Teddy's smile

teddyWatching Teddy Kennedy’s wake and funeral over the past few days has been a sad but wonderful lesson in the value of public service. By public service I mean the motive variously referred to as empathy, generosity, fairness, and other such terms demonized as liberalism by the new and to some extent old right wing. The Senator’s life consumed not only those labels but the full arc of a career among the people. And in doing so, he now offers a template for success in a polarized era, at a time when hard decisions are finally coming down to a vote.

Chief among his insights was the relentless pursuit of compromise as an art of war. His Republican friends spoke emotionally and graciously, but with strong doses of resistance to the famed Kennedy charm. They recognized him as a formidable opponent who could only be tamed, or at least harnessed, by finding common ground on which they could stand with him. If it was a win for them, they reasoned, I’ll gladly go along for the Kennedy ride. Not to say they didn’t enjoy the camaraderie, the chance to escape the dark hole of the sanctimonious extremists, the true spirit of enterprise that lurks in any politician’s heart. Kennedy gave them the running room to merge into the consensus of the times.

We all underestimated Teddy. From the Left, we were endlessly surprised when he championed the causes his brother Jack delineated but never had the political strength to produce. When Bobby was killed, nothing tore at our weary defeated souls like Teddy’s eulogy, which used the same tones and fierce despair Bobby used in Dr. King’s death. When he anointed Obama as the next brother, he casually let it be known first as Caroline’s idea. The master’s touch, from someone we always felt was a weaker version of the sons, fourth in line to the throne.

Now he’s gone, and we tremble at the thought there are no adults left to see us through. No matter how beaten up Obama gets, he retains double the popularity of the opposition. The cover of the latest Rolling Stone, with its year-long investigation of why the Beatles broke up (Yoko, for god’s sake), asks the musical question along the top: Is Healthcare Reform Doomed? What would Teddy say to that, we wonder. A quick journey to FriendFeed for the answer.

FriendFeed is the last remnant of the ’09 campaign. The realtime debate between left and right has calcified most other places into Death Panels versus whatever the Left is selling, oh I know, the Public option. For me, Death Panels is actually a legitimate argument, not for its factual basis (none) but for the same kind of appreciation Republicans saw Kennedy — a good frame of a fundamental fear. Just because it comes down on the wrong side of the argument detracts nothing from either its power or its usefulness in the debate.

What Kennedy understood was the power of the model, regardless of the details or even the wins and losses of the struggle. To get a foe to argue not about the issue but about the implementation was an instant and comprehensive victory, and a quick look at Kennedy’s issues shows he won them going away. FriendFeed won the realtime argument the second it launched real-time chat. And when ugly commentary surfaced about Teddy, it bubbled to the top and prompted some direct and unambiguous responses. One retort, and then silence when the tone remained strident and harsh.

What people miss with realtime is the deep change it produces in the arc of the conversation. Some decry realtime as too fast, as prone to snap decisions and 140-character cartoon oversimplifications of complex thoughts. These distinctions — RSS is long and detailed, Twitter is bursty and noisy — are political planks, not facts. They serve the implementations and the economics of the discussion, not the underlying art of war. Realtime already won the war; now we wait to have it explained to us, and carved out of compromise and perseverance.

When people attack FriendFeed for going away, I’ll see Teddy’s smile. When they attack Facebook for being closed, it’ll be tougher but still, Teddy’s smile. When Rolling Stone questions heathcare’s health, I’ll see it as evidence of Obama’s caucus troops going back to the well, energizing their troops with something akin but not yet fully engaged with Death Panels and town halls. The best thing we have going for us is no matter how much we think heath care reform sucks, it sucks less than the alternative.

Teddy’s death gave us something we’ve waited a long time for, a coda to the deaths of brothers, Beatles, and God herself. As the dusk shrouded Arlington and wrapped us all in our reveries, we could each conjure our own version of the future. At one point Chris Matthews complained about how President Obama wasn’t at the burial, and Olbermann countered by saying the eulogy was enough. Surprisingly, Matthews withdrew his comment, something he never does. I smiled Teddy’s smile.