- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE WIT AND WISDOM OF TED KENNEDY

Edited by Bill Adler and Bill Adler Jr. Pegasus Books, $18.95, 191 pages

Reviewed by Jeremy Lott

In 1964, not too long after President Kennedy’s assassination, Bill Adler published “The Kennedy Wit.” It quickly became an international best-seller. This year, with his son and namesake, Bill Adler Jr., Mr. Adler has brought out “The Wit and Wisdom of Ted Kennedy.” Call it Camelot’s last hurrah if you wish, but don’t bet on it selling nearly as much as the original.

There are three reasons why sales of this book might be meager. First, the timing is bad. JFK’s death at an early age shocked people and thus made them more curious about the late young president. His brother’s death from brain cancer at 77 was a long time coming, and Kennedy aficionados have his posthumously published biography, “True Compass” to clutch.

Second, the Kennedy cachet isn’t what it used to be. In a debate for the recent special election to fill the vacant Senate seat from Massachusetts, moderator David Gergen called it “Teddy Kennedy’s seat.” Republican challenger Scott Brown shot back that it’s the “people’s seat,” won the special election and ground workings of Congress to a halt.

Third, there is the subject matter. Ted Kennedy, it turns out, was neither witty nor wise. Most of the force of his speeches came from his larger-than-life, frequently drunken presence. As President Obama eulogized, “We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber, face reddened, fist pounding the podium.”

We shouldn’t make light of that presence. Even the senator’s greatest detractors didn’t doubt his effectiveness. His unfair diatribe against Judge Robert Bork turned the distinguished jurist’s last name into a verb (meaning roughly to deny a qualified nominee confirmation by smearing him).

Republicans were infuriated by that, but they frequently worked with Kennedy for two reasons. One, he was affable when the cameras weren’t rolling. Two, when all the haggling was done, once he had made the deal, he stuck to it.

Still, this is not wisdom. Consider:

“It is wrong - dead wrong - to grant oversized tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans but to fail to invest more in our nation’s public schools. What we need is not just a tax cut but an economic plan that responds to today’s shaky economy by helping all Americans to get a good education and good jobs. If we expect our children to succeed in the 21st-century economy, we must do better. If we expect our schools to meet the challenges of modern education, we must do more. ”

Or: “It’s better to send in the Peace Corps than the Marine Corps.”

Or: “Based on some estimates, guns are statistically like rats: They outnumber our population. And not surprising, our output of ammunition for civilian firearms almost staggers the imagination. American industry outdoes all other nations in the production of bullets. All of those bullets could not only wipe out the world’s entire human population but destroy much of the world’s wildlife as well.” (There goes Bambi).

Or the oft-repeated sign-off from his sour-grapes speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

There are a few surprises. In the late 1970s, he said some disparaging things about regulations and actually worked to deregulate the trucking industry. But then he decided to run against Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination and returned to form. He spent most of his career as a predictable Democratic party hack.

The Adlers quote Kennedy taking some bold stances once it was safe to take bold stances. He said the U.S. government should recognize the Armenian genocide perhaps two decades after President Reagan had called it a genocide. He faulted President George W. Bush for how he managed the war in Iraq, not for going to war in the first place. He was against discrimination and bigotry and for the children.

As for his wit, he liked to recycle jokes. When he heard that North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms was about to undergo heart surgery, he told Helms, “It’s no piece of cake, but it sure beats listening to Ted Kennedy on the Senate floor.” Then, in his get-well note, Kennedy wrote to Helms, “I would be happy to send you tapes of my recent Senate speeches if that will help your speedy recovery.”

One imagines that Helm’s replied, “Stop it. You’re killing me.”

Jeremy Lott is the editor of the Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch newsletter and author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: the Story of the American Vice Presidency” (Thomas Nelson, 2007).

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