Friday, August 28, 2009

Romanticism about the Senate and "great senators"

Sandy Levinson

Iwas interseted in a story in the NYTimes on how the Senate changed over Ted Kennedy's magnificent career. It begins as follows:

In the spring of 2003, the United States Senate was heading for a meltdown. Democrats were blocking confirmation of federal judges. Republicans were set to retaliate with a “nuclear option”: a new rule stripping senators of their right to filibuster judicial nominations.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, fearing for the future of the institution, turned to a historian for help. He invited Robert A. Caro, author of the epic Lyndon B. Johnson biography, “Master of the Senate,” to speak to lawmakers about Senate traditions, and the founding fathers’ vision of it as a place for extended debate.

To Mr. Caro, Mr. Kennedy’s own knowledge of Senate history and reverence for its ideals was yet another reminder of why his host deserved a place in the pantheon of Senate greats, alongside men like Webster and Calhoun and Clay. But it was also a reminder of how much the Senate had changed during Mr. Kennedy’s 46 years there.

“Ted Kennedy was a senator out of another, very different, Senate era: an era in which senators who believed in great causes stood at their desks, year after year and decade after decade, fighting for those causes, and educating the country about them,” Mr. Caro said.

So what's wrong with this picture?

I begin with the fact--and I argued at the time--that it was a sign of the almost criminal stupidity of the Democrats that they fell victim to the "nuclear option" threat. The filibuster is a thoroughly pernicious institution. It would have been far better for the country--and for the Democratic Party--had the "nuclear option" been invoked as a key step to getting rid of the filibuster entirely. Ironically, the filibuster is most defensible with judicial appointments, given that they are lifetime. They are least defensible for limited-term appointments and somewhere in between with regard to legislation. But, overall, the institution has outlived its usefulness, unless, as I've argued earlier, one is a fan of John C. Calhoun and concurrent majoritarianism.

So that brings us to Calhoun, a thoroughly brilliant man who devoted his considerable talents, for most of his career, to nurturing and defending chattel slavery. It's really as simple as that. The United States would have been better off had Calhoun been thrown from a horse and killed in, say, 1827. Caro, whose books on Johnson and both great and flawed by a tendency to demonize at times a remarkably complex man, has an untenably romantic view of "great senators." Kenned is great because of the causes for which he fought, as was true of, say, George Norris, Robert LaFollette, and Robert Wagner. One might say of Robert Taft that he was a great senator not simply because he was a formidable reactionary, but because we can recognize, 60 years later, his prescience in some of the warning he delivered about our own turn to presidential unilateralism around the world. Perhaps Clay, the "Great Compromiser," is great because he saved the Union in 1850 (though this requires an argument that saving the Union was worth further compromises with the Slavocracy. If one likes Clay, then why not go ahead and praise Taney, who was also trying to save the Union in 1857 in Dred Scott?

I find that Ted Kennedy's death moves me, among what might be called "natural deaths" (as distinguished from assassinations), more than that of any other public figure since Pope John XXIII. Both did what they could to reform perhaps terminally sclerotic institutions in distinctly progressive directions. For that they deserve the admiration and esteem of all of us. But it desecrates what was so admirable about Kennedy to mention John C. Calhoun in the same breath. It is, indeed, like those say that both Churchill and Hitler were "great leaders" because, along some totally amoral metric, they were able to move their audiences to do remarkable things. Well, yes, but anyone who stops there is a moral idiot.



For those of us who see Ted Kennedy's political career in pursuit of redistribution of other folks money to his political constituents as not much more than legalized theft, his slander of Judge Bork and political opponents as reprehensible acts which should have earned him censure by the Senate and his constituents, and who also do not overlook Kennedy's long litany of personal depravities in our measure of the man, Caro's grouping of Kennedy among previous long serving, powerful and amoral or immoral senators is apt, perhaps even generous.

For those of us who see Ted Kennedy's political career in pursuit of redistribution of other folks money to his political constituents

2005 Fed Spending per dollar of Fed taxes paid:

MA $0.82
CO $0.81

Baghdad, you were seeing something that did not exist. Sadly, that appears to be typical for you.


I was referring to the Dem political constituencies in general, not MA voters in particular.

However, your figures do indicate that MA voters are among those being soaked to finance Kennedy's redistributions of wealth, which is both karmic justice and calls into question their ability to connect the dots of their votes for Kennedy with the looting of their pay checks.

I think most MA voters realize that it's important for us to support the red state victims of GOP policies, even if they're too stupid to realize it.

