A Life in Three Acts

When F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no second acts in American lives, he had been working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He did not mean that Americans could not reinvent themselves. They do that all the time. He meant that in their rush to cut to the chase, they had a tendency to jump straight to the third act from the first. This rang true as America remembered Senator Edward Kennedy this past week before laying him to rest alongside his two older brothers in Arlington Cemetery.

The great, sprawling melodrama of Kennedy’s life has three well-demarcated acts. The first, encompassing his privileged childhood, hell-raising, playboy-in-the-making schooldays and easy inheritance of brother John’s Senate seat when the latter was elected president, closes with the assassination of brother Robert in 1968 and the question: does our hero have what it takes to assume the mantle of its two murdered siblings? Their courtiers certainly hope so.

Act two, the one that did not get so much attention last week, opens with a self-inflicted disaster that suggests the answer to the question posed in act one is a definitive no. Just as America is landing a man on the moon, completing the quest launched by John in 1961, a liquored up Teddy goes for a midnight drive with a young campaign worker and swerves into a pond. She drowns, he escapes and goes back to his hotel as if nothing had happened. The family machine goes into action. The victim’s family is compensated, the legal consequences are largely avoided, and the hero’s is neck saved.

The question posed now is: is this man in control of himself in any meaningful sense, personal or political. This is where I joined the audience, covering Kennedy’s quixotic attempt to unseat incumbent Democratic president Jimmy Carter in 1980 for a British newsmagazine. It is pretty clear that Kennedy’s heart is not in it. When Roger Mudd of 60 Minutes asks him why he wants to be president, he burbles incoherently. He never recovers.

What’s happening is that the Kennedy courtiers simply cannot stand Carter.  They see him as some kind of usurping Southern boob. They cajole and flatter their surviving champion into agreeing, joylessly,  that the time has come for him to take them back to the White House. For all his oratorical power and charisma on the stump — this is a man who relishes the flesh-pressing aspects of campaigning  — the bid is a disaster. It leaves the Democratic party bitterly divided and opens the way to 8 years of Ronald Reagan, the anti-Kennedy.

Act two closes in 1991. Kennedy, who has by now been in the Senate for nearly 30 years, has built himself a record as a first-class lawmaker, hard working with an extraordinary grasp of detail, liked and respected on both sides of the political aisle.  But his personal life remains a mess. His skirt chasing and boozy escapades on Capitol Hill are legendary. Pushing 60, he has failed to grow up. Then a night of carousing in Palm Beach with a nephew ends in the latter being charged with rape. For the first time, his Senate seat looks to be in danger.

As act three opens, the plot could go either way. This is a great play. It ends redemptively, with the arrival of a dea ex machina. A good woman takes hold of the hero’s heart, leads him finally to adulthood and frees him to do what he does best, which is looking after his constituents and toiling in the legislative boiler room to use the power of government to make America a slightly less Darwinian place.

The ending is bittersweet. If there is one cause above all others that Kennedy has fought for it is ensuring that all Americans have the kind of access to health care enjoyed in virtually every other developed economy.  He has advanced the cause, step by painstaking step, often with the unlikeliest allies on the Republican side, but a crisis point has now been reached. Universal insurance coverage is in sight. Failure to achieve it could leave the administration of President Barack Obama, whose candidacy Kennedy enthusiastically endorsed, dead in the water. The hero is felled by brain cancer just at the moment is legislative skills are most needed.

Bidding him farewell, a mourning nation for the most part cut to the redemptive chase,  drawing a veil over his second act as Fitzgerald would have predicted. Obama, in his deeply moving eulogy, gave it just three words, noting simply that Kennedy had “experienced personal failings”. That is understandable. Nonetheless, that second act is an important reminder that we should never be too puritanical in judging our leaders unless we want to risk dismissing some potentially great ones.

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