The second volume of the author’s fluent account of Edward Kennedy’s political career in the face of the government’s shift from New Deal liberalism to the beginnings of our current “deep crisis for democracy.”
The liberal consensus, writes Gabler, “had once been the prevailing American ideology.” When Kennedy entered the Senate in 1962 while his brother was president, that was certainly true. Yet, almost immediately, America began a rightward shift, hastened by Richard Nixon and his “fierce Kennedy hatred” and Ronald Reagan, who surrounded himself with hatchet men bent on undoing the administrative state. Yet as the author shows, even the intervening Jimmy Carter, a Democrat now being nominated, it seems, for sainthood, was no ally: Kennedy believed that Carter was “a man without convictions” who tried to play to the middle while running away from fights with conservatives, “whom Carter seemed to fear much more than he feared liberals.” So it was with other centrist Democrats, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who caved in to conservative demands while wondering how they were so often outmaneuvered. The stalwart Kennedy’s efforts at comprehensive legislation on national health care and a higher minimum wage were thus stifled or frittered away. On immigration reform, for instance, amendment after amendment was added to kill Kennedy’s bill, and years of negotiations died with them. “The ‘voices of fear,’ as Ted had called them, those on talk radio and in nativist circles, had won,” writes Gabler. The voices of fear have grown louder since then, and Kennedy’s liberalism is nearly unimaginable. The rightward line the author draws runs through Kennedy not as a prime mover but instead as someone whose longevity in the Senate was such that few had such a ringside seat to history only to watch the right prevail against a brand of politics that “might remind us of our better selves.”
A thorough, admiring, and not uncritical study of a political lion whose roar is much needed these days.