Remembering Kennedy, and Cooling the Rhetoric

It was 1998, and President Clinton and Vice President Gore were working with Senate and House Democratic leaders to stage party “unity” events around the country, hoping to build the grassroots enthusiasm that would help elect as many Democrats to Congress that year as possible.

At an event in Boston, Clinton and Gore were joined on stage by Ted Kennedy, who did his best to rally the troops. Alluding to that year’s home run competition between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, however, Kennedy mangled the names, calling McGwire Mike and mispronouncing Sosa’s name as Sooo-sa.

When Kennedy returned to his seat, and with the crowd still snickering, Gore whispered in his ear to explain his mishap. “That’s OK,” Kennedy replied with a laugh, “I’ll blame it on my accent.”

Kennedy had clearly come to mean what he had said 18 years earlier at the 1980 Democratic National Convention: “We have learned that it is important to take issues seriously, but never to take ourselves too seriously.”

It was among Kennedy’s most endearing attributes, one about which we have heard much in the last week. Over many years in the spotlight, through personal tragedies both self-inflicted and otherwise, with his family name shaping public expectations about him, the fourth of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s sons had finally achieved a personal self-confidence and professional contentment.

No, he would never be president. Nor was it clear, from his troubled 1980 campaign to unseat fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter, that he really wanted the job. That he could not, in an interview that year with CBS’ Roger Mudd, provide a coherent answer to the softball question, “Why do you want to be president?” may have said more about his ambivalent feelings than we suspected at the time.

Kennedy was most at home on Capitol Hill, where he served as the Senate’s leading liberal voice, mastered the arcane machinery of law-making and compiling a record of accomplishment – in, for instance, health, education, labor and civil rights – that puts him in the very top ranks of lawmakers in our history.

While not taking himself too seriously, he also learned another key to legislative success: He would not take seriously the harsh words directed at him. And he would launch harsh attacks at others with the same thought in mind – that they were deployed for the battle at hand and nothing more.

So, Kennedy would seek to lambaste his opponents one minute, cut deals with them the next and drink with them after that. He was the party leader as bipartisan bridge-builder, the fighter as conciliator.

That it was key to his success, however, says something not just about Kennedy but about our politics – something worth mulling at a time of enormous challenge and bitter partisanship in Washington.

In normal life, words matter. They can soothe or sting, strengthen or fray ties, generate warmth or leave scars. At their harshest, they can split a family, end a friendship and poison a working environment.

Only in politics are words supposed to affect just the battle at hand and leave no permanent damage to relationships.

When President Reagan tapped Robert Bork for the Supreme Court in 1987, Kennedy set the tone for the angry confirmation battle ahead, unfairly asserting on the Senate floor that day: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, (and) school children could not be taught about evolution . . .”

Then, during Bork’s courtesy calls on senators in early July, Kennedy told Bork privately that his opposition was “nothing personal, you understand,” according to Battle for Justice, Ethan Bronner’s book about the highly-charged nomination. Bork did not understand, nor did his wife and family.

Kennedy’s Senate speech about Bork was unduly harsh, but political discourse in America has only grown coarser in recent years. Opponents of President Obama’s health care proposal, for instance, have paraded doctored pictures of him with a Hitler-style mustache at town hall meetings.

The harsher the rhetoric, the harder for anyone on the receiving end – politician or otherwise – to let bygones be bygones.

So, while we celebrate Kennedy’s example and urge lawmakers to set aside their differences and work together, we should all tone down our rhetoric. Otherwise, both they – and we – will have too much anger to overcome.