Ted Kennedy’s funeral: the one discordant note

It takes a touch of divine grace to upstage the President of the United States from the podium at your father’s funeral. Ted Kennedy, Jr. accomplished that rare feat with his beautiful eulogy this morning. Our hearts go out to Ted Kennedy’s family today, and to the mother of his children, too.

It takes a touch of divine grace to upstage President Obama from the pulpit at your father’s funeral. Ted Kennedy, Jr. accomplished that rare feat with his beautiful eulogy this morning.

Listening to Yo-Yo Ma, Susan Graham, and Placido Domingo perform so beautifully in that beautiful setting, enjoying the unfeigned testimonials to this warm father and great leader in the fight for social justice, my mind drifted to one discordant note: the lonely figure of Joan Kennedy.

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Edward Kennedy, RIP

Edward Kennedy, self-actualizer.

Everyone will have their own memories and views, of course: here is a great one by Charles Pierce from 2003. I suppose for me, one thing that stands out about Ted Kennedy was that he could find his true calling once he had finally put away what everyone else told him he “should” do, i.e. become President of the United States. Maybe he realized by the early 80’s that he could not win, but my limited experience with politicians is that they never realize this, and need a crushing defeat to have it drilled into them. At the Presidential level, Kennedy never had that: he came close to unseating a sitting President, who then went on to a crushing defeat himself. Kennedy was the logical nominee afterwards.

But maybe once he had (finally) run, he didn’t really want to run anymore. He just wanted to be a Senator — hardly a modest ambition for most people, but practically self-effacing for a Kennedy. He didn’t want to be the hero and symbol and hope of the country — he just wanted to help working people and the less fortunate.

And he did. Others will state the record better than I can, but in the 1990’s, he was responsible for among other things, the ADA, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, health care portability, several minimum wage increases, etc. etc. This during a time, during the Gingrich Dark Ages, when it was difficult to get anything progressive done. By finally giving up what everyone else wanted for him, Kennedy could do what he wanted for himself and for others.

There is a great story from Evan Thomas’ fine biography of Robert Kennedy that is telling. It is some time in 1965, and Ted and Bobby are sitting on the floor of the Senate, listening to someone drone on and on. Though younger, Ted had seniority over his older brother, who was a freshman. Bobby, who was never patient and never really liked legislatures, finally leaned over to Ted and said, “Do we really have to sit here and listen to this?”

“Yes,” said Ted. “We do.”

Rest in peace.

Probity bites

Where’s a corrupt public official when you need one?

Georgia’s anticorruption campaign has gone too far. Only a few years ago, you couldn’t drive a hundred yards without a “traffic policeman” shaking you down. They were fired en masse shortly after the Saakashvili administration came to power. The government then took on the universities, where admissions, grades, and degrees all had price tags. By all accounts, petty corruption has been almost entirely routed out.

I’ve been caught in a vortex of bureaucratic misdirection and red tape, all because the most-recent arrival stamp in my passport is wrong (I arrived in January 2008, and my passport shows December 2008—the month wheel on the date stamper obviously was off by one click). For another document I need to show that I arrived in the last few months—and that I’m not a visitor from the future (yes, several officials have made Terminator cracks). I’ve been shuttled from one ministry to another, as they try to sort out who’s responsible and how to verify my claim. It’s not a model of efficiency, but everyone is trying to help.

In the recent, bad old days, this would’ve been easy. Slip twenty dollars to a border guard, and get a stamp that says whatever I want it to. Today, that would be unthinkable. This is an astounding cultural shift. Georgia has had a reputation for corruption that goes back centuries and, since independence, had scuttled around the bottom of the cross-country corruption ratings. Most Georgians accepted that it was part of their “mentality” (a favorite word in the post-Soviet lexicon). Not so, much to my inconvenience.

I tried waving a copy of “Economic Development Through Bureaucratic Corruption” at the border guards:

Following the procedure suggested here, however, governments would accept corruption as an aspect of their societies, and try to optimize policy-making within this framework.

But they weren’t to be swayed, saying “don’t you read Becker-Posner?”

Goodbyes

This week I returned from a memorial service for my first collaborator in arts policy research, and my second PhD advisee, to find that my most recent coauthor, on biofuels and global warming, had taken his life. It’s been a tough week, as both were friends, optimal colleagues, much too young, and respectively central to the two main areas of my research.

J. Mark Schuster had been straightarming cancer for years, so we weren’t blindsided. MIT put on a wonderful event, hundreds of people sharing recollections and appreciations of a really remarkable person who had made all our lives better, more productive, more fun, and more interesting.

Alex Farrell was a much more private person; yesterday everyone associated with the Energy and Resources Group gathered to try to make sense of it and we failed completely. The afternoon before he died he was emailing people about plug-in hybrid batteries. No-one saw it coming, no-one remembered a conversation or a hint that he was in despair or depressed about anything. It was a complete black swan: incomprehensible, unanticipated, and devastating.

Alex was only in his mid-40s and high on a steep upward professional path with no inflection point in sight: a key player in California, nationally, and internationally on the most important issue of the current era, and a model of scholarship and commitment for public officials, students, and peers. His death is not only a frightening and painful experience for everyone he worked with but also bad news for ERG, Cal, California, the nation, and the planet.

I spend almost all my time among really smart people and I take it for granted that I can learn something from any of them. We’re all pretty good at defending our positions. Arguing with Alex, however, was a higher-level experience, because while he would roll over for nothing without evidence and some good science, it was obvious that he would rather be forced to change his mind than to change yours. Working with Alex we could all feel ourselves getting better at what we did.

He was an Annapolis man whose career began as an officer in nuclear submarines, and his management style evidenced the best in the military tradition, by which I do not mean command-and-control hierarchical authority, I mean leadership and understanding that the duty of officers is to be sure their troops have what they need to figure out what would advance the mission, and to do it. I wish I could ask him for some guidance on what to do when the captain is shot off the bridge while action is underway; now we have to improvise.