It was a sad moment last night when, speaking at the funeral of the Senator Ted Kennedy, Vice-President Joe Biden said what everyone in the crowd was thinking: “I really hoped that Ted was still here, taking the lead, standing with me, helping to lead the country, by telling us what’s in store.”
With an eternal arc running from the beginning of the Cold War until the 1991 signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Kennedy had played a huge role in what happened next. He worked hard to save the strategic balance by convincing the world that the Soviet Union and its allies were an existential threat, and then lobbied for, and achieved, fundamental change. From that glorious beginning came one of the darkest chapters in human history, the disintegration of the American middle class and the nightmare that resulted.
Along with President Barack Obama, Kennedy played a major role in changing the world, not just America’s approach to war but towards curing disease and spurring the economic recovery. The president is not the first to voice the hope that the next generation of American leadership will be more progressive, ambitious and dramatic. That’s the man who fought and won for a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living here illegally. That’s the president who had the courage to face a divided Congress and lay out a vision of common-sense gun control in the wake of the Newtown school shooting massacre. That’s the president who got Osama bin Laden and then pivoted to inspiring people to put their shoulder to the wheel and build, not simply to create a better life, but a better world.
Joe Biden thinks otherwise.
In less than six years as Vice-President, the Obama White House has repeatedly put a priority on passing new gun laws. But despite shooting after shooting – including the massacre at Virginia Tech, and a series of tragic incidents involving college students and staff – the Senate has failed to pass more commonsense measures.
This is an administration that elevated faith in climate change from science fiction into science fact. But only just this month, conservative supporters of an oil pipeline proposed in part for the Nebraska Bakken oil field successfully blocked the White House from allowing the project to proceed. (The next vote might be closer than expected.)
This is an administration that legalized gay marriage, something it failed to do for three decades. (The 90th anniversary of The Times’ endorsement of JFK has prompted a review of more than a dozen of the newspaper’s editorials on its gay rights record, along with its criticism of LBJ’s 1964 amendment to the federal constitution.) This is an administration that has spent trillions of dollars to fight an infectious disease without adding to the debt. But last night’s speech in the cathedral that once bore Ted Kennedy’s name threw gas on the fire of conservative attacks on climate change and climate policy, a reminder of just how little consensus exists on how best to tackle the most dangerous threat we face.
The only thing that could make it more depressing is that President Obama himself won’t be there. “Thinking of this place and those who pass through it,” he said last night, “makes me hopeful.”
But looking at the events of the past few days, it also makes me cynical. I can’t help but notice that yesterday’s speaker was barely represented: The reverends, the rabbis, the union leaders, the police officers, the nurses, the prison guards, the teachers, the retirees who helped Kennedy build the party during that manic six-year run. I think of the Republican presidential candidates, of all of the scaremongering and vitriol and bile they spit out at Democratic opponents. I think of the freewheeling 2012 Republican convention, during which a few fringe figures were invited onstage while, and some say deliberately, Chris Dodd and Bill Clinton were seated uneasily in the wings.
This is a white conservative party, which today holds the presidency and both chambers of Congress, that values the right to bear arms above the wisdom and morality that would have served America well during Ted Kennedy’s career.
The only thing Biden did well on Monday was to give us some straight talk about what to expect next from the next administration. “If history repeats itself,” he said, “it’s not going to be a pretty time in America.”
The problem is that we’ve lived through one so far. Biden may be right when he says we could be in for another cataclysm. But I’d like to be surprised.