Making Up Our History, As We Go.
We are in the dark, with blindfolds on. We don't know where we're headed. A new book sheds some light.
This post will be about a new book on the recent past that sheds light on the immediate future. First I’ll do some set-up about politics of the moment.
The book is Ted Kennedy: A Life, by John A. Farrell. It’s big and thick and will be officially published next month. I think you will find it worth your time, in its own right (it’s skillfully researched and engagingly written) and for its implications. You can pre-order it now for delivery soon, and you can see some of the positive pre-publication reviews here.
I’m mentioning the book now, rather than waiting to do a “normal” review, because I think its broad themes help in thinking about the politics and psychology of our times.
What connects this book and our times is the reminder of how stressful it is to live through political moments like our own. These are times when the stakes are high and each day’s news clearly “matters.” But we have no idea of what will matter, or how, or what versions of history will survive.
We don’t know what we are living through.
We can’t know which “breaking news” items from a routine day will amount to “turning points” in the historians’ view, and which will disappear into the slurry of names and “revelations” we can hardly remember the following week. (Quick: Who was the Trump Interior Secretary who had to step down in wake of scandal? Or the former Commerce Secretary who was under a similar cloud? Or the first Trump associate to be convicted?)
We know that historians will write about the Trump era and its aftermath—that is, about our times. We just don’t know what they will say.
—We can’t know whether they will present this era — its protests, its “norm violations,” its resentments —as one more American outburst that relatively quickly burned itself out. This would be like the “Know-Nothing” movement of the late 1840s and 1850s, or Joe McCarthy’s smear-tactics of the 1950s, or even the Republican party’s anti-immigrant campaign in California in the 1980s, which has led to near-total Democratic control of California politics ever since.
—Or whether, on the other hand, historians will see the Trumpism of our times as something like Jim Crow or Reconstruction. That is, as upwellings from a particular era that never went away, and that shape American life more than a century afterward.
Is this another McCarthy Era? Or another Reconstruction-and-Jim-Crow?
I could go on about the contingency and chanciness of history, because it’s so hard to wrap our heads around the role of blind fortune in our fate. I wrote about it at length this past summer.
Consider: What if Lee Harvey Oswald’s aim had been worse in 1963? Or if Giuseppe Zangara’s aim had been better in 1933? (Zangara tried to shoot the president-elect Franklin Roosevelt in Miami, and succeeded mainly in killing Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago.) What if Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign group had decided to go out the front door of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after his victory in the California primary in 1968? Rather than trying to avoid crowds by going through the kitchen, where Sirhan Sirhan was? What if, what if. We live in the dark.
Six years ago, I wrote an ongoing “Trump Time Capsule” series, with more than 150 entries in all. The idea was to chronicle step-by-step, in real time, Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican party. The premise was that the truckling “Vichy Republicans” who had decided to make their peace with Trump would be forever shamed.
That is, I thought there might be some reputational or practical price to pay, for politicians who had once called Donald Trump a fraud and bigot but then lined up with him when he became the party’s nominee. I thoughtVichy would stick with them, as it has stuck with Marshal Pétain and others from the original Vichy Republic that made its peace with the Third Reich.
That could still turn out to be the case—for Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, all of them. In the long run, who knows. But for now they have calculated that it’s safer and “smarter” to stay fully onboard. They’re still invited to the talk shows and the conferences. Their views are still quoted at face value in the press. In the “history” written as of September, 2022, they’re still on the winning side.
Three years ago, the Rutgers historian David Greenberg wrote that “history’s judgment” might for a long time remain unknowable about people who had chosen the Vichy/Lindsey Graham path. Greenberg has written extensively about Watergate. And he said that if the Watergate pattern prevailed, the few outlier Republicans who dared stand up against power were the ones who would be remembered. As he put it:
The Watergate saga does tell us this much: Those loyalists who abandoned Nixon early, when it mattered — who stood up for principle over party, for integrity over professional advancement, before Nixon was politically doomed — are remembered and praised for their courage. Men such as Sen. Lowell P. Weicker (Conn.) and Rep. William Cohen (Maine) cemented their legacies as honorable public servants and were lionized for the rest of their lives.
Those who waited to see the writing on the wall (other Republicans in Congress, administration officials who wanted to serve the national interest but lacked the courage to break with their boss) left their fates to chance. Many of them are now remembered solely for sticking by a man who abused the power of his office — if, that is, they are remembered at all.
