The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Sep 092009

This post from David Brooks and Gail Collins in the NYTimes blogs paints a banal picture of Ted Kennedy.

I have already heard comparisons in the media to Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.  The parallel with John Q. works also.  If (say Chappaquiddick never happened) Ted Kennedy had won the presidency, I suspect his White House tenure would have been as brief and unpopular as John Q’s. And, like John Q., he was always a lot more popular in his native Massachusetts than he ever was elsewhere.

The only comparable figure in the Progressive Generation who springs to mind—a famous reformer and flowery-tongued Senator who won many terms and often competed for the presidency—is Robert LaFollete.  But frankly Ted never had LaFollette’s passion and courage.  And, to tell the truth, he was not close to being the intellectual equal of any of the above.  More than any other political leader I can think of, Ted Kennedy’s early electoral success rested almost entirely on his family’s money and reputation.  Only as an elder statesman did he begin to gain, through his own affability and attention to process and detail, a reputation as a constructive and bipartisan dealmaker.  Not sharing the charisma or vision of his elder brothers, most young Boomer (born 1943-1960) hardly gave him much notice back in the ‘60s or ‘70s.  He was a quintessential Mr. Insider, far more beloved by his friends and staff and close associates than by the anonymous public at large.  Ultimately his insider strengths enabled him to become a coalition-builder and doer in an era when so many other legislators (esp Boomers) were distracted by ideological posturing.

Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of life is just showing up.  This is an  apt summary of Woody’s entire  Silent (born 1925-1942) generation: They came along at an opportune moment, they showed up, they played by the rules, and they got rewarded.  Ted Kennedy’s a good example of this.  Despite his obvious character flaws, he simply stayed around, persevered, went through the motions, did his duty, attended to his family’s crusades, and ultimately got plenty done.  Had he been born twenty years later, in 1952 rather than 1932, he would have run off to Katmandu or Bora Bora—possibly to return with some entirely transformed persona.  Not Teddy.  And that serves as an exemplary life lesson to all of us born in younger generations.

Hat Tip to Reena Nadler for finding the article.

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