Unless you were completely hiding under a rock this week, you know by now that Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy passed away Tuesday of this week. His passing made me think a lot about my political pilgrimage as my reaction to his death was clearly not what it would have been 10 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I would never have celebrated someone’s death, but I used to tell a joke in reference to his future passing. It went – “When Ted Kennedy dies, they won’t elect a new senator in Massachusetts, they’ll just stuff him & sit him in his senate chair & keep voting the way the liberal faction of the democrats would want.”
Obviously, the joke was filled with sarcasm, but as I think of it now, it certainly wasn’t a respectful way to talk about a man who served as a senator for well over half his life just like a similar comment would have been inappropriate from the left to say about an arch conservative like Jesse Helms. It is this lasting legacy that Ted Kennedy has left on me. Once, I considered him to be the punch line of jokes about the liberals in this country, but now my perspective has changed. While I still enjoy good political humor, I now view it as just that – humor. I don’t let it mold my thinking of the individual about which the joke is being told.
I think too often those of us on the different ends allow political humor to shape our image of the people on the “other side.” It reminds me of a story I put in my political essay on my view of the 2008 election regarding an incident that happened while I was in college. The story I wrote at the time follows: A friend of mine who was a fellow political science major had returned from a summer internship back at his home in Maine. It was with US Senator George Mitchell, who was the Democratic Majority Leader at the time. Upon learning this and knowing we were both conservatives, I asked him how he was able to work with them for the whole summer. His response was simple, “Karl, even though we disagree with their policies, they love this country just like we do.”
Think about that the next time you tell a joke about people in this country on the other side of the political spectrum. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have a good laugh with some political humor; just don’t let the caricature created in the joke affect your image of the real person.
One of the books that I read a couple years ago that really got me thinking about this was No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner by Bob Schrum. Bob Schrum was a clear liberal and was a campaign worker/advisor/manger for virtually every democratic presidential candidate from Jimmy Carter to John Kerry. He was one of Ted Kennedy’s closest advisors in his ill-fated attempt to take the democratic nomination from Jimmy Carter in 1980. I read the book as a staunch conservative because I just love the idea of a book that is sort of an Inside Baseball approach to politics, no matter which side it is. However, as I read the book, I was struck with how it showed the humanity of the politicians in the book and the fact that they love America even if we disagree with them. Even though I disagreed with many of the policies that Schrum and his candidates were proposing, I found that I had to respect their love of country.
The amazing thing is that the politicians themselves seem unfazed by the caricatures we place on them. I was watching MSNBC’s Morning Joe the day the news broke of Senator Kennedy’s death and I was fascinated by a conversation between Bob Schrum and Pat Buchanan about Ted Kennedy and his relationship with those on the right. Here you had two commentators now on completely opposite sides of the political spectrum talking about Senator Kennedy and how Kennedy and Buchanan used to battle oratorically over policy, yet at the end of the day they could still respect one another and share a laugh about what the other was saying about them.
In other words, they weren’t letting the words of the debate shape their respect for the person. That will be my lasting impression of Senator Ted Kennedy. While I disagreed with many things he stood for, I truly believed he loved his country and wanted what he thought was best for it. He also respected those on the other side of the aisle and was willing to try and work with them. Let that be our goal in life as it relates to politics. Fervently advocate for what you believe in, but respect others and ultimately try and find what is best for our great country.