Congress is the 1 percent.

If I’m off here, I’m not off by much. Two-thirds of our senators, and over 40 percent of our congressional representatives are millionaires. The family of the average member of the House of (Non-) Representatives has about five-and-a-half times the wealth of the average American family. 

It is from that exalted perch that laws are handed down which tend to benefit. . . the 1 percent.

Surprise? Not really.

Politics has always been a rich man’s game. And I’m not being gender-neutral here, because for the most part what I’m writing about isn’t gender-neutral. Money as an access point to politics—and wealth as a consequence of wielding power—is nothing new or different: see Washington, George; real estate deals.

Nor should we reflexively smear anyone and everyone simply on the basis of income or origin:

Roosevelt in 2012!

But this severe economic skew in the makeup of our leadership class has serious consequences in terms of what our representatives think of as baseline normal. I am less concerned about the pernicious effects of “the Washington Bubble” and more concerned about the effects of “the Money Bubble.”

Congress decidedly does not feel our pain.

And they need to, if they are to properly diagnose and understand what ails us as a society.

We tinker with the Constitution at our peril. It has long been true that the Bill of Rights could not survive a popular vote: Americans are strongly in favor of free speech and freedom of religion, for example. . . except when people say things we don’t like, and excluding—you know—those weird UnAmerican religions. The Founders couldn’t possibly have really meant to permit them.

Having acknowledged the dangers, I would still propose three constitutional amendments to put the U.S. House and Senate back in touch with the day-to-day realities of “we the people.”

1. The mandatory medical plan for members of Congress and their families shall be Medicaid.

They think funding for Medicaid is adequate? Then they should get perfectly good care there.

2. Anyone serving in any public office—national, state, or local—shall have their children enrolled in public school.

We’re defunding kids? Fine. We’re defunding your kids, too.

3. There shall be created a Congressional Battalion, made up of the sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters of every person elected to Congress (no substitutions please; spouses or exes not accepted). In any American military action, the Congressional Battalion shall be the first unit put into service.

Congress seems indifferent to its constitutional responsibilities regarding declarations of war; presidents more or less get to do what they want.  One suspects that substituting their own for the children of other people would make them a little less blithe about the exercise of U.S. power abroad.

I don’t believe that everyone is entitled to a Cadillac and a vacation condo; I do believe everyone is entitled to healthcare and education. That’s not just soft altruism: you build a strong society, a strong economy, on the foundation of a healthy and well educated population.

While I am often skeptical about military action, I’m not a pacifist. But I am disturbed by how freely our politicians spend the lives of other people’s children on causes to which they would be loathe to sacrifice their own.

We get the word “society” from the Latin word socius, meaning “companion.” We get “companion” from the Latin com and panis, “with bread,” meaning people with whom we break bread.

And when our leaders eat cake and the people get crusts. . . ?

That bodes well neither for the fate of our society nor for the fate of our leaders. 

 

Where did you first run into Edward Kennedy?

At Harvard College.  He had been bounced out the year before I entered for arranging to have a classmate take his Spanish exam for him.  Kennedy returned to the college after a stint in the U.S. Army in France during my sophomore year.  It didn’t seem to me that he was chastened, particularly.  He struck me as a tall, slapdash would-be jock interested mostly in the club scene, good natured but fundamentally empty.  He liked to drink and he liked the girls. When he decided to run for the U.S. Senate at 29 I was shocked.  More, bemused.

When did you begin to reevaluate?

A friend of mine, Professor Samuel Beer, who ultimately ran the government department at Harvard, had been retained by the Kennedys to prepare Ted for his primary debates in 1960 with Eddie McCormack.  McCormack was a tough-minded attorney general in Massachusetts, and his uncle, John, was the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Working with Ted Kennedy, Beer found him intellectually agile, well informed, and very hard-working.  At that point I was doing articles for Esquire magazine.  I did one on Ted — it was later reprinted in Esquire‘s anthology of the best writing in the magazine during the Sixties — soon after Kennedy took his place in the Senate.  I got to know him a lot better, made close friends among his staff, and continued to write about him and his family throughout the next forty-plus years.

What is new and different in your book?

A lot.  For example, I was able to convince Ted’s primary mistress throughout the late Sixties and Seventies, Helga Wagner, to speak freely with me and share her angle on vital incidents.  She was the person he called when he climbed out of the ocean after swimming back to Edgartown the night of the Chappaquiddick accident. Her memories of that historic exchange tell a lot.
Also, I have pulled together details of the blood feud between President Richard Nixon and Kennedy.  Kennedy became convinced — on good evidence — that his life was increasingly in danger as long as Nixon remained in office, and contrived to position his friend Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to dig into the Watergate burglary and surface the tapes that drove Nixon out of office. This is a unique news break.

What do you think drove Edward Kennedy?

Ultimately, in that troubled, stress-driven family, Edward Kennedy was an afterthought.  His whole life and career amounted to an effort to justify his existence, to live up to the perception he had of his far more gifted older brothers and his father.  The paradox, of course, is that Ted was in fact the one with the extravagant gifts, the brother with the imagination and skills and judgement to move a significant political agenda.  In time he became indeed a shadow president, the one legislator who could slow down or realize any president’s agenda.

Why didn’t he ever make it to the presidency himself?

I doubt that he wanted it, really.  He had enough problems — with booze, with women, with his first wife and his sick children, with his recurrent anxiety about getting assassinated — without taking on the nation’s. I was involved in Kennedy’s 1980 run for the Democratic nomination, from writing speeches to putting up his staff that February — and I suspect that he sensed that assuming the country’s worries would be too much.

Where else should the reader look to inform himself about Edward Kennedy?

Nowhere.  It is all here, the personal and the parliamentary.  And fun to read.

Thanks.  You give a wonderful interview.


For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs

Kathleen Rooney is a poet and writer, whose most recent work of non-fiction is a collection of essays entitled For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs, in which short stretches of her experiences as a teacher, Senate Aide, sister, cousin, daughter, and wife are used to analyze identity, relationships, responsibility, idealism and its’ inevitable companion, disappointment.