I was on a train when I heard of the death of Teddy Kennedy from brain cancer. It is clear that his death ends the dynasty that dominated American politics (and gossip/glamour) through the twentieth century and finally lays to rest the brothers whose lives were characterised by privilege, duty, public service and violence.
What has interested me particularly, though, is the juxtaposition of Kennedy’s chaotic personal life with his public service. OK, the Chappaquiddick incident was always going to be dragged up in any resume of his life, but there is an uneasy holding together here of the personal deficiencies with the impressive public service achievements. The Guardian put it like this:
‘There are no second acts in American lives’– this dour pronouncement of F Scott Fitzgerald has been many times refuted, and at no time more appropriately than in reference to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, whose death was announced yesterday. Indeed, it might be argued that Senator Kennedy’s career as one of the most influential of 20th-century Democratic politicians, an iconic figure as powerful, and as morally enigmatic, as President Bill Clinton, whom in many ways Kennedy resembled, was a consequence of his notorious behaviour at Chappaquiddick bridge in July 1969.
What is it about some people (usually men) that the drive that causes such chaos personally – and to those close to them – also seems to be the source of the energy that drives them in their public life? Flawed people who change the world. People who evoke disgust at one level, but demand respect at another.
There is a complexity to human nature that refuses to sanitise real life. One of my great heroes is Martin Niemoeller, the German pastor who survived concentration camps and emerged to help lead the post-War German Church out of its shamed Nazi collusion. He was a brave, visionary and wise man – but he also had advocated voting for Hitler in two elections on the grounds that he would clean things up in the seedy Weimar Republic.
We always seem to want perfection from our public servants. We indulge in hagiography when referring to our heroes. We sanitise the bits that aren’t helpful to the image we wish to propagate. And we do the opposite to our enemies – focusing on their shortcomings and contradictions at the expense of the rounded picture which includes their glories.
This is surprising, particularly when Christians do it. The Bible is full of unsanitised pictures and stories of deeply -flawed people who nevertheless become people who change the world in some way. I am fed up with hearing sermons about people like Abraham that ignore his trying to sell off his wife in order to save his own skin. Three times, I think.
Wherever we look, world-changers are flawed human beings. We should just get used to it. Perfection just is not out there. Kennedy’s legacy will now be picked over and his weaknesses shredded for public entertainment. His politics will be regarded by his enemies as forgettable or useless simply on the grounds of his personal flaws. And that will be convenient, if ridiculously stupid.
Perhaps the death of Kennedy might compel us to drop our sanctimonious guff and consider afresh the amazing mixture of raw humanity that, without excusing bad behaviour, at least understands that it doesn’t automatically cancel out the good stuff that emerges from the same source.