The Kennedys, the Democrats, and Obama

Godfrey Hodgson
27 August 2009

Ted Kennedy lived hard. It was the family way.


The first time I met him, on a boat trip along the coast in Florida at Easter 1962, just before he was manoeuvred into the Senate by family clout, arguably before he had reached the qualifying age, he and his first wife, Joan, were as beautiful as young gods. They were tanned and toned in seersucker, the very image of the American rich on vacation.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969). Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); and More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the new century (Princeton University Press, 2006)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

"Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (30 March 2009)

"Barack Obama's hundred days" (29 April 2009)

"Barack Obama: a six-month assessment" (10 July 2009)

"Barack Obama's world" (16 July 2009)

"The United States: democracy, with interests" (10 August 2009)

The last time I saw him, at a fundraising lunch in Boston in the late 1990s, he was ravaged - face brick-red, boozer's nose and eye, grossly overweight, but still charged with rare charm and formidable energy. This was the image that characterised his later years, until his death on 25 August 2009 at the age of 77.

In a Newsweek article he wrote after he had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, called "The Cause of My Life", Kennedy listed just some of the medical and psychological disasters he and his family had survived, among them the plane crash that broke his back and several ribs, a son's leg amputated for one cancer, and a daughter treated for another.

He might have mentioned a sister's crippling by a (possibly unnecessary) frontal lobotomy, the death of a brother, a sister-in-law and a nephew in separate plane crashes, and the murder of his two brothers.

His point in the article was that he and his family survived in part because of his congressional insurance, in part because of his family's great wealth. He understood that many other Americans less fortunate than him, were wiped out financially by healthcare costs, or simply died miserably for lack of the money to pay for care. That was why, he was saying, healthcare was, of all his liberal causes, the one that meant most to him, and it is true that in his forty-seven years in the Senate reform of the American healthcare system was his absolute top priority.

For nearly half a century the American media, and therefore the American public, have been more than slightly obsessed with the Kennedy family. No wonder, for the family had everything that makes for celebrity: money, sex-appeal, glamour, style and the unmistakable whiff of scandal. They knew it and they used it all, ruthlessly when necessary.

There are still Kennedys in public life, but they are a pale shadow of the founding generation: some worthy, as the generation of Old Joe's children never were, some faintly cheesy. The aura has gone.

So it is time to move on. Yes, Ted Kennedy was the lion of the Senate. Yes, his life was certainly flawed. No, he probably would not have beaten Ronald Reagan even if the Democrats had forgotten Chappaquiddick and the ugly way in which well-placed Kennedy loyalists were deployed to rescue a Kennedy reputation and obliterate a young woman's death.

Yes, it is true that, finally forced by realities to forget the dream of the presidency, Ted was a good, and in the opinion of most of his colleagues, a very good senator. His work, like that of any legislative craftsman, can be measured by small victories, modest improvements, disasters narrowly avoided, and mildly cynical successes in finding common ground with colleagues whose principles he despised.

The focus now should be, not on the glorious past, but on the present and the future of the Democratic Party.

The great transformation

Three-quarters of a century ago, at the nadir of an economic disaster even more catastrophic than what we have seen in the past two years, Franklin Roosevelt built a new coalition. Long before his time, the party had been a most incoherent alliance between white southerners, bound to it by their determination never to forgive the Republican party that had emancipated the slaves, and a northern working class, many of them immigrants or their descendants, who did not share the Protestant faith of the Republican middle class.

In 1960, by the narrowest of margins, John Kennedy, whose father served Roosevelt but thought his politics far too liberal, was elected president. But it was Lyndon B Johnson, a southerner but an authentic New Deal liberal who - in the brief years before the tragedy of Vietnam destroyed his political authority - pushed through an extraordinary programme of progressive legislation.

Johnson succeeded in passing Kennedy's civil-rights legislation and added a voting- rights statute of his own. He passed Kennedy's reform of immigration law, the supreme example of what conservatives like to call unintended consequences. It was intended to make life easier for Irish nurses and ended up by ensuring that by the middle of the 21st century the majority of Americans would no longer be of European descent. 

That was not all. Johnson also passed major educational reforms. And he did what neither Bill Clinton, nor Ted Kennedy, nor Barack Obama could claim to have done: he carried through major reform of the American healthcare system, bringing in Medicaid (free for the poor) and Medicare (free for senior citizens).

