Ichabod's Kin
A place for politics, pop culture, and social issues

Teddy and Daniel

The death of Ted Kennedy occasions reflections on him and Daniel Webster

Ted Kennedy’s death closes a great circle but makes us ponder circumstances. Little more than a half-century ago, the name Kennedy was hardly in the mix of national conversation, before we witnessed the saga of an extraordinary family that changed history and now resides, along with other immortals, in the nation’s memory.

JFK’s older brother, Joseph, Jr., was at the time but a tragic personal footnote to a father’s high expectations, only to have the ensuing male siblings exceed them regardless of more lives cut short–except for the most unlikely of all, whose Senate tenure would span that of ten presidents. And this, despite monumental personal flaws, egregious lapses in judgment and countless petty peccadilloes.

And therein lies an irony. National grief for fallen leaders is in direct proportion to what point in their lives they fall to their mortality. Last century, FDR, though long ill, died in office but Truman and Eisenhower outlived their careers and Reagan left this mortal coil after long disappearance from the public eye. Many outstanding House and Senate leaders also became invisible beyond their retirements.

We know the veil of grief that fell over the nation at the death of Lincoln as the Civil War ground to a victorious close and the Great Emancipator was still in office. Long before then, Washington, Adams and Jefferson had gone out to political pasture, and the blows from their demise were somewhat muted.

Ted Kennedy began with early, low self-expectations in the shadow of his brothers, then was not destined to be president due in no small part to the tragic carelessness of Chappaquiddick. But life granted him a wider berth for recovery and, as we saw, he seized both necessity and opportunity with a remarkable career lasting till his death from more natural causes.

Daniel Webster, another New Englander and fabled legislator, branded countless enactments with his name and, like Teddy, was an tireless representative of the people. But his career began and flourished in high-mindedness–before collapsing in an unwise support for the Fugitive Slave Law, which antislavery proponents saw as turning his back on the morality of the issue.
It wasn’t enough that Webster thought he and Henry Clay–“the Great Compromiser”–would thereby avoid civil war, for neither knew how deep a sickness of the human soul were racism and its evil twin of slavery. They were simply on the wrong side of history. Emerson said, “By God, I’ll not obey that filthy law,” and a Whittier poem branded Webster, “Ichabod,” a fallen angel:
“…he who might have lighted up and led his age, falls back in night……from those great eyes
the soul has fled: when faith is lost (and) honor dies, the man is dead!”

Whittier wrote that out of his “surprise and grief and forecast of evil,” from Webster’s betrayal and wished the latter would have lived to see “the flag trampled under the feet of slavery” as the nation went to war anyway.

Kennedy got his mischief out of the way earlier on; Webster, still hungry for more power after three failed attempts to be president, spent his last days as Secretary of State, vigorously enforcing the capture and return of runaway slaves, till a fall from horseback ended his misbegotten labors.

There are no few Kennedy-haters, but joining the lines at the JFK Library at Ted’s viewing, and catching news coverage of the subsequent commemorations was to realize this family are in truth somewhat ordinary people but ones who placed high expectations on themselves and, under such circumstances, did the best they could against the relentless onslaught of tragedy. The words of Homer regarding the House of Agamemnon, despite all its power and influence, “Woe upon woe!” seemingly apply to the Kennedys.

Their ordinariness and warmth was manifest to those at the Library as they waited entry to where the Lion lay in state: Kennedys of all ages, some yet unknown to the nation, walked for hours in the sun and quietly greeted all public mourners.

Hate them if you will, but they’re a class act.

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