Several readers actually complained when I did not write about the late Edward Kennedy on the weekend. “In a week when one of the most important politicians of our time dies, who happens to be a fellow Catholic as well,” says one, “you chose to write about tree huggers. It seems to me that your writing tendencies have become quite narcissistic and that, my friend, is a grave sin.”

Perhaps there is something in the complaint. One drinks narcissism in the water, these days, mixed with the chlorine. A more charitable interpretation might have been, however, that with the passage of time, I grow more convinced by the old adage, De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Of the dead, speak nothing but good—at least, until after the funeral. (Chilon, incidentally, the wise Spartan magistrate, is said to have said this; not Solon, the Athenian lawgiver; nor Horace, the Roman poet. Please, nobody get that wrong again.)

Those who could not guess what I thought of Ted Kennedy, could not have been reading my columns. But to review, quickly, I classed him among the horrible freaks of electoral politics, an embodiment of almost everything I detest in public life, from open advocacy of “the culture of death,” and socialist tyranny, to great personal hypocrisy; sometimes nearly a traitor to his country; and certainly a traitor to his religion.

I’d have been scandalized, and ashamed, had my Roman Church given him a Christian burial. In the event, the responsible bishops gave him all the pageantry they could supply, thereby further alienating themselves from the faithful laity.

“But what do you really think?” I can hear my reader asking. That is what I really think, but it is not incompatible with something else I really think: that Kennedy was a great and interesting man, and not without some noble qualities; moreover, a man in some (small) degree excused by the overweening ambitions of the Kennedy family, inculcated by a rather monstrous father. His brother Robert would, had he survived, have set Ted a better example, for Robert retained a fairly stalwart Christian moral sense, and was thus less easily corrupted.

Ambition on behalf of the good should be encouraged; ambition as an end in itself should never be. But the worst kind of ambition was the sort Ted Kennedy had, in which self and cause become inextricably confused. He could have made a mighty champion for the motherhood and apple pie that are the best political causes, for he really did have extraordinary skills as a legislator, to forge political deals. He had a formidable will, and the personal charm to assert it. But these are gifts, not moral accomplishments.

I was struck by the contrast between Ted Kennedy’s huge public send-off, crassly politicized by his party, and the recent private funeral of his elder sister. The late Eunice Kennedy Shriver was admirable in so many ways: founder of the Special Olympics, and of numerous child health facilities across the U.S.; tireless crusader for the disabled, the innocent and helpless; a courageous and vocal defender of the sanctity of human life, who publicly condemned “pro-choice” positions by her Democrat party. She was the Kennedy most worth honouring; the one who made proper use of inherited wealth and connections. (In many respects, she, too, was on the left, but I cannot chafe: for acts speak louder than words.)

The hardest thing is to accept that persons we may utterly abhor have some good qualities. But it is necessary to allow them, if we are to detest people worthily, and companionably, and with love.

Ted Kennedy was, from my understanding, capable of bold generosity.

It was a wonder to see his political machine (that whole “Catholic mafia” from Boston) swing into action in the proper way, to get a bit of justice for somebody, even for someone they themselves despised, once Teddy gave the word. As the champion of his constituents, the man was a knight in shining armour.

His self-defence after Chappaquiddick was something beyond shamelessly self-serving. Yet it is worth noting that even on that occasion, he was doing for himself exactly what on other occasions he did for friends. “Mary Jo Kopechne is dead; let us now help the living.”

This is not the finest moral sentiment, but the loyalty built into it, somewhere, was not a purely selfish loyalty.

At the funeral, Kennedy was quoted by some eulogist: “For all my years in public life, I have believed that America must sail toward the shores of liberty and justice for all. There is no end to that journey.”

Canned and false: that is the side of Ted Kennedy I detested. There is in fact an end to that journey, and it occurs when the ship hits the shoals, drowning all passengers. Captains should steer for safe harbours, not vague glistening horizons.

Latest posts by Paul Albers (see all)