Many of Johnson's other programmes, meant to transform America into what he called the "great society", were so many bridges too far. By 1968, the war in Vietnam had destroyed his political credibility. In 1968, Richard Nixon defeated Johnson's choice as his successor, Hubert Humphrey. An era of conservative ascendancy, interrupted only by the Watergate affair and by Bill Clinton's "triangulation", meaning a partial adoption of conservative ideas, stretched ahead for forty years.

It was not however, only or even essentially Vietnam that ended the previous period of Democratic ascendancy. Lyndon Johnson's muscular social democracy irritated, or troubled, or outraged, enough of those who had formerly made up the Roosevelt coalition, that it ended an age of Democratic domination.

The reasons for this are complex, and have largely been articulated by conservatives, or neo-conservatives, who were less interested in understanding what happened than in making political points. An important element in Democratic decline was racial feeling, some virulent, some half-acknowledged. Johnson himself understood this. When he signed the Voting Rights Act in August 1965, he muttered to an aide, "There goes the south!"

The party system was transformed. Conservative white southerners, long unshakable in their Democratic faith, became Republicans. The Republican Party became (as it had not previously been) overwhelmingly conservative. The Democratic Party became (as it had certainly not been in the days of the one-party south) predominantly liberal. 

There was also a broader suspicion of government, a set of attitudes fed by propaganda from interests, not least the healthcare industry, feeding an instinct that private initiative and private enterprise were "the American way" (see "The United States: democracy, with interests", 10 August 2009). Indeed, the drumbeat of patriotism was insistent. The Republicans succeeded in painting the Democrats as soft on communism, less willing or able to defend America; Ronald Reagan was especially skilful in playing into a mood that was fed up with people - mostly, of course, Democrats - intent on "running down America".

So for most of four decades, the Democrats, though still in terms of registration the majority party, found it impossible to reassure a sufficiently large share of the electorate in presidential contests that they could be trusted with the nation's fortunes and (in the words of the Declaration of Independence) its sacred honour.

The emerging Democratic...what?

Now, as Senator Kennedy's death ends an era in the fortunes of the Democratic Party, is a good moment to examine the party's prospects in the age of Barack Obama.

There was an epochal moment, from the collapse of Lehman brothers in September 2008 to the president's inauguration in late January 2009, when it was possible to believe, or at least to hope, that the future would be bright, and Democratic.

Already, that is doubtful. Certainly the demographics look good for the Democrats. There has been an almost total reversal of the alignment that created the Roosevelt coalition. Conservative white southerners and northern and middle-western working-class men are now almost as likely to be Republicans as they were likely to be Democrats in the 1930s, the 1940s and the 1950s. But Barack Obama has inherited, and added to, blocs of voters who are now at least as important, and growing faster, than those, among them African-Americans, Hispanics, employed professionals, feminist women, and probably Californians.

Yet Obama is already struggling. He has encountered far more opposition to his all-important healthcare reforms than his team expected, and opposition has only grown stronger over the summer. The kind of angry anti-liberal sentiment symbolised by the manufactured controversy over his American birth, but also relevant to far more important issues, has not disappeared. In January, it might have been hoped that the bitter antagonism between a red and a blue America might be ending. It is all too obviously still there.

Over the domestic scene, too, there is an economic crisis that continues to dislocate lives and deepen fears, however happy Wall Street may be. Abroad, there is a host of actual or potential crises: the prospect of stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, impending conflict with Iran, possible collapse in Pakistan, and above all the danger that Afghanistan, like Vietnam, could come to frustrate the hopes of a progressive presidency.

Barack Obama has, with great political astuteness, avoided being flagged as a predictable liberal. His political skills and instincts remain formidable. But what he must now do is to articulate a clear, distinct course of policy.  For all his personal failings, that is what Ted Kennedy did achieve as a legislator. Everyone knew where he stood. As chief executive, Obama must do no less.

openDemocracy writers on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Peter DeShazo & Johanna Mendelson Forman, "Open veins, closed minds" (7 May 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

openDemocracy, "East-central Europe to Barack Obama: an open letter" (22 July 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Honduras: time to choose" (23 July 2009)

Johanna Mendelson Forman, "The Baghdad bomb, the United Nations, and America" (19 August 2009)


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