Teddy's Timesman Biographer says Camelot III is in the pantheon of great senators

Email Print

by Gregory Bresiger

Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography By Adam Clymer (William Morrow& Company, New York, 692 pages) $27.50

The Camelot flame still burns bright for Adam Clymer. He still believes.

Others matured and outgrew Santa Claus. They stopped believing in cockamamie legends. They reached a point where they understood that the government and its "entitlements" couldn't make them rich. It could only impoverish them and make their lives unpleasant with its frequent interventions into their lives, its debasing of their currency and its politics of spending to cure every conceivable ill. Clymer asserts that Ted Kennedy – with what many would recognize as a protracted record of economic nonsense – is "one of the greats in [the Senate's] history." (P 609)

But although Clymer makes a good case that Kennedy has been the author of much of the most statist measures of the past thirty-five years, I think he actually underestimates the damage that his reckless hero could have accomplished. For instance, many Americans understood that Clinton's plan for national health insurance was bad. But what about Kennedy's 1972 national health insurance proposal?

"Enrollment would be compulsory. It would not be paid for through private insurance premiums, but primarily through a new payroll tax of three percent on employers and one percent on employees. A federal board, not states and insurance companies, would manage the system." (Page 218). The Nixon administration, which was already in the middle of an election deal with Democrats to index Social Security benefits, (a deal that would be a long-term economic disaster for the taxpayers, a deal Kennedy naturally favored) called the Kennedy insurance plan an "encouraging step forward."

Clymer, who gives every indication of suffering from the same economic illiteracy as his hero, goes into the politics of a proposal that would, thankfully, go by the boards due to the impeachment of Nixon and the decline and fall of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills. The latter, one of the most powerful men in Congress, was an alcoholic who was framing laws that would affect American wallets for generations to come at a time. This was happening at the same time he was losing control of his life. Think about that next time you hear media elites prattle about the "great accomplishments" of pols such as Mills and Kennedy.

Still, it could have been even worst! Stop and consider what would have happened to the taxpayers if – in addition to the skyrocketing increase in Social Security and Medicare taxes that was about to begin in the early 70s thanks to the sleazy Mills/Nixon Social Security deal of 72 – the crackpot Kennedy health insurance plan had actually happened? Americans would have faced a third federal income tax (I count payroll taxes as a de facto second income tax because, for tens of millions of low income and middle-income citizens, they are a bigger burden than even the income tax).

And what would have happened to our lives and our economy had Kennedy's screwball plan in 1974 to nationalize the oil companies succeeded? America's living standards might have sunk to those of Mexico, where nationalized oil companies – along with a lot other government entities – have been a disaster, according to the astute observer Edgard Mason V, the author of the little gem of a book called Un Mexico Mejor; Nuestros Problems, Nuestras Soluciones, Nuestro Potential."

It's obvious Adam Clymer is a true believer. He never even mentions Camelot III's nationalization scheme (Mon Dieu! How did that little tidbit get left out in an exhaustive biography?). He doesn't explore the consequences of his hero's economic thinking.

Most Americans, thankfully, seem much more perceptive than Adam Clymer. But, then again, they haven't spent the bulk of their lives having their brains ravaged by living in the Beltway, listening to myriad mountebanks as Clymer has. Many Americans have developed doubts about the countless disasters of the Kennedys – Vietnam, a run amuck welfare state, a military-industrial complex that was embraced by Jack Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural, their persistent predilection to wiretap and pull the tax returns of political opponents, their various ill-moral, idiotic assassination plots, Teddy's bimbo eruptions, his fondness for going on drunks throughout his life and his amazing economic illiteracy (Forget about having someone take his Spanish test for him at Harvard. He should have had someone explain the basic principles of economics and why wage price controls are voodoo).

But – luckily for those who like to read entertaining yarns that provide almost as much fun as a Flashman novel – Adam Clymer's credulity continues, an amazing credulity that is at times entertaining. He still believes in the Camelot legends the way I once believed in the picture book biographies I read as a child. At a tender age I read biographies of pols such as Lincoln, Wilson, FDR and other such powerful presidents who, I later learned after progressing a step or two beyond baby books, didn't hesitate to send their political opponents to the hoosegow while swearing that they believed in the constitution, the rule of law and the rights of dissenters.

But legends die hard. And there are millions of poor fish who want, in some oblique way, to be a part of the Kennedy mystique. Their lives appear to lack meaning. They live vicariously through the romanticized legends of the Kennedys. If they read it, they would dismiss The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh. They would think David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest is untrue. Christopher Matthews Kennedy and Nixon, which basically says that there was little difference between the cold war policies of these two rivals, would be ignored.

And, if any of the true believers had a functioning medulla, they would discover – even in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s A Thousand Days – that Jack Kennedy's missile gap was a fraud and that, in case he didn't know that before he was elected (a dubious proposition), he was informed of the facts after he became president. Still, he went ahead with his dangerous missile buildup in the early 1960s, which nearly resulted in the U.S. and Soviet Union blundering into a World War III in a "Guns of August" scenario in Cuba.

