The Last Brother
The death of Senator Ted Kennedy marks the death of the last of four brothers who all died trying to save their country from wars waged on innocents by the always-imperial and conquering Right. The first, Joe, was fighting fascism in Europe when he was killed at age 29, John (temporarily) saved us from Richard Nixon and his McCarthyite authoritarianism, only to be shot dead in 1963, Bobby was gunned down trying to save us from Vietnam, and of course, Nixon again. In his long career, Teddy saved us from myriad evils, not the least of which was Robert Bork’s ascension to the Supreme Court, and unlike his brothers lived to serve America in the spirit of what I could only call faith, for almost fifty years. There was something special about these men, despite their flaws borne of wealth, fame, and entitlement; they dedicated their lives and went to their deaths defending the defenseless, helping the helpless, speaking for the silenced, and living out the life that new testament Christianity teaches us to live. The least of my brothers, and all that. All those years of Catholic Mass paid off for them, and the rest of us, as it did for me, despite my atheism from about age 8 on. No wonder all the right wants to talk about is Chappaquiddick, the reflection cast upon them by these great, moral, Christian men is otherwise so woundingly unflattering to them and their plainly inferior place in history.
This explains, to my mind, what made the Kennedys Nixon’s mortal enemies; in every battle, they played Bugs Bunny to his Elmer Fudd, Jesus to his Judas. His poker winnings in the back lines were no match for JFK’s real heroism on PT 109, yet while JFK could downplay his record, Nixon had to inflate his. As a result, Nixon’s self-destructive Kennedy Derangement Syndrome played a pivotal role in his political downfall, as he obsessively fumed about their pedigree, education, and seeming untouchability politically. When Jack Kennedy said that Nixon had “no class,” Tricky Dick knew all too well he was right, and spent the rest of his life seething; envying and fearing the Kennedy magic in equal measure. Nixon also lavishly promoted, investigated, and repeated ad nauseam the wildest theories on the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, and just like his Southern Strategy, it became an evergreen club for the right to bash the man, not his ideas, since they were utterly unequipped to do that. As Marc Antony warned us in his funeral oration, the evil men do lives long after the good is interred with their bones, and Nixon is a sobering reminder of how true that is. Worse, in the age of Glenn Beck and Fox News, even those theories have conveniently been embellished just a little. A Righty caller on Ed Schultz’s radio show today confidently asserted that Kopechne was Kennedy’s mistress, bearing his unborn child, and that’s why he had to kill her. Nice way to bring the Randall Terry crowd into the fold for a new generation of wingnuts, but honestly. The great Chicago columnist Mike Royko once denounced the “grave dancers,” who inappropriately early and loudly denounced the flaws of the freshly, but nonetheless deserving, dead, falling over themselves to toss the first stone at the “sinner” every time. Such people invariably call themselves Christians, natch.
But that reaction is in itself revealing: none of the leaders of the modern right can make any such claim to the service of their country, militarily and politically, nor could they make any such claims of moral superiority, much less selflessness, before giants like the Kennedys, who lived their lives in service of the least among us. The Kennedys were big, and they are small, in every sense of the word, and it drives them just as crazy in death as in life.
They don’t have any heroes to lose.