How Ted Kennedy's illness accelerates a shakedown on his behalf.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Jan. 20 2009 6:30 PM

Inaugorophobia, Part 3

How Ted Kennedy's illness accelerates a shakedown on his behalf.

See all of Slate's inauguration coverage.

Ted Kennedy suffered a seizureat the inauguration lunch and was taken to a nearby hospital. Apparently there is no immediate reason to think that his situation is grave (setting aside, of course, the very grave reality that Kennedy is a 76-year-old man suffering from terminal brain cancer). Nonetheless, the incident naturally cast something of a pall on the celebration, and, not for the first time, people got busy memorializing the only sonof Joe and Rose Kennedy to reach his 47th birthday. President Obama said: "He was there when the Voting Rights Act passed. Along with John Lewis, was a warrior for justice. And so, I would be lying to you if I did not say that right now a part of me is with him. And I think that's true for all of us. This is a joyous time, but it's also a sobering time. And, my prayers are with him and his family and Vicki."

According to an article by Matt Viser in the Jan. 20 Boston Globe, it isn't only Kennedy's fellow politicians who feel impatient to celebrate Kennedy's blessedly long and productive career in public service. Drug companies, hospitals, and insurance companies do, too, to the tune of $20 million. The money will be used to create something called the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. "It is the single most important thing, other than family and health, that Senator Kennedy is focused on," former Kennedy aide (and former Democratic National Committee Chairman) Paul Kirk told the Globe in August. (Kirk is now chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.) That isn't really true. Reforming America's health care system is the single most important thing, other than family and his own personal health, that Sen. Kennedy is working on. Kennedy is chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, a position that, combined with Kennedy's intense, lifelong interest in extending decent health coverage to every American, puts him at the center of any health care reform to be crafted under President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Tom Daschle.

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Which makes it more than a little troubling that Kennedy's friends and former staffers have, in four months' time, collected $20 million from the health care industry for this memorial. According tothe Globe, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate will be housed in a building near the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston's Columbia Point. It will contain a replica of the Senate chamber and will be used to train incoming senators, to allow students to participate in mock Senate sessions, and to commemorate Kennedy's illustrious Senate career. "By not personally soliciting money, Kennedy appears to be avoiding pitfalls other politicians have encountered while raising money for favored nonprofits," the Globe reports. Indeed, vanity projects like this have become commonplace for long-serving members of the House and Senate. Most recently, Charles Rangel got himself in hot water by raising money from people and corporations who do business before the House ways and means committee, which he chairs, for a public policy institute to be created in his name at City University of New York. The solicitation that created the scandal was for $10 million, or half of what Kennedy's friends and former staffers have raised from the health care industry. (The company in question, American International Group, never forked over the money.)

Does the distinction between raising the money yourself and having others do it for you make any difference? If I am aware that Amgen has pledged $5 million to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, it's a cinch that Sen. Kennedy knows, too. "What we intend to do is be perfectly transparent in what we've received in donations," Kirk told the Globe. But disclosing potential conflicts of interest doesn't make them disappear. The Globe reported in August that Kennedy's brain tumor had become a reason to accelerate fundraising for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. If Kennedy has absolutely nothing to do with this fundraising effort, why should his illness affect its timing? The ethical thing, it seems to me, would be to wait until after Kennedy's death to fund this project. Sadly, that wait isn't likely to be very long. But will the health care industry be willing to kick in $20 million after Sen. Kennedy's demise? If not, we might have to muddle along without the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. That will be much, much easier than living without Edward M. Kennedy.

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

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