The Magazine

Like Father, Like Son

Edward Kennedy restores the ramily reputation--for appeasement.

Feb 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 22 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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POLITICAL NATURES do not always descend in straight lines, or according to party. As a politician and president, George W. Bush is being compared less to his father than to Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. Since September 11, Bush has been governing along the lines of the Kennedy inaugural address and not (who can now recall what was in it?) his own. And while Bush is increasingly considered "Kennedyesque," the genetic Kennedy is becoming the head of the anti-war party in the United States Senate.

"The wrong war at the wrong time" is the mantra of Edward M. Kennedy. Did the U.N. inspectors find chemical warheads in Iraq? Well, he says, that's "not a sign that we need to go to war. Far from it. It's an indication that inspections work. And it's a reason to give the inspectors more time." Are al Qaeda operatives in Baghdad, as Colin Powell told the U.N. Security Council last week? Kennedy is underwhelmed: "There are al Qaeda in the United States of America," he says.

After a 60-year detour, Ted Kennedy has brought the famous family name back around to where his father disastrously left it: a name that stands for retreat and bad judgment. Joseph P. Kennedy was a financial success as a businessman; a political success as an FDR backer (and as first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission); but a disaster as ambassador to Great Britain at the perilous end of the 1930s. He made friends with the Cliveden Set, a claque of appeasers. He backed Neville Chamberlain, who believed he could bargain with Hitler. He supported the Munich agreement that dismembered Czechoslovakia and merely postponed the great day of reckoning (and made it much worse when it came). He thought and said that Hitler was rational, that Britain was doomed, and that the Axis posed no real threat to American interests. When war finally came, he had made himself loathed by the British, by many Americans, and by President Roosevelt. His reputation had become so toxic that it was a burden his son John had to overcome when he ran for president two decades later. In fact, argues Edward J. Renahan Jr., author of "The Kennedys at War," a fascinating account of an era and family, had it not been for the wartime heroics of John (and of his brother Joe Jr., who died in a suicide mission), the family name might never again have been politically viable.

It was JFK who rescued the name and rebuilt it on higher ground. As a young man, he had started to break with his father, showing a much firmer grip on power realities. Unlike his father, he knew the cost to his country if England should fall to the Nazis. He admired his father's bête noire, Winston Churchill, and his book "Why England Slept" rebuked Great Britain for being complacent in the face of the rising fascist alliance. Running for president, he campaigned to the right of Richard Nixon, accusing the Republicans of being too unimaginative in combating aggression, and undercommitted to the country's defense. His inaugural address, clearly inspired by Churchillian fire, is a prime interventionist document, a celebration of national power, and of America's obligation to use it in the interests of freedom. In October 1962, he had his September 11, when he turned back a Russian attempt to put missiles in Cuba, ending the first phase of the peril-fraught Cold War, which from then on would be fought on the fringes of Asia. He died one year later, a bloodied Cold Warrior with one piece of unfinished business: Vietnam.

It was Bobby, the third son, who turned on the war in Vietnam. But Ted, who succeeded him, took matters further, transforming Bobby's critique of that one ill-thought-out venture into a full-fledged assault on power and war itself. He opposed all the elements of the Reagan defense buildup, which brought the Cold War to its successful and bloodless conclusion. He supported the nuclear freeze, which would have depleted the American arsenal while leaving the Russians' unaltered. The man whose brother ran on the Missile Gap opposed the deployment of missiles in Europe, which was key to bringing down the Soviet Union. The man whose brothers all but invented counter-insurgency opposed all efforts to check Communist infiltration in Latin America. And in the Gulf War in 1991, the man whose brother had criticized their father for being passive in the face of aggression in Europe made his father's mistake once again. He gave a cowering speech filled with predictions of bodybags.