Friday, August 28, 2009

Learning from Reagan and Kennedy

The tributes to Senator Edward Kennedy pour in as the country starts to realize how many people's lives the Senator touched. Some of the most moving memories come from people like Senator Orin Hatch, a Republican who collaborated on several bills with Ted Kennedy. Hatch recalls how Kennedy could go to the floor Senate, give a blistering opposition speech, then come over and give him a hug. Senator Kennedy not only was a highly accomplished legislator, he represents a fading tradition in American politics. He's a person who had the ability to hold a decisive view point yet work with and befriend people that held opposing positions. Senator Kennedy was never mistaken for a conservative, but was willing to work with conservatives to get things done.

Today many politicians seem reluctant to work across party lines, as if it was a sign of weakness. Yet here is an example of a man that accomplished as much as any Senator in recent history, held a self-ascribed liberal point of view, and was beloved by people on both sides of the aisle.

President Reagan had a similar ability. No one mistook President Reagan for a liberal, but he too could make a tough partisan speech then go out for a drink with Speaker Tip O'Niell, a died in the wool liberal. It is a trait that is too rare in politics these days.

This is also a trait that is quickly forgotten by many partisans. Reagan has become an icon of the right, but many seem to forget that he didn't hate those on the left. The Kennedy family is iconic for those on the left, hopefuly it won't be forgotten that Senator Kennedy similarly didn't hate those on the right. It is not an inconsequential trait, as these two men were respected and trusted by members of both parties. When Kennedy and Reagan are held up as the ideal for their party they should be remembered for all their traits not just the ones that are convenient for partisan politics.

This iconic status, that certain important public figures take on, ignores an individual's humanity. These people aren't saints, they have flaws like all people do. In some ways this makes them even more exceptional, as they have overcome things that often limit other people. The issue isn't with the short-comings of public figures, it is the flaw in how they are remembered. They are framed as either saint or sinner, depending on ones own personal views, and this does not do any person justice.

The Kennedy's are an excellent example our idealized yet over simplified public memory. Ted Kennedy, it could be argued, has been the most politically effective Kennedy, but the tragic death of his brothers has turned them into icons reaching an exaulted untouchable status. Like their bother, they were human beings with positive and negative attributes, who accomplished remarkable things yet did not live perfect lives. The reason it is important to remeber that great people have flaws is not to denigrate their memory, but it is important to show what is possible for 'regular people.' Also, it is important to understand that their are no infallable 'perfect people.' Politicians that are viewed as perfect are either in a system that requires absolute loyalty, or they are being put in a virtually unwinnable situation where the public is almost guaranteed to be disappointed. Much can be learned from prominent public figures, yet the lesson is muted if they are transformed into 'all good' or 'all bad' caricatures for party politics, or for posterity.

What is the Lesson of Figures Like Kennedy and Reagan?

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