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Ted Kennedy, Donald Trump, and the death of moral politics

The late Massachusetts senator, despite his personal failings, upheld standards that have since faded from American public life.

Representative John Lewis of Georgia and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts conferred in 2006 in the room where President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.DOUG MILLS/NYT

When historians look back on this period, which is likely to be the most reviled and least explicable in modern political history, one suspects they will cite a kind of national nervous breakdown that razed the country and left rubble.

It is inarguable that Donald Trump has destroyed our institutions and norms and shredded the consensus on which our political system had been predicated. Essentially, in this view, he has fomented a political revolution — arguably as significant as the revolution that begat the nation. The Founding Fathers created a democratic republic. Trump attempted to turn it into a monarchical kleptocracy. He largely succeeded.


But there is another revolution that is scarcely mentioned in the criticisms of Trump and that may be even more important than this political one or even the epistemological one in which verified fact was suddenly in dispute: Donald Trump has, in a scant four years, destroyed the moral basis on which Americans have relied and to which they have subscribed since long before the country’s inception. It is not just our institutions that we have lost. Those may indeed be resurrected. It is our sense of morality, and that resurrection is likely to be far more difficult. We are now a nation in moral anomie — a nation where a large minority considers wearing a mask to protect others an assault on their liberty.

Morality is not something we typically associate with politics or even with policy. To the extent we think about it at all, we tend to think of personal behavior, and Trump hasn’t exactly been a moral paragon there either. In politics, we generally look at things pragmatically. We ask, “What effect will this have in a material sense?” not a spiritual one. We ask, “Will this policy be effective?” not whether it is something right and good. Morality seems irrelevant.


It was not always that way. In the best of times, it was certainly not that way. During the so-called liberal hour in the 1960s, when John Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson were promoting policies of government activism that would ensure civil rights for Black Americans, reduce poverty for poor Americans, and provide medical care for elderly Americans, morality was very much a motivating force. John Kennedy became an American icon not primarily because he was young and handsome and seemingly vigorous — a kind of political movie star, as writer Norman Mailer dubbedhim — but because he seemed to draw on a subterranean moral impulse to pull the country in the direction of the right and good, even if it took him a while to come to that recognition himself. It wasn’t until Alabama Governor George Wallace barred the door of the state’s university when Black Americans attempted to enroll — in fact, on that very night — that Kennedy addressed the nation and called for a civil rights act putting the muscle of the federal government behind integration.

Lyndon Johnson drafted behind that moral force after Kennedy’s death and used it to enact the Great Society, and Bobby Kennedy, drafting too, became the avatar of political morality. He described his presidential campaign against Johnson, who Kennedy felt had forfeited his moral bona fides by prosecuting the war in Vietnam, as a battle for the soul of America, not unlike the battle Joe Biden declared in this last election. In the speech that launched his presidential bid, Kennedy announced, “At stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is our right to moral leadership of this planet.”


A moral crease

White Americans, at least overtly, had little to gain from the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act, or even from a war on poverty that critics disparaged as a sop to Black people. But by and large, as polling at the time showed, they supported these efforts — supported them, one assumes, because the efforts were morally driven, since there is no other evident reason for white people to have done so. When Americans saw Wallace barring that door or policemen siccing their dogs on marchers calling for voting rights in Selma two years later, the conscience of the nation was stirred. There was, one might say, a moral crease in the country.

It did not last long. Three of the nation’s chief moral exemplars, John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., were killed, Lyndon Johnson turned his attention from the Black and the poor to Vietnam, and the liberal hour tolled its last seconds. Richard Nixon, who succeeded Johnson, had little interest in morality. Rather, he saw political gain in dividing the nation, setting disaffected white Americans against Black Americans, and the moral consensus that had propelled the great liberal initiatives vanished in the tension. But there was nevertheless one political figure who fought tenaciously to retain the moral strain in our politics and who was as responsible as any single public official for sustaining it even as the country turned rightward: John and Bobby Kennedy’s young brother, Ted. And he did so for the remaining 40-odd years of his life, nearly all of them against the prevailing conservative wind that blew morality out of politics in favor of self-interest.


