When Edward Kennedy got up to speak at the funeral of his nephew John Kennedy in New York City in 1999, I knew that he had a reputation as a good speaker. I was there because I’d worked for John Kennedy as an editor on his magazine, the glossy and not always terrifically good George; he had died in a plane crash a week earlier. Kennedy did give a good speech – good enough to make you wonder whether you really want to hear a good speech on a bad day.
A few hours later, after the congregation had moved from the Upper East Side church to a school on Fifth Avenue, I heard singing coming from a nearby room. The small choir from the church had assembled and were singing Southern a cappellas: in the centre of a circle formed by those looking on was Kennedy, dancing a jig and making a fool of himself. Not everyone can hit a right note at a funeral, then hit another right note at the wake, and with their own shift of mood carry quite a few others along with them.
That few in the United States now have a bad word to say about Kennedy may be because what was flawed about the man was hardly secret, and whatever good luck he was born with came with quite a bit of bad: you couldn’t say he was that lucky to have had the father he had. He had already lost two siblings before his brothers, John and Robert, were assassinated in the 1960s. He might have died twice himself; once in another Kennedy plane crash, and then on Martha’s Vineyard, when he drove a car off a narrow wooden bridge in the middle of the night on the island of Chappaquiddick. He survived the accident, but his passanger, Mary Jo Kopechne, was killed, and madly Kennedy didn’t report the accident to the police for half a day. It looked as if he trying, as a playboy would, to hush things up.
Resentment of the rich in a society obsessed by wealth and how to get it is hardly a new phenomenon in the US, but it’s become a business plan now. Right-wing presenters on Fox TV, such as Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, make new fortunes every year by complaining about the liberal rich, people like the Kennedys, who are in favour of almost everything Beck, Hannity and O’Reilly say they are against.
‘For five decades,’ Barak Obama said the day the senator died, ‘virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well-being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts.’ If the rich are behind something, Beck, Hannity and O’Reilly insinuate, where’s the catch, what’s in it for them? As if the reason Kennedys go into politics is to make money, and whatever they support must therefore be bad.
Conservatives, when they’re being philosphical, say they believe in human imperfection and that no government measure can change that. They tend to leave themselves out of their own philosophy, of course, and see only the imperfections in others. Kennedy was imperfect, to say the least, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t, overall and generally, a force for good.