Did many of us much notice that, when the last fiddle and bow of John F. Kennedy’s threnody had been laid aside, Sen. Edward Kennedy went off at once to Little Mud, an eastern Kentucky mine patch, to visit the cabins where pinto beans would be all too often the Thanksgiving dinner? But then it has never been easy for most of us to recognize that President Kennedy’s best monument may well be the only one of his brothers left alive.
Living Kennedys have never been the most comfortable company. The president rode through most of the 1960 campaign as triumphantly as Blazes Boylan on the streets of Dublin; but his election turned out to be the narrowest of scrapes. Louis Harris, his pollster, said later that, on the Wednesday before the end, he had reported a 6 percentage-point drop in what had until then seemed a comfortable Kennedy majority. John Kennedy, Harris recalled, looked up from those awful figures and said: “There’s something about me that scares people when they start to think that I might really make it.”
There is indeed something about the Kennedys that disturbs us, and this may explain why we never quite accept them until they are dead. Except for the faint malicious buzz of the gossips, the president was, of course, remembered last November in ceremonies sincere in their grief and veneration. We felt safer with the ghost than we had with the living presence.
The single wisest political comment in my own narrow experience with the limited wisdom of politics was Edmund Burke’s observation that we are all very good judges of history’s past transactions and that every contemporary who was content with the excesses of George III felt assured that he would have staunchly resisted the tyranny of James II. We are all so certain that we would have fought in the trenches against the late Joe Mccarthy that, as often as not, the beleaguered politician who cries out that he is the victim of McCarthyism is the same one who cheered McCarthy on while he was boiling and smoking.
We all know too that we could never have given way in some horrid moment as Ted Kennedy did at Chappaquiddick, which is why, in the arrogance of our conviction that we would have done better than he did in this single case, we exempt ourselves from any duty to pay attention to the many cases where he shows himself better than us.
I do not think Edward Kennedy’s pilgrimage to Little Mud had much to do with his recollections of his older brother’s spirit. President Kennedy sits yet in my mind as pretty much the most beguiling person of my own sex I have ever known. Beyond the rage of the day after he was shot, my keenest sense of loss came from the knowledge that in life he had seemed so fortunate and so invulnerable to the troubles of ordinary existence that I had never felt any need to tell him how much I liked him and then I never could.
All the same, an active social conscience was not often visible among his charms, which ran rather to those of detachment. The injustices that roiled his brother Robert never seemed much to bother him. What would have become of him if he had lived is an open question; but, for most of his life, he took little pleasure in those stirrings from below that so delighted President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and, if concern for the poor did seem to have infused him during the West Virginia primary, some of this new tenderness had to be owed to the alacrity with which they rushed to vote for him.
The detachment of the president’s nature and manner was a distinct credit to him; he was never one to stoop to postures. It has always been a singular quality of the Kennedy brothers that they could never counterfeit their feelings. If they expressed one, you could trust it to be authentic.
Because he has taught us to trust his feelings, it would be foolish to deny the nobility of Ted Kennedy’s journey to Little Mud. He is the first Kennedy to be a loser in politics, and he gives every sign of not anticipating a second chance. He makes his witness now, not as a candidate, but as a kind of steward; he travels to call attention not to himself but to the needs of others.
Those others are noticed by too few persons besides himself; and, in speaking out, he cannot hope to give them a wide enough notice since he is no longer thought of as someone who might be president and thus as a lively player in a game where tactics are subjects altogether worthier of intense discussion than principles.
Since no tactic can avail him any longer, we have to assume that only principle carried him to Little Mud. His generations of the Kennedys can never command again; it endures in him only to oppose, the most elevated of all political functions. If he lives wherever ghosts may live, John F. Kennedy, the grandest of successes, must be surprised and proud to have a brother who could bring such a victory out of failure.
January 19, 1984