Roundtable on Kennedy's Legacy

Roundtable on Kennedy's Legacy

By Special Report With Bret Baier - August 26, 2009


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Despite his giving us the opportunities denied when his brothers John and Robert were taken from us, the blessing of time to say thank you and goodbye.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Don't you find it remarkable that one of the most partisan, liberal men in the last century serving in the Senate had so many of his - so many of his foes embrace him.


BRET BAIER, HOST: The president and the vice president reacting to the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, who died at his home in Hyannis Port last night exactly one year almost to the hour after he delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the last big speech he would deliver.

Let's bring in our panel now: Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, Kirsten Powers, columnist with The New York Post, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Bill, your thoughts on his life and legacy.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: My condolences to his family, obviously. I wasn't a big fan of his politics and I didn't really admire him, so maybe I won't say very much, you know.

In terms of his politics, though, just to get away from the personal stuff, he was a liberal. He didn't change at all in the 47 years he was in the United States Senate, and some people might call that admirable consistency. I would that as being blind to reality and refusing to learn from the facts.

He continued to advocate policies that had long-ago been proven - in my view - not to work, and the one thing, again, beside his personal life, the one thing I really would not forgive him for was the speech denouncing Robert Bork totally unfairly.

He was entitled to oppose Robert Bork when he was nominated to the Supreme Court, but this famous speech in which he made it seem as if Bob Bork was in favor of segregating blacks and discriminating against people was really not - a low-point in popular American politics.

BAIER: Do you buy the talk today that he was very effective behind closed doors in the Senate to make things happen?

KRISTOL: He was a good negotiator and I certainly knew plenty of senators and people in the Bush administration who negotiated with him. You went to give in a little bit, he didn't obstinately stick to absolutely straight liberal line and he kept his word I think in political negotiations in the Senate.

In that respect he was a very effective liberal United States senator.

BAIER: Kirsten?

KIRSTEN POWERS, COLUMNIST, NEW YORK POST: And I think that that's something that a lot of people feel is missing in the health care debate. And then there has been a lot of discussion of what the health care debate might have been like without him.

You have people like Orrin Hatch coming out and saying they feel that he was somebody who actually could work with Republicans and would find some way to have some consensus, versus the way it's being done now. I'm a little skeptical about that considering the tenor of politics right now and the way things are on the Hill.

In terms of, you know, his legacy and who he is, I have a slightly different take, of course, than Bill, you know. As a Democrat growing up in this country, the Kennedys were always really represented as royalty of the Democrats, this very - well, I mean, he was more liberal, I guess, than his brothers.

But people who were very privileged, but still felt an obligation to give back to the country. They obviously loved this country very much, whether you agreed with their politics or not.

And I think that, you know, being an unabashed liberal in the way that he was and being a really vocal person who could talk about things like health care as a human right was something that I think is going to be missing with him gone.

BAIER: You mentioned health care. Here is just a snippet from that speech at the Democratic National Convention:


SEN. TED KENNEDY, D-MASS.: This is the cause of my life: New hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American, north, south, east, west, young, old, will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege!



BAIER: Charles, he used that line in many, many speeches throughout his career. What about his role in the health care debate and what Democrats should or could do in his passing?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, I suspect they will name the bill after him as a way to gather sentimental support. I'm not sure it will have much of an effect.

But in looking at him and his legacy, I would take the middle road - the high road - between the Kirsten and Bill. Look, this is the most important senator since Lyndon Johnson, and I would say the most important senator in American history who never became majority leader.

And he was the titular and the de facto head of American liberalism as an ideology. And trying to look at it as a future historian might, I think they might say that his political life marks and heavily influenced the trajectory of American liberalism.

In a sense, they might conclude that he was one of its champions, but he took it too far; he overshot.

I will give you two examples: Civil rights, he and his brother Bobby were early, dedicated and sincere champions, courageous of civil rights. But Teddy took it into affirmative action and reverse discrimination, which were more highly problematic.

Secondly was in the social safety net. He was a strong supporter of Social Security, extending it to the disabled and Medicare, children's health. But he took it way into the Great Society which created a whole culture of dependency which ironically had to be undone by a moderate Democrat President Clinton.

In that speech that we saw, the most famous he ever gave of "the dream will never die," that was not a speech given against Reagan or a right winger. It was given against the moderate Jimmy Carter.

He represented the extreme liberalism in a sense, and in a sense, that's why the Democrats were denied the White House for almost all of the last 50 years with the exception of Clinton and Carter, the likes of whom Kennedy opposed.

BAIER: Bill, do you think that the old-style politics around personality and relationships is over?

KRISTOL: In the Senate, no, no.

But Teddy Kennedy also challenged a sitting Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, and I approve of that since it probably made it easy for Ronald Reagan to beat him. So that was another contribution Ted Kennedy has made to American history.

BAIER: Didn't your former boss, Dan Quayle, work with Ted Kennedy?

KRISTOL: He did and look, I mean, I dealt with Senator Kennedy a fair amount - you know, sporadically in those years when I was Dan Quayle's chief of staff. And I did my job and I dealt with him professionally, and he was professional to me and he had a real charm.

And if one was willing to ignore what one knew about his personal history, one could, I think, be quite charmed by him and in any case he was pleasant.

And I want to say, I do think - it was one foreign trip we went on, he went on Air Force II with the vice president to Latin America, and I got to say there was a glimpse of that old liberalism there that I very much associated with John Kennedy, especially.

We were briefing him and the vice president and others on the trip and the national security people were briefing him, and I said to Senator Kennedy, you may not agree with the administration on this. He said, and this was 1990 or so. He said we're traveling abroad together. We'll represent the United States together. I'll follow the vice president's lead.

He didn't adhere to that, honestly, in the next 20 years. He bitterly attacked President Bush over Iraq, quite unfairly, I think. But I have to say, at that moment, one saw a glimpse of an earlier American politics where there was real bipartisanship on foreign policy.


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