As a former supporter, albeit now a Republican, I think Sen. Kennedy deserves great credit for sticking to his ideals in difficult times. I think it also must be noted the considerable damage he did to "progressive" causes by associating them, more than any single person, with licentiousness and lack of self-control in the public's mind. In this respect he was no John C. Calhoun, but he was not precisely John XXIII, either.

BTW, I think the original post was respectful if argumentative here, it would be good to keep the comments that way too. Unless, of course, this it itself a "stupid" thing to say!

Today's (8/29/09) LATimes has a touching OpEd by a former staffer of Sen. Kennedy at,0,1111928.story

"Sen. Kennedy's personal touch" by Michael Dannenberg.

I found myself unmoved by Kennedy's death, but rather revolted by the idolization. I don't know the politician who would deserve that kind of worship, but Teddy surely wasn't him.

The most amusing thing about it is the claims that seeking and keeping high office was Teddy's form of "penance" for killing that woman. My gorge rises at that sort of talk.

A script for Prilosec or Zantac, or both, may offer relief for this:

"My gorge rises at that sort of talk."

I don't believe in idolization of anyone. But I am moved by Sen. Kennedy's death - and by the deaths of many others, whether I know them or not, or like them or not.

The number of people who die, daily, who have more claim on my sympathy than even politicians who haven't killed anyone, must amount to tens of thousands. I'd be an emotional wreck before I got anywhere near caring about Kennedy.

So, no, all he gets from me is a basic intellectual regret that anyone at all has to die. And disgust at the whole power worship thing.

As a Senator, Kennedy can probably best be summed up by his ongoing support of the misbegotten American welfare system that subsidized broken families and lifetime unemployment and thus resulted in multiple dependent, ill educated and crime ridden generations.

Kennedy was one of only twelve Senators to vote to continue this abomination and against the Gingrich/Clinton welfare reforms, slanderously comparing the rest of the Senate to Marie Antoinette telling the poor to "Let them eat cake."

To the day of his death, Kennedy denied against all evidence that welfare reform was anything but a failure that resulted in more poverty and actively worked in the Senate to gut work requirements to reestablish life destroying dependency on government.

Perhaps the comparison with Calhoun's stubborn defense of chattel slavery is not so off the mark.

If Calhoun died, some other voice for slavery would have stepped in. No need to wish for his early death.

"seeking and keeping high office"

No, they respect -- as do some of his ideological opponents who sometimes worked with him on a myriad of things that furthered the public good -- what he did there.

You claim to care about our Constitution. It is of no value without public servants, shudder, politicians, who respect it. Who spend their lives honoring it. Respect also doesn't just mean sucking up to power.

I also find the citation of an alleged manslaughter from 40 years ago by some mighty selective. Many of them are willing to support those actively supporting murder and mayhem.

Strange also how we never read about Laura Bush killing someone (maybe it was perfectly benign, though that didn't stop many smears on Dems, and since we never read about it, hard for me to tell).

More importantly, something that happens 40 years ago should not be the end all of one's life. I don't think actually people really think so either. They selectively target him on this point since they don't like him. If they liked what he did with his life, many would have forgave him.

He wasn't the only one who did something like that and went on to a respected career. I am quite cynical at the alleged consistent scorn of his detractors.

@ Baghdad

Bork? Saturday Night Massacre Bork. Yoo's ideological forefather regarding the unitary executive (elective dictatorship). The same hypocrite that shamelessly gave lip service to the "absolute necessity of tort reform" his entire career until HE fell off the Yale Club's dais and immediately sued. The Bork that argued that consumers were often beneficiaries of corporate mergers, and that many then-current readings of the antitrust laws were economically irrational and hurt consumers.

Actually Robert Bork has contributed more to America than most conservatives have in the last 40 odd years--he gave us a new word in the English language . . . "borked". So he's got that going for him.

Your fellow travelers tried to "Sotomayor" someone but it didn't work. I guess scurrilously slandering someone as a "reverse-racist" (assuming that was even definitionally possible) is the Conservative maladaption of "borking" someone.

Could Conservative politicians who tax me to pay for Blackwater (mercenary) contracts, ineffectual Star Wars Missle Defense and F-22s be accused of "redistributing other folks money . . . legalized theft" . . . or are you so intellectually dishonest that "taxing someone" only amounts to "legalized theft" when the money is used to help your fellow citizens (something Conservatives loathe) instead of killing other nation's sovereign citizens (something Conservatives love)?

Do tell Baghdad?