Admittedly, Ted Kennedy, about whom I have written the first volume of a new biography, may seem an unlikely figure to adduce as a champion of morality. His personal morality was long suspect. He was expelled from Harvard for having a fellow student take a Spanish exam for him. He was a notorious womanizer and drinker. He was responsible for the death of a young woman in an automobile accident at Chappaquiddick Island. That accident would become a signal moment in American political history not because it likely denied Kennedy an opportunity to be president but because it injected the issue of character into political debate and allowed Republicans to conflate personal morality with public morality, dooming the second with the first. Notwithstanding the fact that Nixon’s personal morality was deplorable, Republicans were insistent that an individual with a flawed character necessarily sacrificed his right to make declarations of morality in a political sphere.

Much of this conservative moralizing was self-serving and much of it was targeted at Ted Kennedy himself — to neutralize him as a moral political force. But there is a difference between one’s personal, private conduct and one’s political conduct, and no one may be more illustrative of that difference than Ted Kennedy. Many politicians moralize. In fact, most do, making morality, not patriotism, the last refuge of a scoundrel. Ted Kennedy never presented himself as a model of moral virtue in his personal life. There was no sanctimoniousness in him, nor much hypocrisy. He knew better than that. He believed that the true test of a public official was how he served the most vulnerable of his constituents. In some ways, that became penance for his personal failings.


‘Publicly moral’

Whatever those failings, he was, as Richard Reeves called him, a “publicly moral man” who believed devoutly in a politics of morality and in the power of moral authority as a tool to advance the causes of those who needed help. Though there was little obvious political benefit in doing so, after his brothers’ deaths he picked up what he called their “fallen standard” and spent the rest of his political career promoting not just liberal causes — though he was often derided as an ideologue — but moral ones, to the extent the two can be separated. He drew on his brothers’ moral authority, on their appeal to moral aspiration, but also on Americans’ own moral sense to help those who needed help, to empower those who had been disempowered, to face our challenges by closing ranks as a community rather than by promoting ruthless individualism. For four decades, he spoke the language of political morality when almost no one else in public life did. He became the champion of the marginalized. He also became the champion of a certain set of values.

Ted Kennedy, who had as keen a political sense as a moral one, understood how fundamental this decency was to the American enterprise. If America was a great country, it was not because of material success or even patriotic bromides that assumed our exceptionalism. Our exceptionalism was our sense of morality, which he defined as our obligation to help those in need. This became Ted Kennedy’s message in almost every piece of legislation he proposed, and there were roughly 2,500 of these bills, from the National Cancer Act to Meals on Wheels to the Children’s Health Insurance Program to the Ryan White AIDS Act to the Mental Health Parity Act to the extensions of the Voting Rights Act, to name a handful. “What is the purpose of all this?” a Senate aide once asked him. “To make gentler the human condition,” Kennedy answered. This was political morality — not only Ted Kennedy’s, not only that of those who worked with him, including, on almost every bill, a Republican, but Americans’. And, Kennedy felt, this was a force more powerful than pragmatism.

Even in Kennedy’s time, many strained against this moral impulse. To them, morality was a straitjacket, inhibiting personal liberty. Morality was a shaming mechanism instituted by liberals to get their way. Morality was a way of taking from the deserving (them) and giving to the undeserving (the poor and marginalized). Conservatives encouraged these views, and they came to dominate the national discourse. Kennedy understood those attitudes too, and in legislation like his ongoing efforts to raise the minimum wage, he tried to fuse self-interest, which motivates most politics and most politicians, with larger moral interests. He didn’t always succeed. In fact, as time went on, doing so became increasingly difficult. Still, he persevered to keep the moral ember glowing and to keep the country working toward the larger good — once again because he believed in the power of morality.

In the last four years, however, Donald Trump has led us to a place that Ted Kennedy could have never contemplated, because Ted Kennedy, though a fatalist about his own life, was always an optimist about his country’s. Trump has made this a country without a conscience. He has stripped away the vestiges of morality, enthroned self-interest — particularly his own — over common good, inverted our values, and ripped the needle off the moral compass, leaving us aimless at best, cruel at worst. It is important to emphasize that our democracy has never been protected by constitutional guardrails, which are altogether too fragile. It has always been protected by something stronger: our moral underpinnings. That was Ted Kennedy’s lifelong fight — to strengthen those underpinnings. And if we are to redeem ourselves now after this terrible moral revolution, if we are ever to restore ourselves as an exceptional nation, we would do well to remind ourselves of Kennedy’s fight and of the moral imperatives that have historically given us everything that is good about America — politically and otherwise. We must remind ourselves of this simple fact: that great nations do good.

Neal Gabler is the author of “Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour.”