Monday, August 31, 2009

Boston Common

If I don't look after the interests of the underprivileged, maybe somebody else will. Maybe somebody without any money or property!

I always gagged on that silver spoon.

--from the movie Citizen Kane

Sir, I hear you haven't worked a day in your life, and some hold this against you. Well, let me tell you, kid, you ain't missed a thing.

--factory worker

The first Citizen Kane quote above occurred to me little bit after hearing of Ted Kennedy's death. Not immediately after, but right when I asked myself, "Should I write about this?" (I held off so I could write about the cartoonist Jack Kirby, who's been dead for years.) The second Kane quote occurred to me a little bit after the first (thanks to the good people at TCM, I've seen that movie three times this past year) The third quote a local politician told me a couple of years back at my one, and, so far, only political meeting (I like to think of myself as political, but the people who attend those things are REALLY political. I think they'd hand out bumper stickers in their sleep.) I heard it again watching Ted Kennedy's memorial service. Supposedly this is a story he often liked to tell, about a factory he toured during his first campaign for senator in 1962. But it must have been a story he liked to tell off the record, for I could find nothing directly on the record, no speech or interview, not even something said accidentally in an open mike. So I attributed the quote instead to the factory worker. After all, he said it first. If it seems odd this factory worker would call Kennedy both "sir" and "kid", well, that's because there's no single version out there, so I decided to just combine them all.

Just because these are the quotes that occurred to me doesn't necessarily mean they aptly describe either Ted Kennedy or his family as a whole. Let's take the one about the silver spoon. The fact of the matter is the Kennedys seem to enjoy their money. Watching coverage of his passing on TV, I saw film of a young dark haired Ted Kennedy on his sailboat, then film of a middle-aged Ted Kennedy with slightly wild hair tinged with gray on another sailboat (the same one? Couldn't tell), then film of a much heavier Kennedy, his hair completely white, but still able to work the sails (I wish I knew the technical term), and, finally, film, actually video tape, taken a couple of weeks ago, of a dying Kennedy being wheeled onto that sailboat one final time. I can only conclude that not only did Ted Kennedy enjoy the somewhat elite pastime of sailing, but he also liked having someone follow him around with a camera as he enjoyed it.

Let's move to that third quote. The first time I heard that story I laughed out loud. I know you shouldn't explain humor, but I'm going to anyway. The joke is Kennedy didn't miss anything bad about working. Conservatives are always attacking rich liberals, be they born of wealth like FDR, or acquired it along the way like, well, just about anybody in public life, as being somehow hypocritical. Or they believe that if you personally can't identify with a person from a different walk of life, you have no business caring about what happens to them. Well, I personally can't identify with a squirrel, but if I'm driving and one runs in front of my car, I going to sure damn well slam on the brakes (I have this paranoid fear of dying and being sent to the roadkill section of Hell. Satan hands me a putty knife, and makes me scrape flattened fur and guts off the pavement.)

Besides, having a fortune is no guarantee you'll avoid misfortune. The wheelchair bound FDR knew this. As for the Kennedys, tragedy is practically their defining characteristic. There's the two assassinations, of course, but the bad tidings started long before that. Joe and Rose Kennedy lost a son and daughter, Joe Jr. and Kathleen, within three years of each other. (Both in plane crashes. Had I been in that family, I would have taken the Greyhound from that point on.) Some have gone so far as to suggest a family curse, while others reason that with such a large brood (Joe and Rose had nine kids) tragic outcomes increase exponentially. As a lifelong skeptic, I tend to agree with the latter explanation. Still, it's kind of weird that, had Joe and Rose just had four kids, by 1964 only one would still be alive, and she'd be in a mental institution. At any rate, Ted didn't have to be born poor to learn at an early age that life can bite some times. And the biting didn't stop with his siblings. He got into a plane crash himself (if you don't like Greyhound, how about Trailways?) and his son lost a leg to cancer. How about we make Ted an honorary member of the underprivileged? I think he's earned it.

Now, let's look at that first Citizen Kane quote.

(Incidentally, I've kind of been lumping the working-class in with the underprivileged. That's because, historically, they've been one and the same. It's only since World War II that they've been considered two distinct groups of people. In fact, I've known some blue-collar folks who absolutely loathe the underclass, but methinks they protest too much.)

Did Ted Kennedy, and the rest of his family, adopt liberalism as their cause because they feared some sort of proletariat uprising? Such fears in the 1930s are said to have lead to the New Deal. Lately, however, "class warfare" has just been a cliche bandied about whenever a fat cat doesn't get the tax cut he wants. The wild-eyed radical in me would like to think there's someone out there without any money or property ready to look after the interests of the underprivileged. But if you have no money or property, it's hard enough just looking after your own interests, much less worrying about the underprivileged. So, for the foreseeable future, it's a job for those with property and money. And it's a job that Ted Kennedy performed well. He amassed a long and progressive legislative record. And even when he screwed up (No Child Left Behind), at least his heart was in the right place.

So let's hear it for noblesse oblige. And rest in peace Ted Kennedy.

Still, we shouldn't depend too much on the kindness of somebody with lots of money and lots of property. Remember, George W. Bush, like Franklin Roosevelt and Ted Kennedy, also grew up in the lap of luxury.

In his case, I don't think he'd gag on an entire set of silverware.

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