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.

"When the bullets start flying, 90 percent of the casualties will be American," he said on the floor of the Senate on January 10, 1991. "Most military experts tell us that a war with Iraq will not be quick and decisive, as President Bush suggests. It'll be brutal and costly. It'll take weeks, even months, and quickly turn from an air war into a ground war, with thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of American casualties. The administration refuses to release casualty estimates, but the 45,000 body bags the Pentagon has sent to the region are all the evidence we need of the high price in lives and blood that we will have to spare....We're talking about the likelihood of at least 3,000 American casualties a week, with 700 dead for as long as the war goes on." His forecasts, of course, were completely off the mark. And he learned nothing from his mistake.

Indeed, Ted Kennedy is sounding more and more like his father. Joseph P. Kennedy, let it be said, didn't want Hitler to win, England to fail, and the Nazis to overrun Europe. But he had a shortfall of imagination when it came to the nature and presence of evil; he believed madmen could be bargained with, and right up through December 6, 1941, he believed the Axis posed no direct threat to American interests. He saw only the dangers of acting, which he called provocation, and not the far greater dangers of allowing chaos and evil to gain a foothold. ("The most dangerous course of all would be to do nothing," John Kennedy said in October 1962.) At heart, Joseph Kennedy's brief against war was familial and primitive, expressed best in a line FDR made him cut out of a 1938 speech given in England: "I should like to ask you all if you know of any dispute or controversy existing in the world which is worth the life of your son." This is the same line which his youngest son appears to be taking. After the Powell presentation last Wednesday, Kennedy complained that the president had failed to inform Americans, "What are going to be the human costs in terms of this conflict and this war, and in human terms, what will be the creation of refugees?"

Joseph P. Kennedy, said biographer Richard J. Whelan, "came close to rejecting war as an instrument of national policy. . . . An uncomprehending witness to the rise of new revolutionary forces, he could conceive of no conflict abroad that would affect vital American interests; no issue worth risking the lives of his or anyone else's sons." In January 1941 in congressional testimony, Kennedy said, "I am primarily interested in the proposition that I do not want this country to go to war under any conditions whatever unless we are attacked. And I would like to see the Congress of the United States still have a hand, so that they can represent the feeling of the people." Sound familiar?

"An assault against Iraq," Ted Kennedy warned on January 21, "will not advance the defeat of al Qaeda, but undermine it. It will antagonize critical allies and crack the global coalition that came together after September 11. It will feed a rising tide of anti-Americanism overseas, and swell the ranks of al Qaeda recruits and sympathizers. It will strain our diplomatic, military, and intelligence resources and reduce our ability to root out terrorists. . . . It could quickly spin out of control."

After Powell's star turn, Kennedy remained stubborn and truculent, insisting that the risks of war were not justified. Filled to the brim with fears and forebodings, he made no mention at all of the risks of inaction. Appeasement, it seems, is a recessive gene that afflicts only some among family members. Ted Kennedy is not his brother's brother, but he is his father's son.

Noemie Emery, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is writing a book on political dynasties.