On the Right, Kennedy Remains a Symbol of Liberalism

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was the last of an American political dynasty, rising to prominence alongside his brothers John and Robert. He served more than four decades in the Senate and led a life rife with triumph and tragedy. Vincent Bzdek, who is author of 'The Kennedy Legacy,' narrates the slideshow.
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 29, 2009

As the nation offers final tributes to Edward M. Kennedy, who will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday, the glowing eulogies have been accompanied by lingering ill will toward the senator from Massachusetts who came to embody modern liberalism.

Kennedy reigned as a larger-than-life political figure for nearly half a century, engendering a level of passion matched by few others. Just as he was loved for his unalloyed political views, he was also despised.

"He was given everything he had in life," said conservative activist Grover Norquist. "He didn't earn anything. He is Thurston Howell III, and he has the nerve to say to people who built small businesses, restaurants and gas stations that they should have their money stolen from them" through higher taxes.

For many of his detractors, strong feelings about Kennedy's political views are only intensified by personal failings in his earlier years. Since his death Tuesday, in commentaries and anonymous postings online and in interviews, Kennedy has been condemned in harsh terms, even as thousands have waited in long lines to pay him respects.

Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, a grass-roots conservative group, was unsparing in her criticism of the late senator. "He ruined his own reputation because of his personal treatment of women," she said. "What he did to Mary Jo Kopechne and his years of philandering were damaging."

Kopechne was killed in 1969 when a car Kennedy was driving after a party on Chappaquiddick, an island off Martha's Vineyard, ran off a narrow bridge and plunged into a tidal pool. Kennedy did not report the incident for about nine hours, and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of leaving the scene of an accident. He received a two-month suspended sentence.

Despite decades of legislative achievements, Kennedy never fully erased the stain of Chappaquiddick. The day after his death, Google listed Kennedy's name as its most popular search -- followed by "Mary Jo Kopechne" and "Chappaquiddick."

Kennedy's reputation was tarnished anew during the 1991 Florida rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, a nephew. A portrait of the senator as juvenile and hard-drinking emerged. As he was preparing to testify at the trial, Kennedy publicly took responsibility for his own behavior. "I recognize my own shortcomings," he said.

Over the years, Kennedy's political opponents worked tirelessly to keep the spotlight on his indiscretions, both to discredit his brand of politics and to draw support for their own.

On the eve of the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Kennedy was among three Democratic senators featured in a television spot aired by supporters of the conservative jurist. The 60-second ad asked whether the "liberal Democrats" expected to oppose Thomas "could themselves pass ethical scrutiny."

The ad mentioned Chappaquiddick, noted that Kennedy was suspended from Harvard University for cheating and reminded viewers of his nephew's rape trial in Palm Beach.

Kennedy was frequently featured in conservative fundraising solicitations, and his unabashed liberalism was often used in an attempt to demonize the Democratic Party.

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