The none to subtle distinction between the alleged racism of Judges Bork and Sotomayor is that Kennedy made the slander against Bork without a scintilla of evidence while one only need quote from Sotomayor's own speeches since the 1990s without adding comment.

Kennedy may have had his causes, and the ability to connect with the Democratic Party organization, but I think Russ Feingold is much more principled yet has managed to accomplish campaign reform. Paul Wellstone was also principled, but did not accomplish so much due to his untimely death.

In what sense is RF "much more principled" than Kennedy? Putting aside the span of time and situation is different in various respects so the comparison is imperfect?

Can we add some perspective without faint praise like (previous thread) that he was "accomplished" (wow), or "had his causes" (wow), or some ability to "connect" (though repeatedly he put forth a dissenting opinion from said organization)?

Rhetorical question.

@ Baghdad . . . like most of your fellow travelers you are pathologically incapable of not writing pure undiluted BS. One immutable conclusion is evident--you and your kind are afflicted by a mental illness. I'm embarrassed that I have to refer to people like you as my colleagues otherwise I'd feel compassion for you.

No matter how much you take Justice Sotomayor's comments out of context, you poor pathetic oh so victimized white guy, she still isn't a bigot. But you keep telling yourself that. That's what dopes like you are good at--believing in fantasies.

Ok, two questions:

What elective office has Laura Bush held?

Did she go home, take a shower, get a good night's sleep, and report the accident in the morning, while the driver of the other car slowly bled to death in the wreckage?

Look, anybody can have an accident that kills somebody. (Driving drunk obviously boosts the odds.) And drunk driving wasn't taken as seriously back then, it's just barely possible Joe Average would have gotten off with a slap on the wrist after driving their car into the water, and having their passenger drown.

But If Joe Average had acted post-accident the way Teddy Kennedy did, Joe Average would have done hard time. It's Kennedy's remarkably callous post-accident behavior that makes Chappaquiddick the offense that won't go away.

What elective office did Hillary Clinton have when she was smeared repeatedly in the 1990s? She was used (as other targeting of family members and associates) also generally to target the POTUS.

Again, since we never hear the details, I have little idea of the nature of Laura Bush's accident. Lack of blame did not stop rumors on Clinton and Gore.

So, under hazy circumstances (one account I read said her parents refused an autopsy), he should have got "hard time" for what he did. This -- as compared to people who recklessly kill or maim people, which again repeatedly is not the end of their careers or reputations especially 40 years later -- is by some strata so much worse. I don't see it.

Finally, it is not that it should "go away." As with your comment about his running for office when the point is what he did there, you conveniently miss the point. It is how it is selectively used.

As to "hard time," his actions directly after the accident is of very unclear relevance legally. Was there some sort of Good Samaritan law that obligated him to help her?

And, yes, it was more than "barely possible" for someone in that situation, even if he was just a regular friend of hers, to get a slap on the wrist at the time for the accident.

Particularly, since it would be legally hard to prove what happened. I think you mean morally.

"Was there some sort of Good Samaritan law that obligated him to help her?"


Good Samaritan laws relate to the behavior of third parties uninvolved in the accident. They have not the slightest relevance to the obligations of THE DRIVER of the only car in the accident.

You really think that, if you drive your car off the road, and leave your passenger in it underwater, you have no obligations at all to your passenger, not even so much as to report it to the police promptly? Remind me never to car pool with you.

I was wrong not to address the fact he convicted of abandoning the scene. One might add some duty to report it. But, he got a slap on the wrist for that.

So, you really don't help yourself too much -- where's the "hard time" for doing that?

I'm unsure how long she would have survived hurt under the water unless he then and there got her out. I don't think he had a legal obligation to do that.

It would have some time for medics to get there. Some unqualified local could have done more harm than good. If he could convince someone, in his current state, to go.

"One might add some duty to report it. But, he got a slap on the wrist for that.

So, you really don't help yourself too much -- where's the "hard time" for doing that?"

That's my point: That WILL net you hard time, if you're not, for instance, a Kennedy.

What elective office has Laura Bush held?

What difference does that make? Are incidents like that ok if you're not an elected official?

The people in MA knew about Kennedy's past. Obviously it did not prevent them from voting for him. If you don't like that, tough shit. No one who voted for him cares what you think.

They're free to elect Hannibal Lecter, for that matter. Just don't expect me to mourn him.

This comment has been removed by the author.

They're free to elect Hannibal Lecter, for that matter. Just don't expect me to mourn him.

