AT THE AUGUST 2009 graveside service for US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a Kennedy family friend, read portions of a letter that the dying senator wrote to Pope Benedict XVI.
In the letter, which was delivered to the pope by President Obama, Kennedy declared that “even though I am ill, I am committed to do everything I can to achieve access to health care for everyone in my country. This has been the political cause of my life. I believe in a conscience protection for Catholics in the health care field and will continue to advocate for it as my colleagues in the Senate and I work to develop an overall national health policy that guarantees health care for everyone.’’
Kennedy’s words were open to interpretation: When he referred to “conscience protection,’’ was he referring only to abortion? Or would he also extend “conscience protection’’ to church-affiliated institutions that oppose insurance coverage for contraception? While Kennedy family members have every right to express an opinion about how the late senator’s principle might be applied, so do others - including US Senator Scott Brown.
In a recent radio ad, Brown suggested that he was following in Kennedy’s footsteps when he backed the so-called Blunt amendment, which would allow employers generally to refuse to provide coverage for practices that offend their beliefs. “Like Ted Kennedy before me,’’ Brown says in the ad, “I support a conscience exemption in health care for Catholics and people of other faiths.’’ That assertion led Patrick Kennedy - Kennedy’s son and a former eight-term congressman from Rhode Island - to ask Brown to take down the radio ad and, beyond that, to refrain “from citing my father any further.’’
In fact, Edward Kennedy’s legislative record suggests he likely would have agreed with the Obama administration’s original contraception mandate, or at least with a subsequent compromise. Yet in demanding that Brown stop quoting Edward Kennedy, Patrick Kennedy is seeking to manage how others might construe his father’s decades-long legislative legacy. The more far-reaching a public figure’s work, the more it necessarily belongs to everyone.
This surely won’t be the last time Edward Kennedy’s name - like those of his brothers and many other larger-than-life figures - will be invoked in ways that rankle his immediate family. Massachusetts voters may conclude that Brown is misappropriating Kennedy’s memory. But that, ultimately, isn’t for the Kennedy family to decide. The family went so far as to put the senator’s private correspondence into the public sphere. Now that it’s there, everyone, including Brown, is allowed to interpret it.