No. As Steve Early relates in his piece on CounterPunch.org last week, he was for it and helped Clinton ratify the job-losing Agreement. Then he put his shoulder behind GATT, parent of the World Trade Agreement.
We also have Kennedy to thank for “No Child Left Behind” — the nightmarish education act pushed through in concert with Bush Jr's White House, that condemns children to a treadmill of endless tests contrived as “national standards.”
And it was Kennedy who was the prime force behind the Hate Crimes Bill, aka the Matthew Shepard Act, by dint of which America is well on its way to making it illegal to say anything nasty about gays, Jews, blacks and women. “Hate speech,” far short of any direct incitement to violence, is on the edge of being criminalized, with the First Amendment going the way of the dodo.
The deadly attacks on the working class and on organized labor are Ted Kennedy’s true monument. But as much as his brothers Jack and Bobby he was adept at persuading the underdogs that he was on their side. If it hadn’t been for Kennedy, a lot more people would have health coverage. In 1971 Nixon, heading into his relection bid, put up the legislative ancestor of all recent Democratic proposals, but Kennedy shot it down, preferring to have this as his campaign plank sometime in the political future.
After reelection, Nixon did promote a health plan in his 1974 State of the Union speech, with a call for universal access to health insurance. He followed up with his Comprehensive Health Insurance Act on February 6, 1974. Nixon said his plan would build on existing employer-sponsored insurance plans and would provide government subsidies to the self-employed and small businesses to ensure universal access to health insurance. Kennedy went through the motions of cooperation, but in the end the AFL-CIO, with a covert nudge from Kennedy, killed the bill because Nixon was vanishing under the Watergate scandal and the Democrats did not want to hand the President and the Republicans one of their signature issues. Now the Republicans scream “socialism” at exactly what Nixon proposed and Kennedy killed off 38 years ago, in 1971.
To this day there are deluded souls who argue that Jack was going to pull US troops out of Vietnam and that is why he was killed; that Bobby, who worked for Roy Cohn and supervised a “Murder Inc” in the Caribbean, was really and truly on the side of the angels; that Ted was the mighty champion of the working people, even though he helped deliver them into the inferno of neoliberalism.
By his crucial endorsement last year he helped give them Obama too, now holidaying six miles from Chappaquiddick, on Martha's Vineyard, another salesman for the inferno. But because his mishaps were so dramatic, few remember quite how toxic his political “triumphs” were for those who now foolishly mourn him as their lost leader.