Jay Winik: Kennedy for the Ages





[Mr. Winik, a presidential historian, is the author of "April 1865" (Harper Perennial, 2006) and "The Great Upheaval" (Harper Perennial, 2008).]

Over the course of a long and distinguished career, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who died Tuesday at the age of 77, was like a cat with nine lives who used every one of them. He came from a family touched by greatness, even as it was riddled with unfathomable tragedy. He was the torchbearer for liberalism, even when it was a fading voice on the political scene.

If his life was the stuff of rich biography—his memoir, for which he was reportedly paid $8 million, is due out in just over two weeks—the question remains: What will history think of him? Despite all the encomiums, it is too early to tell.

Surveying his impressive 47-year career as one of the lions of the Senate, it is hard not to recall the Senate's "Golden Age," an age before the Civil War when senators every bit as much as presidents were the stewards of the nation's future. Too often we forget this. We shouldn't. The renowned British Prime Minister William Gladstone once called the United States Senate "the most remarkable of all the inventions of modern politics."

Consider the great Senate debate of 1850 about the future of the American union, widely considered the most significant in Congress's history. There, in a tense drama spanning seven months of speechmaking and tireless cloakroom bargaining, was the flamboyant Senate triumvirate that had long overshadowed American presidents and whose names still ring out: Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster. Each had been born during the Revolution, each had devoted his career to preserving the edifice the Founders had built, and each sought to avert civil war. Like Kennedy, all had failed in their own bids for the presidency. And they violently disagreed with each other.

Clay and Webster rose day after day to speak as nationalists, while a dying Calhoun, representing the Southern sectionalists, was so weak he could no longer speak for himself. Emaciated and huddling in blankets, he sat mute as James Mason of Virginia read his twilight speech to the Senate, a Cassandra-like warning about impending disaster for the nation. In the end their maneuverings staved off civil war for a decade. Even in 2009, few know much about Presidents Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce—but every educated student recalls Daniel Webster's immortal words, "I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man nor as a Northern man, but as an American." Remarkably, that same Senate era also produced other such towering figures as Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, William Seward and Salmon Chase.

Do Ted Kennedy's accomplishments rival those of these pre-Civil War debates? Or, for instance, the legendary actions of Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an isolationist-turned-internationalist who became a central architect of the bipartisan foreign policy that led to the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and NATO? Probably not. Unlike these other Senate greats, he never held much sway over the all important questions of war and peace. Still, it is hard not to take notice of his distinguished 47 years of service—third longest in Senate history—or his long list of legislative accomplishments that touched millions of lives, in education, health care and civil rights...


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