# posted by Brett : 10:50 PM

I'm pretty sure no one expects me to mourn him. Who expects you to mourn him?

He got a slap on the wrist because failure to stay at the scene of an accident is not a crime that is liable, whoever you are, to get you "hard time."

Likewise, if he actually made some attempt to get help right away, as I noted, sadly, chances are she very well might have not survived.

This underlines, especially long after he was sober, it would be hard to prove his guilt -- no matter who he was. OTOH, we can assume otherwise since you don't like him. He was after all, shudder, a politician.

Normal drunk drivers have gotten away with a slap on the wrist with more glaring immediate evidence.

Oh, really?

Here in South Carolina, Kennedy would unambiguously have been guilty of a felony. And in for a mandatory sentence of at least one year, and up to 25. Back in my old state, Michigan, it would have maxed out at 15 years.

But it does appear that MA regards the matter very lightly: You can apparently leave somebody dying in a car in Kennedy's stomping grounds, and you've got five days to mention it to the police. Better die really slowly if you're trapped in a wrecked vehicle in Martha's Vineyard.

Guess some states just don't consider trapping somebody in a vehicle underwater, and then going home to get a good night's sleep while they slowly suffocate, to be all that big a deal. Personally, I'm glad to have never lived in a state that callous about human life.

Here in South Carolina

# posted by Brett : 8:35 PM

That explains a lot. You should worry about your own politicians.

So, since the basic issue at hand is the allegation that Kennedy would get "hard time" (as compared to a "normal" accidental death) for abandoning the scene etc., you were wrong?

The snarky commentary is just dicta, like a lawyer or politician focusing on a minor point with a lot of hot air?

The laws of various other states are interesting, seriously, but (1) useful to know laws at the time (2) how they actually are enforced.* For instance, for 'great bodily injury,' SC has a range of "thirty days nor more than ten years."


* See, e.g., our current drug laws.

Yes,I was wrong. In most states, leaving somebody to slowly die in your car, while you go off to get a shower and a good night's sleep before reporting it, is a felony which will get you years in prison. But not in Teddy's home state, which places a relatively low value on human life.

Chappaquiddick is only one event in a long and sordid history of drunken debauchery that was the life of this son of privilege. Michael Kelly penned a pretty comprehensive personal history of the last surviving prince of Camelot for GQ some years back entitled "A Sober Look At Ted Kennedy."

It is obscene that this lowlife is buried among heroes at Arlington.

It is obscene that this lowlife is buried among heroes at Arlington.

# posted by Bart DePalma : 11:12 PM

If it pisses off a scumbag piece of shit like you, it's all good.

no shit

bart would love the man if he tortured someone against whom there was zero evidence

what an absolute fucking weirdo

"bart would love the man if he tortured someone against whom there was zero evidence"

Now, that's an ironic comment. Which are you claiming: That there was evidence against Mary Jo, or that slowly suffocating to death is enjoyable? It's apparently one or the other, or Bart should like Kennedy, by your reasoning.

Which are you claiming

# posted by Brett : 6:59 AM

That seems pretty fucking obvious, you idiot. He's pointing out that Baghdad Bart has slavishly supported war criminals like Cheney, who did far worse things over the last 8 years than Ted Kennedy has done in his entire life.

Brett said:
It's apparently one or the other

then adds:
or Bart should like Kennedy

funny. it has to be one of two things, but it could also be a third.

it's almost as if even you knew your false dichotomy was as pointless and irrelevant as is possible

as bartbuster said, my comment had nothing to do with ted kennedy and everything to do with bart's claims of what is and what isn't obscene

"as bartbuster said, my comment had nothing to do with ted kennedy"

Really? Then who was "the man" in question, if not Ted Kennedy?

Look, you guys idolize a man who callously left a woman to die, and when anybody brings it up, you make excuses. Don't expect anybody who doesn't idolize him to be impressed.

Look, you guys idolize a man who callously left a woman to die, and when anybody brings it up, you make excuses. Don't expect anybody who doesn't idolize him to be impressed.

# posted by Brett : 7:48 AM

No offense, but I really don't give a fuck if a warmongering piece of shit like you is impressed by anything I do.

As someone who keeps coming up with excuses for the torturing savages who were running this country for the last 8 years, you don't really occupy the moral high ground.

sorry Brett, you're right about one thing. instead of "nothing" I should have said "little". does that clear things up for you?

I don't give a fuck about Ted Kennedy. I do not care at all that he is dead.

take another random stab at who I idolize

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