NYT Editor Finds Kennedy's Flaw: He Helped Reagan Win Presidency
Published: 8/28/2009 5:57 PM ET
Previewing his latest New York Times column on Kennedy to host John Harwood in the 2:00PM ET hour, Tanenhaus went on to explain: "Ted Kennedy challenged the incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter, in 1980 and weakened him in that election and that brought Reagan into power."
Just prior to that declaration, Tanenhaus praised Kennedy for his "idea of governance [that] was really premised in the big vision of New Deal liberalism. That all the forces of government could be marshaled to improve the conditions for the greatest number of people, in particular, the excluded and the disadvantaged." In contrast, Tanenhaus claimed "the great Republican leaders, beginning with Barry Goldwater and really capped by Ronald Reagan, had no interest in governance. Ronald Reagan said government is not the solution, it's the problem."
Tanenhaus concluded the segment by seemingly making a veiled reference to another Kennedy flaw, the Senator's Chappaquiddick car accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne: "His compass was fixed on that liberal ideal, he never took his eyes off the ball, I think, partly because he wanted to atone, however he could, for, you know, all the bad things that had happened and that he, in one case, had been responsible for."
Here is a full transcript of the segment:
2:19PM-Kyle Drennen is a news analyst at the Media Research Center.
JOHN HARWOOD: We've been watching these live pictures of the public viewing for Senator Ted Kennedy. Now let's bring in our good friend, Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times 'Week in Review' and 'Book Review' section, who this week is himself writing about Kennedy and that boring work of governing the country that we mentioned in that David Brooks column the other day. Sam is also the author of the forthcoming book 'The Death of Conservatism,' just out in a couple of days. Now Sam, talk a little bit about the work of governance and what makes Ted Kennedy different from so many others who serve in a body that's often about flash and dash and television skills rather than legislation.
SAM TANENHAUS: Well, you know, John, one of the interesting things about Ted Kennedy, throughout his career, particularly in the early part, was that he was seen as the Kennedy who really liked retail politics, who was great with crowds. He didn't seem to have the aristocratic distance his older brothers did, but, in fact, his talent lay elsewhere. It lay in the very slow, glacial, pain-staking process of crafting legislation. He worked at it very hard. He learned from masters like Richard Russell in the Senate, who had also been a mentor to Lyndon Johnson, another great legislator. One of the things that I look at in my essay, which I think is going online before too long, will be in Sunday's paper, is that Kennedy's idea of governance was really premised in the big vision of New Deal liberalism. That all the forces of government could be marshaled to improve the conditions for the greatest number of people, in particular, the excluded and the disadvantaged. And what that meant was that you had to make gains wherever you could. So the programs we're hearing about, the Meals on Wheels, the AIDS programs, the health - community health centers, all the rest, they were very small ideas in one sense and they were - yet they grew out of the New Deal, which - whose great leader, Franklin Roosevelt, was elected in 1932, the very year Ted Kennedy was born. And one of the-
HARWOOD: And Sam-
HARWOOD: What I think is so fascinating about this is, as you say, he was, to the end, a New Deal liberal. But unlike his brothers, he spent most of his career in a conservative era, the one that you're writing about in your book, and yet, he built this huge legislative portfolio. How did he manage to get done what other liberals were having difficulty doing throughout the era of Nixon and Reagan and George W. Bush?
TANENHAUS: Well, one reason is that our politics became so focused on cultural - cultural debates and battles, who was winning the rhetorical war, that people kind of overlooked governance, itself. Remember, the great Republican leaders, beginning with Barry Goldwater and really capped by Ronald Reagan, had no interest in governance. Ronald Reagan said government is not the solution, it's the problem. And so he led a kind of counterrevolution against government. What that did was to open the way for those who quietly, as you say, worked behind the scenes to get the gains where they could. Now, there's a further paradox to this, which is we sometimes forget, I mean, all of the wonderful things being said about this extraordinary figure Edward Kennedy, that he was partly accountable for Ronald Reagan's ascendency. Because Ted Kennedy challenged the incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter, in 1980 and weakened him in that election and that brought Reagan into power. The other paradox - yeah-
HARWOOD: And for so much of his career, that New Deal liberalism was viewed increasingly by Democrats, Bill Clinton among others, as an anachronism that they were trying to change and modernize.
TANENHAUS: Absolutely right. Bill Clinton had a third way. He said, you know, 'the era of big government is over.' The other interesting thing about all of this is that Kennedy - even in his youth, Ted Kennedy was - seemed outmoded. Remember his two brilliant political brothers had already abandoned the New Deal principles.
TANENHAUS: John Kennedy was a kind of post-ideological pragmatist. Robert Kennedy went from being a kind of McCarthyite in the 1950s to a radical in the late 1960s. It was the youngest brother, Ted - you know, his book, his forthcoming memoir is called 'True Compass.' His compass was fixed on that liberal ideal, he never took his eyes off the ball, I think, partly because he wanted to atone, however he could, for, you know, all the bad things that had happened and that he, in one case, had been responsible for. So governance-
HARWOOD: Sam Tanenhaus-
HARWOOD: We could talk about this for hours and we'll spend some more time in upcoming weeks. Look forward to your essay this afternoon and your book in a couple days. Thanks for being with us.
TANENHAUS: Thanks a million, John.