Monday, October 6, 2003

Heavens, the civility of it all. Exactly one month from today, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will square his shoulders and step out on a stage at Texas A&M University to receive a significant honor.

The Massachusetts Democrat has been selected to receive the 2003 George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service on Nov. 7, directly from the hands of former President George H.W. Bush himself.

Mr. Kennedy will be the first American to receive the award, which has gone to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in recent years.

The senator has been lauded as a man who “consistently and courageously fought for his principles … his commitment to excellence in public policy and his devotion to public service serve as an inspiration to all Americans.”

There may be a small timing problem, however.

“The decision to make this award was made before Mr. Kennedy made his remarks,” said a source familiar with the situation.

Over the past two weeks, Mr. Kennedy has offered strident and vitriolic criticism of President Bush — son of the former president who will share that Texas stage and offer Mr. Kennedy a hearty handshake, a $20,000 prize and a sparkling crystal trophy.

Among other things, Mr. Kennedy challenged the legitimacy of the war in Iraq, claiming it was “made up in Texas,” and that “the administration is muddling through day-by-day.” He called the recent report about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq “an insult to our troops.”

But such untimely political fisticuffs won’t mar the ceremonies, both camps reported yesterday.

Bush Presidential Foundation spokesman Penrod Thornton said the event will go forward as planned, and that Mr. Kennedy is indeed the “appropriate” winner. On Saturday, Mr. Thornton told the (College Station) Eagle that the award hinges upon “personalities and contributions of the individuals, and it didn’t have anything to do with politics.”

All’s well on the Kennedy side of the fence as well.

“The senator is very honored, very flattered, and he’s looking forward to the event,” Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley said.

Bruce Buchanan, a presidential historian with the University of Texas, said yesterday he couldn’t remember any “precise historical parallels” to the situation.

“But these things come up, they make things awkward for a while, then they pass on by,” Mr. Buchanan said. “Somebody has to decide to go forward with the award, and I suspect it was Mr. Bush. It’s part of his value structure to stand by his decision and project a bipartisan spirit.”

The Kennedy and Bush factions get accolades from Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute, a Connecticut-based research group that serves as the “civility barometer of America.” Mr. Post is the great-grandson of the etiquette maven who founded the institute in 1946.

“These delicate moments are part of politics,” Mr. Post said. “And both sides have handled it admirably by emphasizing the broad perspective, not an embarrassing temporary situation.”

He continued: “In reality it would be very, very difficult to retract that award. That in itself would create its own set of problems.”

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