Saturday, August 29, 2009

In Search Of A Statesman

As the nation pays its final respect for the life and times of Sen. Edward Kennedy it has become clear to me we will never again see a politician of his stature grace the halls of Congress. That is sad.

What struck me was the litany of friends and foes alike who all agreed on one basic principle: Ted Kennedy was a man of his word. He was passionate in his beliefs even though many disagreed. He was an engaging politician with that booming voice and Irish wit who could charm the pants off his fiercest opponent. And, he could compromise on a piece of legislation with full knowledge he could improve it sometime down the road.

I look at the Senate roster and fail to see any Republican or Democrat who can stand up with the national recognition, charisma, intelligence and political skills to pull off what Kennedy achieved in his 46 years representing the state of Massachusetts.

The closest Republican could be Orrin Hatch of Utah. He lacks the charisma that could rally a nation. John McCain of Arizona may try on his principles but they were rejected by voters in his 2008 presidential bid. The Democrats have John Kerry, until now the junior senator from Massachusetts, but his legislative accomplishments are nondescript and his waffling during his 2004 campaign for president probably has doomed him for good.

Despite the baggage Ted Kennedy carried behind him -- Chappaquiddick, his drinking, the assassination of older brothers Jack and Bobby Kennedy (in the minds of some conservatives at the time) -- he had the luxury of knowing he would always be reelected. He was seriously challenged for his senate seat only twice and the Kennedy family political machine saw to it he would win.

Not many politicians have such a luxury. Along with his family's financial fortunes, it allowed him to pursue his causes without worry over offending campaign contributors.

And there lies the root curse of almost all House of Representatives and many senators. They become obsessed with getting reelected as their highest priority and turn timid to promote their own causes for their constituents as was the case with Ted Kennedy.

The most sterling example is Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania who began his career as a Democrat, switched to Republican and this year switched back to the Democratic Party when he realized he couldn't win the state's Republican senatorial primary next year. Both his Democratic and Republican office seekers claim Specter's causes blow to the political winds. That's an albatross Specter must live with despite his pleas of indignation.

Nowadays, when a member of congress or senate speaks his/her mind, you know for a certainty he/she comes from a safe gerrymandered district or state. It is why we hear an obscure congressman from Northern California tell a self-described patriotic terrorist he is a true American. It is why Barney Frank can sarcastically ask a constituent from what planet does she reside.

None of these people will reach the stature of Ted Kennedy.

"In the smaller confines of the Senate, people can detect a phony, so the fact they were really were his convictions gave him a zone of grace," says Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island).

The nation also must rue the day for statesmen leading us out of the wilderness of indecision. The John Adams followed by Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Hiram Johnson, Henry Cabot Lodge, Everett Dirkson -- all in their time whether right or wrong shaped the future of our nation.

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