So many Americans are easily sucked into the Camelot cons because they want to be sucked into the Camelot cons. How else can we explain why tens of millions of Americans last year were watching the box for information on the death of John Kennedy Jr. when there was none? How else can we explain all the harebrained theories about what was the heritage of John Kennedy Jr. offered by the networks' empty suits, most of whom had hardly ever known him? How else can we explain these endless authors who pontificate that – if only Camelot I and II hadn't been assassinated, if only Camelot III had won in 1980 – our republic would have become a Utopia with the Kennedys in charge.

Adam Clymer, for the tens of millions of Americanos who mindlessly watch the tube especially anything on the Kennedys, is an enabler. Oh, of course, few of these human blanks will actually read his book (Or any book for that matter). But this idiotic tribute to Camelot III will likely be made into a PBS special or receive sympathetic treatment somewhere on the tube, where it will be proclaimed a classic by Kennedy family retainers such as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin or former ABC News Paris Bureau Chief Pierre Salinger.

The Washington bureau chief of the august New York Times, Clymer, with this book, is moving up from being merely a scribbler of the daily doings of the high and mighty of the Beltway, those saintly folks who try to run every detail of our lives. Now Clymer, in this tiring 700 pages or so that he apparently hopes will be offered in evidence at the enshrinement of Teddy Kennedy, can now claim the exalted title of hagiographer on his resume. With this book Clymer can count himself as a charter member of the countless legions of Camelot chroniclers/admirers – Theodore Sorensen, Kenny O'Donnell, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tom Brokaw, etc – a group whose work reminds one of an out-of-control disease that, no matter how much penicillin is distributed, always seems to find new ways of popping up.

Will America ever outlive the Camelot legends? Should Americans swear off crack and the soma of television? Yes!

It is important for people to outgrow childhood and learn how to care for themselves. We should swear off our dependence on the state paternalists and maternalists who want to care for our every need, who want us to be perennially dependent.

For this nation ever to return to its roots in limited government, it must see the Kennedys for what they were, are and probably will always be: A version of American royalty (They're the Bourbons. The Bushs, because they're even bigger clowns, are the American Romanovs. The Clintons? They're another category!) that acted as apologists for the leviathan just as long as they were the ones running the leviathan. But the Kennedys place in history should put them squarely on the side of big, interventionist government.

Teddy Kennedy had nary a complaint when Jack was sending the troops to Vietnam. LBJ, the liar that he was, nevertheless told the truth when he said that, had he pulled out of Vietnam, that Bobby would have been charging that he was soft on Communism. It was Jack Kennedy who sent the first American combat troops to Vietnam (Pace Oliver Stone). It was Ted Kennedy who voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. It was Bobby Kennedy who played fast and loose with the constitution in his years as attorney general. It was Ted Kennedy who bayed for wage and price controls in the 1970s. The Kennedy family is a political party that never met a big government program it didn't like.

Of course, one can cite exceptions to the rule: Ted's push for airline and trucking de-regulation and Jack's discovery that cutting marginal tax rates does help the economy. But these are brief interruptions in a long history of state idolatry, which is the greatest scourge of our times. It is the cause of the wars that have ravaged so much of our world, wars usually led by "great patriots" such as the Kennedys.

Clymer's thesis for Ted Kennedy as our modern Cicero is that he works well with various factions in the Senate, Republicans as well as Conservative Democrats from the South. "He gets things done" is the familiar tribute paid to successful pols by their media flunkies. And there's no doubt that, when it comes to his state getting its generous slice of the pork generated by the military-industrial complex, Ted Kennedy has played the spend and tax game very well.

When Senator Richard Russell asked him in the late 1960s for help to obtain still more military largesse for his Georgia, Kennedy immediately saw the making of a quid pro quo: "Yes sir," he tells Russell, "we really do need a strong Navy…We're a Navy state and a Navy family, and I'll be glad to help you with that." (Page 91)

And the taxpayers shelled out a few billion dollars more of pork. A little pork here, a little pork there and pretty soon we have a herd of gross swine called the federal government that our descendants and we will pay through the nose to keep fat and happy forever. Boy, can these pigs feed at the trough!

Yes, Adam Clymer is right. Ted Kennedy is "a great" senator. But Clymer should qualify what he means by great. Ted Kennedy is a great senator in the traditions of Huey Long, Theodore Bilbo as well as all the other log rollers, wire pullers and George Washington Plunkitts who wanted to run up big bills, then make somebody else pay through the nose. One thinks of the great French economics writer Bastiat's idea that government is a great swindle; that it encourages people to think that they can make "other people" pay. Those "other people," unfortunately, usually end up being the average people. We are the poor slugs working multiple jobs, but saddled with obscenely high payroll taxes, slapped with ludicrous sales taxes almost anytime we buy something, etc. These are precisely the people the demagogues claim to be representing when they sing their updated versions of "Every Man a King."

Will Clymer and his pliable pals in the major media ever understand the delicious irony of their Solons hurting the people they're supposed to serve?

I doubt it.

Gregory Bresiger is a business writer and editor living in New York. He works for Financial Planning and Traders magazines among others.

Email Print