Liz Cheney is probably thinking: Let’s see how that works this time.
When people look back will they say: ‘Surely this was a breaking point’ ?
Here is a further aspect of our current unknowability. We have already been through countless episodes that, in any other era, would have constituted “have you no decency?” historical turning points.
The “decency” reference is of course to the climactic, best-known episode of Joseph McCarthy’s self-destruction. That was at a riveting Congressional hearing in 1954, during McCarthy’s exchanges with the lawyer Joseph Welch. Over the previous four years of McCarthy’s rampages, only a tiny handful of Republicans, led by Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, had dared call McCarthy out for his cruelty and abuse. Nearly 75 years after Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” speech in 1950, she is remembered for her courage and clarity. In contrast, Dwight Eisenhower, heroic in so many ways, bears the lasting shame of having been so slow and fearful in taking on his party’s bully.
In the onrush of recent history, we’ve had a torrent of “have you no decency” moments — episodes that future historians could conceivably classify as the “last straw,” or the “turning point.” For instance, from just the past few weeks:
A search-warrant affidavit saying that a former president had lied about keeping information that U.S. military and intelligence officials might have risked their lives to obtain.
A state attorney-general’s suit detailing multi-year large-scale fraud by a former president and his family, overshadowing by a factor of 100 anything even suspected about Lyndon Johnson’s shady broadcast licenses in Texas, or overseas dealings by the relatives of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, or anyone else.
Credible and detailed allegations that a former Attorney General bent the rules and cooked the books, to a degree larger than abuses that sent the Watergate-era AG John Mitchell to prison.
Efforts to overturn a national election unmatched in national history.
Incitement of a violent attack on the seat of national government.
Use of disadvantaged people as props for political advantage. (Obviously not a first in U.S. history, but with a new and cruelly cynical twist.)
Rulings by a sweetheart-deal judge so flawed and embarrassing in their premises that they were quickly slapped down when exposed to outside review.
Chronicles of endless narcissism, incitement, and lies.
Mis-management of a historic pandemic, leading to countless needless deaths.
In other circumstances, any of these might have counted as a turning point. In our circumstances, none of them has. Yet.
A short history of our times.
This brings us at last back to John A. Farrell and Ted Kennedy. Farrell is a former staffer for the Boston Globe, whose other works include an excellent biography of Richard Nixon in 2017.
I was skeptical that a new biography of Edward “Ted” Kennedy could tell me anything I didn’t already know, or that I would find interesting. That is because I’d been alive during Kennedy’s entire public career, and had met and interviewed him many times.
I was wrong. This is an enlightening and engrossing read, for reasons I’ll let the “real” book reviews discuss at the appropriate time. My point now is that it is a very useful prelude to the politics of this moment.
—You know how TV series catch you up in each episode with “Previously, on Ozark…”? You can think of Farrell’s new book as “Previously, on America…”
Farrell has his likes and dislikes. For instance, he finds Ronald Reagan far more sympathetic than Jimmy Carter—and both of them far more appealing than Newt Gingrich. When it comes to his central character, Edward Kennedy, Farrell is very tough about his main failings—alcoholism, indiscipline, gross and perhaps lethal irresponsibility at Chappaquiddick—but understanding about the personal and public burdens Ted Kennedy bore, and in the end sympathetic to him.
About Chappaquiddick and many other events, Farrell’s chronicle left me newly sobered about the role that chance (and character) play in world-changing trends and events.
What if Ted Kennedy had behaved differently on the night of July 18, 1969? If he had not driven away from a staff party in a car with Mary Jo Kopechne? If he had not been the only person in Martha’s Vineyard history to drive his car off that small bridge into the water? If he had stayed and at least tried to rescue Kopechne after the crash? If he had been forthcoming and honest with the press and police?
Conceivably he might have saved her life. More probably he might have sustained his own chances of ever holding national office.
What if in 1968—before Chappaquiddick, but after the murder of his brother Robert F. Kennedy—Ted Kennedy had tried harder to help Hubert Humphrey in what turned out to be a very close campaign against Richard Nixon? (As Farrell reports, in the despair of a second brother’s murder, Ted Kennedy in late 1968 plunged into “a freneticism of sex and booze.”)
