On August 29, 2009, Senator Edward M. Kennedy was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. His passing marks the last of a generation of Kennedys that was instrumental in shaping American politics in the 20th Century.
A private memorial service was held on Friday, August 28 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. The service was televised, and the Fox News Channel ran commercial-free coverage for three hours.
How was the event characterized? In Maryland, CBS affiliate WJZ ran a story with the caption, “Political Luminaries Gather to Celebrate Kennedy.” The Boston Globe ran the headline, “Powerful gather in homage, gratitude.” Within the Boston Globe story was this line of analysis: “But the diverse contingent who have come to Boston reflects a bipartisan respect that perhaps no other public figure could claim.”
If you watched the memorial service you were able to see “the diverse contingent” and the “the bipartisan respect.” The theme was that this was America: the rich and the poor, the young and the old. We were watching Americans pay tribute.
The only problem with the picture was that there were no Republicans.
Well, let me modify that. There were in fact some Republicans on hand. Amongst the several hundred people in attendance was Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, husband of Maria Shriver, along with two other Republicans: Senators John McCain and Orrin Hatch. The two Senators each spoke of their friendship with Senator Kennedy, with Senator McCain coming across (unfortunately) as someone being “used.”
Senator McCain told stories of how he was charmed by the personal favors extended to him by Senator Kennedy. His presentation mirrored earlier remarks he had made to news outlets, and gave the impression that he might have a tendency to compromise his principles to maintain a spirit of collegiality. There was one slight gaffe at the conclusion of his speech as he exited the stage away from Vicki Reggie Kennedy, widow of Senator Kennedy. He seemed to wish to avoid her embrace of thanks.
Senator Hatch appeared to be quirky and a bit overly-religious. He told of how Senator Kennedy had helped him get a Mormon Temple built in Massachusetts, complete with the angel Moroni at the top of its spire. It showcased Senator Hatch’s dedication to his church, but seemed out-of-place in this setting.
All-in-all, the Republican presence was a counterpoint to the eloquence of the other speakers. The contributions of the Republicans were perfunctory and off-key.
Those characterizations might seem abrasive, but that is what came across. This was a gathering of Americans, and the Republicans amongst them were oddballs. What one noted from the service was the unanimity of spirit of the non-Republicans. Not surprisingly, they all felt the same way about health care and climate change. Could all of this have been scripted? Was there a defined purpose behind the broadcast of this “private” affair?
Take away the few Republicans at the service, and you had a gathering of Democrats celebrating the principles of the Democratic Party. Yet we are encouraged to believe that this is “America”. Our culture portrays this as Americans “just acting naturally.”
The theme of the memorial service was that Senator Kennedy was a person who did what was right for America, while being a good family man and a citizen of the world. Vice President Biden related how Senator Kennedy had gotten him into the Senate, and then helped him get important committee assignments and meet important political figures. Others told similar stories of how Senator Kennedy helped them to achieve their life goals. What emerged was a portrait of a Senator whose life work was to increase the power and authority of the Democratic Party. Senator Kennedy used his considerable charms to enhance the political influence of others.
The stories of power and influence were balanced with stories of whimsy and fun, showing that the Senator did not carry his theatrics beyond the Senate floor. Once the business of promoting the Democratic Party was not in play, he was just a “regular guy.”
I thought the spell was broken for a few seconds when Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg told the story of the Senator taking his clan on a camping trip to Thompson Island in Dorchester Bay (just southeast of Boston). She talked about the oppressive heat, bugs, and noise from Logan International Airport, and noted that Senator Kennedy put up with it for a time, and then “…snuck off to the Ritz.”
It was a family story, and one that appeared to be off the cuff. But those of us watching noted that Senator Kennedy didn’t sneak off to a Holiday Inn. He went to the Ritz Carlton, Boston Common. It is not a location that makes one think of “common folk.” Rather, it is the mark of a privileged politician who turns the theatrical flair on and off and happily attends to his personal comforts. For just a moment, Mrs. Schlossberg forgot about the external audience that was watching, and told a story that was tailored for the sensibilities of those in attendance.
Our culture might have promoted this “private” service as a simple gathering of Americans, but this event might more accurately be characterized as a gathering of the very wealthy, along with their families, supporters and key staff members. Was it bipartisan?
I didn’t hear any announcer remark, “This is a diverse group of people, but there sure aren’t many damned Republicans!”
And that’s the point: Our culture sees America as a nation that doesn’t include many damned Republicans.