There seemed to be something vaguely disappointing and anticlimatic in the Kennedy news last week. This, I think, was not because people had always supposed that Edward Kennedy would become a candidate for president, but rather because so many of them had become comfortable with even dependent on, the idea that he wouldn't. Their number includes many of Kennedy's natural political fans and allies, many of his equally natural political opponents and a large realm of the ambivalent.
Looking at the reaction from around the country when the Massachusetts senator let it be known that probably he "would," you got an impression that this was a question people didn't especially crave to have answered. The will-he, won't-he thing, now going into its second decade, has become something of a permanent fixture of our politics. And, as such, it has been a great source of convenience, as well as an excellent aid to obfuscation. I am reminded of a big old black dog I used to know, uhose scam was to pull ferociously on the leash whenever in the presence of another male dog and lhose expression of bewilderment (and betrayal) the night the leash broke and he had to fight, will never escape me: now what am I supposed to do?
We can deal first uith the ideological "antis" who, for a variety of reasons, had started sounding "pro," people like some of the conservative Southerners or Sen. Jackson of Washington whose world view is so fundamentally different from that of Kennedy. The enfeebled presidency of Jimmy Carter, Carter's own quirkiness and incompatibility with his fellow pols and the idea that vast numbers of other Democratic officeholders could be lashed out to sea with him have made the magnetic and affable Kennedy look tempting to them. But it is one thing to pine and yearn or mutter and menace-- and quite another to succeed: a declared Ted Kennedy candidacy would force issues and questions from SALT to civil rights to oil-company divestiture that could be as tough to resolve as any that have riven the Democratic Party in recent years.
This suggests why the natural allies and generally sympathetic followers will also be pushed to much less comfortable places than those they have inhabited while all was mystery and promise and maybe. At a minimum, Kennedy, if he becomes a real and serious contender, can be expected to trim, moderate and move-- to make timely strategic and tactical concessions to those on his right. In a way, many of his liberal-left supporters have enjoyed a carefree fantasy up until now, one in which they could indulge all sorts of preferences and whims without actually ever having to face up to their consequences.
That perennial, built-in disappointment liberals feel toward whomever they manage to elect to office could always be rationalized and played off against the misty prospect of a Kennedy intervention. But just as Kennedy himself can be expected to believe and behave differently when he is no longer assuming the role of the elusive alternative, so some of his adherents too will be forced now to examine the burden of his message (and their own) more carefully. Can it work? Will it win? Should it win?
I figure, therefore, that for the time being, anyway, the ranks of the ambivalent are going to swell. Several questions will force themselves forward for resolution. First, what part of this is genuine political attraction and what part nostalgia and mystique? I think Ted Kennedy is quite different from both of his brothers and that he has made a special record that has its own consistency and value. But some large part of his glamour remains the resonance of another time, and people are going to have to sort out how they really felt about that-- it has acquired a great deal of virtue in the retelling that wasn't necessarily there at the time. And much of the New Frontier spirit -- its energetic, activist, interventionist spirit-- is thought to be contrary to what people are seeking now.
From this the next question flows: what actually is the Ted Kennedy program? It's all very well to warn poor old bunged-up Carter that he's got until the first of the year to demonstrate that he has control of the economy. But no one thinks that by January Carter will have been able to turn things around or that Kennedy could either. What, in other words, is the Kennedy program to counter inflation and beat recession and where, incidentally, does it fit in with, say, his health-care plan?
And then there is-- yes-- Chappaquiddick. I believe Kennedy's closer friends and staff and supporters who argue that this is a concern only to soreheads, cranks and a few right-wing bananas do him a terrible disservice. What happened that night and the senator's attitude toward it and conduct thereafter represent a legitimate subject of interest and anxiety and this casts a huge moral shadow over his candidancy. It emerges as a failure of personal and public responsibility so large and deep as to overwhelm much of the undeniable goodness and strength of the man. If Kennedy does run, he is surely going to have to do at some point what he has failed to so far-- speak directly and candidly on that subject and be seen to be facing up to and accepting responsibility for what happened. By what happened I mean not just that night, but the days and weeks that followed. My sense of it is that the public in this country-- the greatest collection of softies and compulsive forgivers that ever advanced on an election booth-- require at least that of him.
Will he do it? The last-- and greatest-- question concerns the kind of person Kennedy is. One can begin with the fact that, as a public officeholder, he is definable as being more or less the opposite of Carter. He loves politics and is good at it, and I am referring here to politics in its very best sense: as a skill requiring generosity, compassion, sensitivity, a sense of fun and an ability to enjoy combat without getting uptight or nasty about it. Kennedy relishes Washington and Washington life and presidential politics, which is more or less the kind he engages in as a senator.
Over the years, he has also defied much of the negative conventional wisdom about him. Watching him since he arrived here as a widely derided baby senator in 1963, I have witnessed much of this: Kennedy as a diligent and effective senator, not at all (as advertised) the spoiled kid brother; as a campaigner during the war protests or in antibusing demonstrations who would step forlard and take the heat and responsibility when others would not; as a man-- an individual-- talking about and facing up to the ineffable anguish of telling the truth to a child who had cancer.
All this is very powerful, engaging stuff, just as is the contrary, question-mark material. You guess at this point is that we are all going to have to embark on a very long and complicated journey through it before the campaign is over.