Teddy: Senator of the Century?

The Nielsen-soaked, emotion-choked marathon coverage of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s sad death was not a shining moment for a "news" industry that's quickly making tabloid journalists blush. JFK Jr. once turned down an honorary college degree on the grounds that he'd done nothing to deserve it. What do you suppose would be his reaction to the shameless beatification ritual these past two weeks?

Nor would JFK Jr. be pleased to see these reporters exploit his death to endlessly elevate the Camelot myth. Too many reporters used the tragedy to airbrush every unseemly reality out of the Kennedy family history. Perhaps the perfect summation of the Kennedy myth-making approach came from CNN political analyst William Schneider, who declared: "The enduring appeal of 'Kennedyism,' the idea, comes from one simple fact: there is no cynicism in it." Schneider didn't explain how we'd all be discussing "Kennedyism" without lots of cynical vote-buying, mistress-silencing, journalist-schmoozing, and of course, the illegal bootlegging wealth that got the whole political machine started.

The newest wave of myth-making has now erupted on the heels of Ted Kennedy's eulogy for his fallen nephew. Reporters seemed desperate to outdo each other in nominating Teddy as the Senator of the Century. Al Hunt proclaimed in The Wall Street Journal: "Edward M. Kennedy, despite his well-chronicled flaws, has become one of the half-dozen most influential Senators in this century."

Newsweek toady Jonathan Alter claimed on NBC: "When they look at the United States Senate, when they look back on it, from both sides of the aisle, he is one of the towering figures in that institution in the whole second half of this century."

On PBS's "Washington Week in Review," the unanimously liberal panel engaged in the rhetorical equivalent of list-swapping with the DNC. Gloria Borger of U.S. News and CBS claimed: "Maybe it's taken him a little bit longer to mature, but there he is. And Republicans and Democrats agree that he is a great legislator."

The news magazines gave some pundits a platform for a second go-round. Alter made Ted gargantuan: "He's old-fashioned and easy to ridicule, but he will be remembered in both parties as one of the giants of the postwar U.S. Senate." Borger endorsed JFK Jr.'s written tribute to Ted after his uncle introduced him to the 1988 Democratic convention: "no introduction could match the eloquence of your example."

While Time magazine lionized the whole "idealistic" family, their excerpt from New York Times reporter Adam Clymer's forthcoming Teddy biography took the cake. Complaining (like other reporters) that the death at Chappaquiddick overshadowed his public service, Clymer boasted: "his achievements as a Senator have towered over his time, changing the lives of far more Americans than remember the name Mary Jo Kopechne." Clymer refused to be outdone in apple-polishing: "He deserves recognition not just as the leading Senator of his time but also as one of the greats in the history of this singular institution."

All the reporters listed as Senator Kennedy's achievements a panoply of liberal programs, but then, strangely, some actually objected to those who would label Ted (1996 American Conservative Union rating: Zero) a liberal. Alter couldn't understand why "The Kennedys have this reputation as big liberals; in fact, both JFK and his son were centrist and pragmatic." Clymer protested: "Still, many people think of him as a doctrinaire liberal, a spokesman for a cause whose time has gone. That is much too simple." Clymer went digging for a 1984 crime bill and an airline-deregulation push in 1978 to try and refute the obvious. Those who were more honest used complimentary terms like "liberal lion."

Political insiders know that Senator Kennedy would be nominated by the liberals as their legislative champion. But just because he was effective at passing liberal laws does not make him a hero - unless you share his leftist agenda. Reporters are too blinded by their own ideology to consider the conservative view: Kennedy's liberal programs were not universally ameliorative. All the declining social indicators following the War on Poverty - unwed motherhood, booming welfare caseloads, decrepit public housing, increasing crime, even double-digit inflation - they were never to be blamed on those whose intentions were so oh-so-good.

Reporters can't grasp the lack of tributes for someone who spent decades on the wrong side of the Cold War, opposing nearly every weapons system and every anti-communist partisan. In one of the weirdest passages ever, Clymer claimed Teddy "conveyed American unity on China and the Soviet Union," and "Across the world, he has been an advocate of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence." That is not the message Kennedy sent the oppressed in the Marxist prisons of Eastern Europe or Central America.

The media may share in the mourning and participate in the eulogies. But they should not have used this tragedy to bury the truth at sea.