WASHINGTON — As the nation offers final tributes to Edward M. Kennedy, who will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday, the glowing eulogies have been accompanied by an intense undercurrent of vitriol directed at the Massachusetts senator who came to embody modern liberalism.
Kennedy reigned as a larger-than-life political figure for nearly half a century, engendering a level of passion matched by few others. Just as he was loved for his unalloyed political views, he was also despised.
“He was given everything he had in life,” said conservative activist Grover Norquist. “He didn’t earn anything. He is Thurston Howell III, and he has the nerve to say to people who built small businesses, restaurants and gas stations that they should have their money stolen from them” through higher taxes.
For many of his detractors, strong feelings about Kennedy’s political views are only intensified by personal failings in his earlier years. Since his death Tuesday, in commentaries and anonymous postings online and in interviews, Kennedy has been condemned in harsh terms, even as thousands have waited in long lines to pay him respects.
Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, a grass-roots conservative group, was unsparing in her criticism of the late senator. “He ruined his own reputation because of his personal treatment of women,” she said. “What he did to Mary Jo Kopechne and his years of philandering were damaging.”
Kopechne was killed in 1969 when a car Kennedy was driving after a party on Chappaquiddick, an island off Martha’s Vineyard, ran off a narrow bridge and plunged into a tidal pool. Kennedy, who failed to report the incident for about nine hours, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of leaving the scene of an accident. He received a two-month suspended sentence.
Despite decades of legislative achievements, Kennedy never fully erased the stain of Chappaquiddick. The day after his death, Google listed Kennedy’s name as its most popular search — followed by “Mary Jo Kopechne” and “Chappaquiddick.”
Kennedy’s reputation was tarnished anew during the sensational 1991 Florida rape trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith. A portrait of the senator as juvenile and hard-drinking emerged. As he was preparing to testify at the trial, Kennedy publicly took responsibility for his own behavior. “I recognize my own shortcomings,” he said.
Over the years, Kennedy’s political opponents worked tirelessly to keep the spotlight on his indiscretions, both to discredit his brand of politics and to draw support for their own.
On the eve of the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Kennedy was among three Democratic senators featured in a television spot aired by supporters of the conservative jurist. The 60-second ad asked whether the “liberal Democrats” expected to oppose Thomas “could themselves pass ethical scrutiny.”
The ad mentioned Chappaquiddick, noted that Kennedy was suspended from Harvard University for cheating and reminded viewers of his nephew’s rape trial in Palm Beach.
Kennedy was frequently featured in conservative fundraising solicitations, and his unabashed liberalism was frequently used in an attempt to demonize the Democratic Party.
“Saying ‘my opponent votes 90 percent with Teddy Kennedy’ was a shorthand way of saying that my opponent is a hard-core leftist,” said Richard Viguerie, a conservative activist who was a pioneer in the use of political direct mail. “He was the liberal gold standard. When you accused your opponent of being like Ted Kennedy, or voting like Ted Kennedy, in many places in the country that disqualified you from holding public office.”
That feeling was shared by some Democrats, too, particularly those who ran in conservative-leaning districts. Many did not see being associated with Kennedy, or liberalism, as an advantage.
“The word ‘liberalism’ was distorted by the opposition and became associated with excessive social liberalism, and social engineering without regard for costs or consequences, and an elite attitude toward regular people,” said Ruy Teixeira of the Century Foundation, a centrist research organization.
Many conservatives never forgave Kennedy for a 1987 speech he gave on the floor of the Senate condemning another Supreme Court nominee — conservative legal icon Robert Bork. Kennedy’s critics said the speech unfairly maligned Bork, then a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and set the stage for his eventual defeat.
“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution,” Kennedy boomed.
On Friday, Hadley Arkes, an Amherst College professor, wrote in a National Review Online forum that the speech was among the senator’s most unforgivable acts. “We’re told that Ted Kennedy devoted his life to lifting up the poor and advancing the cause of equality,” he wrote. “Put aside the question of whether his measures actually conduced to the well-being of those masses he professed to love but rarely saw in Hyannis Port. Even if they had lifted the condition of mankind, they cannot offset the two acts that must mark forever his character: the death of Mary Jo Kopechne and the savaging of Robert Bork.”
William Bennett, the Reagan administration education secretary and conservative commentator, noted in a posting Wednesday on the National Review Web site: “They say one should not speak ill of the dead. True. But I am of the view that one should not lie about the dead either. So I will not go on.”
Still, Bennett acknowledged that there is “no one in the Senate of his force, sheer power and impact.”
“To the American Left, he was their lion,” he continued. “To the American conservative movement, he was our bane.”