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Adrian Walker

Scott Brown’s presumption

Patrick Kennedy made a fairly reasonable request of US Senator Scott Brown this weekend: He asked him to stop invoking his late father’s name for cynical, self-serving purposes. Brown quickly declined.

Who does that?

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At issue is a radio ad Brown began airing last week. In it he claimed that his support of a religious exemption allowing Catholic employers to deny their employees insurance coverage for contraception mirrored a position Senator Edward M. Kennedy had taken several years ago.

Patrick Kennedy - in a letter sent to Brown and then released publicly - insisted that the position Brown cited had been distorted and called on Brown to quit invoking his father. Ludicrously, Brown wrote back to Kennedy, refusing.

Background: Not long before he died, Ted Kennedy, in a letter delivered to the pope by President Obama, and mostly about personal issues, had stated that he supported a religious exemption for Catholics on health matters. He was referring primarily to abortion; the issue of insurance coverage for contraception wasn’t on the radar at the time.

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Those who knew Kennedy, including his son, have lined up to say he would never have said that Catholic institutions should be able to refuse their employees birth control. Yet Brown wrote to Patrick Kennedy that he chooses to believe that he and the elder Kennedy would have been “working together’’ on this issue. Not likely.

Brown has chosen to take on the contraception issue largely to endear himself to conservative voters and donors. It won’t hurt his already robust fund-raising, although we’ll see how it plays with voters. All evidence suggests that Massachusetts voters are heavily in favor of birth control.

But this dust-up is about something else: Brown’s schizophrenic relationship with the Kennedy legacy. Privately, he has been gracious to Kennedy’s family and to his widow, Vicki. But publicly, he was elected declaring that the seat he was seeking was not “Ted Kennedy’s seat,’’ and he clearly enjoys tweaking the Kennedy fans who view him as a usurper, knowing it plays to his base of Republicans and independents. Brown respects Kennedy’s legacy in some abstract sense, but glosses over the fact that they would agree on very little.

“I appreciate the past respect you have shown for his legacy,’’ Patrick Kennedy wrote to Brown. “But misstating his positions is no way to honor his life’s work.’’ Correct.

In fact, this isn’t the first time Brown has linked himself to a Kennedy family in a successful bid to annoy Democrats. You may recall the first ad of his campaign against Martha Coakley in 2009, in which he showed a clip of President Kennedy calling for tax cuts. The footage of Kennedy’s speech morphed into Brown calling for much the same thing. Loyal Democrats were outraged by Brown’s presumption, but he seemed amused by the furor.

The fact is, falsely invoking a deceased political icon is sleazy. Ted Kennedy never wavered on the right to contraception, and distorting his words to score cheap political points should be beneath a sitting US senator. Refusing to back down - as though he is defending some issue of principle, which he isn’t - is even more reprehensible.

But Brown’s last campaign was driven by the idea that Kennedy worship was overrated, that more people were tired of the Kennedy dynasty than liberals realized. He was right about that, though the Kennedy factor continues in this election, even if somewhat diminished.

And there’s a larger point: Ted Kennedy’s legacy deserves to be taken more seriously than this. Kennedy would never have worked with Brown to restrict contraception; he would be firmly against him.

Brown has every right to disagree, but a senator worthy of his seat should be able to own his positions, without buttressing them with phony alliances and outright deceptions.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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