One of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen was the posthumous rehabilitation of Richard Nixon about fifteen years ago. Here was a man who resigned as President before Congress could throw him out, whose whole term in office was characterized by an all-consuming arrogance and a contempt for the law that wouldn’t be matched for at least thirty years, and yet all the news-network obituaries somehow managed to airbrush that out, and talked about his greatness as a statesman, etc. It was bad enough that Hunter Thompson’s over-the-top anti-eulogy was actually kind of refreshing.
The only thing since then that comes close was the recent haigography of Michael Jackson that managed to skip lightly over the past fifteen year of his career. It’s not quite as impressive a media achievement, though, because all Jackson was accused of was preying on helpless children.
Ted Kennedy died a couple of days ago, and as expected, this has led to a lot of tearful remembrances from liberals, and a lot of sophomoric jokes from conservatives. And a lot of hand-wringing about the sophomoric joking– I’ve seen several expressions of outrage at the Onion’s ridiculously tacky “News in Photos” item, for example.
It might be tempting to draw a parallel between the whitewashing of Nixon’s record and the glowing obits for Kennedy. Not for sophomoric conservative bloggers, of course– Nixon’s death was fifteen years ago, which means it might as well be in the epic of Gilgamesh as far as most political bloggers are concerned– but for people old enough to have a rudimentary sense of history. Both, after all, are important political figures whose public images were dominated by their character flaws, and both are having those flaws minimized in the aftermath of their deaths.
I don’t think this holds up, though. While there are superficial similarities, the two are dramatically different when it comes to how their character affected their jobs.
Kennedy’s personal failings were many and well-documented, but at the end of the day, they remained personal failings. They were more than enough to derail any greater ambitions he may have had (I remember a conservative friend in college gleefully storyboarding the attack ads the Republicans would use if Kennedy ever ran for President), but they ultimately had little effect on his performance in the Senate. Whatever went wrong in his personal life, he was unquestionably a tremendously effective Senator, and it’s hard to find anything in his legislative legacy that you could seriously say was adversely affected by his personal issues.
Nixon’s personal failings, on the other hand, were miniature versions of his professional failings. He was a paranoid, vindictive, bigoted, unpleasant little man, and his administration was paranoid, vindictive, bigoted, and unpleasant. His character flaws led directly to his conducting a criminal conspiracy in the Oval Office, running a burglary and cover-up in an attempt to gain a trivial advantage in an election he would’ve won by a huge margin without any skullduggery. His contempt for the rule of law was breathtaking, and he enthusiastically embraced tactics in and around Vietnam that were, frankly, criminal.
And we know this because his petty paranoia was so great that he bugged his own office, recording the conversations that sealed his political fate because he somehow imagined that his enemies could do worse. It’s hard to see how, but that’s what he thought.
Ted Kennedy had his flaws, but they remained separate from his political career. Richard Nixon’s flaws basically defined his entire political career. That’s why it’s tacky-bordering-on-offensive to dwell too much on Kennedy’s personal failings in the wake of his death, and it was tacky-bordering-on-offensive to fail to mention Nixon’s.
(This is also, by the way, why the Clinton and Nixon impeachments are not equivalent. Clinton was impeached for personal mistakes that did not affect his performance of his job. Nixon was impeached precisely because of what he did on the job.)