The Camelot myth, post-1980.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
May 27 2008 7:07 PM

Camelot After 1980

Psst, Hillary: Ted Kennedy did not renounce the presidency and achieve his greatest legislative deeds after he lost to Jimmy Carter.

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In sum, Kennedy did give up all thoughts of running for president, but not until more than five years after the post-1980 Camelot meme has him doing so.

The second problem with these accounts is that they either state or imply that the stellar legislative record Kennedy has racked up in the Senate is somehow the product of his post-1980 redemption. In fact, while Kennedy achieved quite a lot in the Senate during the past 28 years, he achieved even more during the 18 years beforethat. That isn't because Kennedy slowed down but because, during the earlier period, change was easier to achieve—partly because the Democrats held a comfortable and longstanding majority in the Senate and partly because Kennedy-style liberalism stood at high tide during most of the 1960s and 1970s. (The Democrats lost the Senate majority in 1980, regained it narrowly in 1986, lost it again in 1994, and passed it back and forth with the Republicans during most of the current decade. Sean Wilentz has labeled this entire era, with some justice, "the age of Reagan.")

In 1965, Kennedy was floor manager for an immigration-reform bill that ended a system dating back to the 1920s that favored Northern European immigrants at the expense of others, particularly Asians. In 1972, Kennedy sponsored Title IX, the law that required schools to devote equivalent resources to girls' and boys' sports. In 1974, Kennedy sponsored the campaign finance bill that limited the size of political donations and established public financing in presidential elections. In 1978 and 1979, Kennedy was a crucial player in deregulating the airline and trucking industries. Nothing Kennedy achieved after 1980 can match the long-term impact of those five laws.

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Since 1980, Kennedy has logged many fine achievements, both as legislator and as leader of the loyal opposition. He fought Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, he introduced the Americans With Disabilities Act, he co-sponsored the State Children's Health Insurance Program, he helped Bush pass No Child Left Behind, and so forth. If Kennedy had done nothing before 1980, he would still be considered a highly productive and effective senator. One might also argue that for Kennedy, achieving anything after 1980 was so much more difficult, due to the changed political climate, that this period of his life ought to be singled out for special praise. But to suggest that Kennedy became an important and highly effective legislator only after 1980 is not only a willful misreading of history; it's also, weirdly, a disservice to Kennedy, who learned the Senate ropes fast and put them to good use. Which, come to think of it, Hillary seems likely to do as well.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.