His final wish


We interrupt this vacation...

It's bad manners to speak ill of the newly deceased, and it's probably rude to intrude on Kennedy hagiography in a time of mourning. But here goes:

Edward Kennedy's last wish was a masterly bit of political gamesmanship. Well aware that his infirmity or death might deprive the Democrats of a crucial vote for health care reform this autumn on the Senate floor, he proposed last week that the Massachusetts legislature shelve the current state law (which requires that a vacancy be filled via a time-consuming special election), and replace it with a new state law (which would allow the current Democratic governor to instantly fill the vacancy by appointing a new Democratic senator).

Yet it was just a few years ago when Massachusetts Democratic lawmakers passed the special-election law. They did this in order to ensure that the Republican governor, Mitt Romney, would not appoint a Republican to replace Democratic senator John Kerry, in the event that Kerry won the 2004 presidential election. The law at the time allowed the sitting governor to quickly fill a vacancy via appointment, and the Democrats knew the law would work against them, so they changed it. Kennedy's last wish was that they basically change the law back, because this time it's the special-election provision that could work against them (by keeping the seat open for five months until special election day, thus thwarting the Senate Democrats' hopes of maximizing their floor votes for health care reform).

Dare we sniff a whiff of hypocrisy in all this? I don't intend to disrespect Kennedy's long and mostly admirable service to the nation by pointing out that these kinds of Bay State maneuvers have long characterized the Kennedy clan's power politicking. Indeed, Ted Kennedy never would have become a senator without the family's trademark gamesmanship. I'll tell you a couple of true stories:

In January 1961, JFK vacated his Senate seat and moved to the White House. The family patriarch, old Joe Kennedy, decided that the seat should go to young Ted. The problem was, Ted was not yet 30 years old, the legally minimum age for a senator. So the Kennedys prevailed upon the sitting Democratic governor to appoint somebody who would compliantly warm the JFK's old seat until Ted turned 30 in 1962 (under the rules at that time, a special election would be held that year.) And the Kennedys found the perfect person: an ex-pol named Benjamin Smith, who just so happened to be JFK's old Harvard classmate. Smith did the gig, and Ted won the special election at age 30.

None of that would have been possible, however, had JFK not won the Senate seat in 1952, by knocking off popular Republican incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge. JFK achieved this in part because he got some strong editorial assistance from The Boston Post, an influential newspaper of that era. The Post was expected to endorse Lodge, and Bostonians were stunned when it announced for Kennedy. Why did this happen? Because Joe Kennedy opened his checkbook and bestowed upon The Boston Post a personal "loan" totaling half a million dollars. News of the "loan" surfaced quickly, and Joe Kennedy denied that it had any influence on The Post's endorsement.

Yeah, sure. JFK himself knew better. Years later, while looking back at his '52 race, he remarked to journalist Fletcher Knebel, "You know, we had to buy that f-----g newspaper, or I'd have been licked."

The word now is that the Massachusetts legislature appears unlikely to change the law again. Perhaps it might be deemed rude to deny a dying man his last wish, and there is tragedy in the realization that Kennedy didn't live to vote on the fruits of his work on health care. But it would be wrong to again change the special election law for one party's short-tem advantage.