August 28, 2009; New York Times; Teddy Kennedy, The Great Gradualist ; by David Brooks.
In the days since Ted Kennedys death, the news programs have shown and re-shown the unforgettable ending of his 1980 Democratic convention speech the passage from Tennyson and the beautiful final lines: The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.
But if you go back earlier into the heart of that speech, you see how bold Kennedys agenda really was. His central argument was for a policy of full employment. Government should provide a job for every able-bodied American. His next big goal was what he called reindustrialization. The computer revolution was just getting under way, but Kennedy called on government to restore the industrial might of Americas cities.
The third big goal was national health insurance. Let us insist on real control over what doctors and hospitals can charge, Kennedy cried.
There were other proposals. He vowed to use the full power of government to master increasing prices. Kennedy was proposing to fundamentally transform Americas political economy. He knew he had lost the nomination by this time, and his liberalism was unbound.
The speech was radical, and he could have gone back to the Senate, content to luxuriate in his own boldness. He could have excoriated his opponents for their villainy and given speeches about dreams that would never come true.
But Kennedy became something else. He became a compromiser. He became an incrementalist.
Those words have negative connotations. But they shouldnt. Kennedy never abandoned his ambitious ideals, but his ability to forge compromises and champion gradual, incremental change created the legacy everybody is celebrating today: community health centers, the National Cancer Institute, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Meals on Wheels program, the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and the No Child Left Behind Act. The latter law, by the way, has narrowed the black-white achievement gap more than any other recent piece of legislation.
Kennedys life yields several important lessons. One is about the nature of political leadership. We have been taught since, well, since the days of Camelot to admire a particular sort of politician: the epic, charismatic Mount Rushmore candidate who sits atop his charger leading transformational change.
But the founders of this country designed the Constitution to frustrate that kind of leader. The Constitution diffuses power, requires compromise and encourages incrementalism. The founders created a government that was cautious so that society might be dynamic.
Ted Kennedy was raised to prize one set of leadership skills and matured to find that he possessed another. He possessed the skills of the legislator, and if you ask 99 senators who was the best craftsman among them, they all will say Kennedy. He knew how to cut deals. He understood coalitions and other peoples motives and needs.
I once ran into John McCain after a negotiating session with Kennedy on an immigration bill they had co-sponsored. McCain was exhausted by the arduous and patient way his friend negotiated. In my last interview with Kennedy, I asked about big ideas, and his answers were nothing special. Then I asked about a minor provision in an ancient piece of legislation, and his command of the provision and how it got there was jaw-droppingly impressive.
There is a craft to governance, which depends less on academic intelligence than on a contextual awareness of how to bring people together. Kennedy possessed that awareness.
A second lesson involves the nature of change in America.
We in this country have a distinct sort of society. We Americans work longer hours than any other people on earth. We switch jobs much more frequently than Western Europeans or the Japanese. We have high marriage rates and high divorce rates. We move more, volunteer more and murder each other more.
Out of this dynamic but sometimes merciless culture, a distinct style of American capitalism has emerged. The American economy is flexible and productive. Americas G.D.P. per capita is nearly 50 percent higher than Frances. But the American system is also unforgiving. It produces its share of insecurity and misery.
This culture, this spirit, this system is not perfect, but it is our own. American voters welcome politicians who propose reforms that smooth the rough edges of the system. They do not welcome politicians and proposals that seek to contradict it. They do not welcome proposals that centralize power and substantially reduce individual choice. They resist proposals that put security above mobility and individual responsibility.
In 1980, Kennedy proposed an agenda that jarred with the traditions of American governance. In the decades since, a constrained Kennedy and a string of Republican co-sponsors produced reforms in keeping with it. The benefits are there for all to see.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company