What if Jimmy Carter had not burned with such resentment against the “fat rich boy” Kennedy, and Kennedy had not oozed such obvious disdain of Carter, which led to Kennedy’s bitter and ruinous primary-election crusade against Carter in 1980?
What if, in an alternative scenario, Kennedy had actually prepared for his run against Carter in 1980, and so had not kicked off his campaign with an unbelievably blundering and incoherent interview with Roger Mudd on CBS? Mudd began by asking Kennedy the most predictable softball question: Why did he want to be president? Kennedy, then still in his 40s, rambled and hemmed and hawed as if he had never considered the issue.
When Robert Bork was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1987, an on-his-game Ted Kennedy led the questioning and opposition, which resulted in a 58 to 42 Senate vote against Bork. This was no “blocking by filibuster,” or “refusal to consider a nomination,” as with Mitch McConnell and Merrick Garland. It was a straight up-or-down vote, with the largest “down” majority of any Supreme Court nominee in history.
But four years later, when Clarence Thomas was nominated to succeed Thurgood Marshall, Kennedy was effectively sidelined, because of his own grossly irresponsible personal misbehavior. (This included very recent drinking-and-womanizing scandals in Florida, and the Florida rape charges against his nephew William Kennedy Smith, from an evening when he had gone to a bar with his uncle Ted.) His Senate colleague Joe Biden led the Democrats’ questioning of Clarence Thomas. What if Kennedy had kept himself in shape and in his prime in 1991? Would it have made any difference in Clarence and Ginni Thomas’s role in our lives in 2022?
What if Kennedy had been in a better position to press Supreme Court nominees Roberts and, especially, Alito on their promises to view Roe v. Wade as “settled law”? Farrell has details of these exchanges in his book.
Before the Iraq war, Ted Kennedy was one of only 23 Senators to vote against the disastrous decision to invade. The Democrats’ presidential-aspirants in the Senate—notably John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton— voted Yes.
What if Kennedy had comported himself in a way to hold the party’s attention? Perhaps it would have made no difference: After all, a former vice president (Al Gore) and a former president (Jimmy Carter) had spoken in opposition, along with a then-Congressman (Bernie Sanders) and an Illinois state senator (Barack Obama). We’ll never know.
There are so many enlightening books about American history. But this is the one I am recommending today. It’s about a “past” that is so recent that most characters who figure in today’s news have their back-stories described here.
And we are creating the history that our descendants will write. With every vote, every act of civic engagement, every voice we raise.
I differ from his account on one point. Farrell suggests that “New York traffic” was part of the reason Kennedy did not show up on time to join Jimmy Carter on the stage at the 1980 Democratic convention. I had always heard that the delay was more purposeful.
Thanks for the critique and kind words. I remember buying a copy of National Defense in the hardback edition, back when the cost of a book had to be weighed with rent and beer. It is still on my shelf, an excellent example of paradigm-busting for young, aspiring journalists. I, too, heard stories about why EMK was late to the podium. One of them, in the EMK oral histories, was that Ed Koch, a Carter supporter, contributed to the traffic jam in misplaced spite, by pulling off the NYPD police escort. EMK was surely piqued when he got there and found "every freeholder from New Jersey" on the podium, but he did shake Carter's hand several times, and the president could very well have yanked that handshake into a hands-aloft victory pose. What alternative history: imagine if Carter had tried to do this, and Teddy had resisted! We would still be talking about the wrassling match at the Garden.
With humility, I dissent. I find “what if” history to be useless. It is merely a Rorschach test for one’s fondest hopes. If history was merely a binary exercise, a choice between two paths, then contemporaries could have seen it just as well and avoided the unfavorable outcomes. “What if” exercises are an example of false dichotomy, the either-or fallacy. To ask what would have happened if Ted Kenned was not a drunk is a meaningless exercise. Maybe he could have defeated Carter and Reagan. Maybe Reagan would have defeated both Carter and Kennedy. But the fact remains that Ted Kennedy was a drunk. He enervated the Democratic Party and delegitimized Carter.
Which brings me to my second dissent. Notwithstanding the occasional flights of rhetorical fancy, Ted Kennedy’s most enduring legacy which has shaped a couple generations of Americans, and will likely alter the life course of a few generations to come, the legacy that will last beyond all legislative accomplishments, is the election of Ronald Reagan.
I’m taking a pass on the book.