Thursday, August 27, 2009

Edward M. Kennedy, R.I.P.

Everyone in Washington seems to have a Teddy Kennedy story, and this is mine. I never met him, but I saw him speak. It was the summer of 1993, when someone I know and I went up to the Massachussets Institute of Technology on for a June conference on the future of the National Endowment for the Arts featuring speeches by critic Robert Hughes and Senator Edward M. Kennedy. We sat smack in front of the senator, in the middle of the audience as Senator Kennedy gave his keynote address. It was a real tub-thumper of a speech, political oratory at its finest. He was handsome and eloquent, and yes, "charismatic." He was a little fatter than I had expected, though full of energy. As someone who came of age in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, it was a moving experience. Senator Kennedy was indeed impressive. He actually attacked the arts crowd for screwing up by funding smut, although newspapers didn't report it and no one in the arts world had a public comment. In fact, he didn't say too much with which I could disagree. It was a pleasant surprise for me, but probably not for the arts bureaucrats. I wrote about it for David Horowitz's magazine, COMINT (v.4 n. 1), which covered the National Endowments and Public Broadcasting at that time:
Not surpisingly, Senator Kennedy began his keynote address with an attack on [acting NEA Chair Anne] Radice for refusing MIT's grant for the "Corporal Politics" show. Kennedy said of Radice's rejection:

Incredibly, the Acting Chairman of the Endowment subverted her agency's own procedures. She ignored the recommendation of the National Council on the Arts and the peer review system, steps established by statute to avoid just this type of political intrusion into the Endowment's deliberation. A national conference like this is an appropriate forum to state and restate some fundamental principles and avoid a repetition of distressing incidents like that.

But after Kennedy genuflected to the left, he giant-stepped to the right with an attack on obscenity. It was, he indicated, a sin the NEA better think twice now about committing. This was very different from Jane Alexander's 1990 Congressional testimony about NEA-funded obscenity. On that occasion she said it was not appropriate to "try to regulate or judge what is obscene." Said Kennedy:

Obscenity is the place to draw the line. Federal dollars should not be spent on any project that is obscene. Current law explicitly prohibits funding for such projects. If funds are awarded for such purposes, they must be refunded.
I saw that Senator Kennedy was a class act, a principled politician as well as a charismatic one. May he rest in peace.