Reading The New York Times Op-Ed page Monday morning, I was struck by the inaccuracy, and incompleteness, of two columns concerning the record of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Writing opinions should not be a license for misstatements or mistakes that could be avoided by reference to readily available sources.First, an admission: I committed an offense myself in a Times Op-Ed in 2008 when I included in a list of upcoming primaries and caucuses a state in which voting had already taken place. I caught the error when I reread the piece upon publication, and a correction was published.
Now to more current matters. Ross Douthat's column on abortion used the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver—and her husband Sargent Shriver—to attack Sen. Kennedy's "fervor on abortion" as he and his sister "enter eternity." The column wasn't striving for good taste; but it also fell short in more important ways. "Along with her husband," Douthat asserted, "Eunice belonged to the dwindling band of pro-life liberals." He then lamented that, "Her brother took a different path."
In reality, when Sargent Shriver was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1972—the year before Roe v. Wade—he said, "I do not waver in my belief that abortion is wrong. Nor do I waver in my belief in the separation of church and state, and in the plurality of society, and will not impose my own moral claims over the will of the Democratic majority." Four years later, when he ran for president, he was entirely free to take a different view, but he didn't. In fact, he never came out for a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion or for overturning Roe v. Wade. As one of his close advisors told me, and as I know personally, he struggled with the issue as he entered the campaign; but he concluded that the nation lacked, and probably would continue to lack, the consensus an abortion ban would require. Sarge Shriver's opposition to abortion was clear; but 30 years after he had authorized federal funding for birth control as an official in the Johnson administration, he explained: "I could not force upon people dogma of the Catholic Church through the use of family planning money."
Eunice Shriver, who was hit on the head with the picket sign of a right-to-life protestor while campaigning for her brother Ted in 1980, was adamant in her views but never intolerant. Douthat referred to the 1992 full-page ad on abortion she signed, but failed to note its nuances. The ad called for "the most protective laws possible," while conceding that "there are disagreements about what is possible and even desirable here." The issue should be "deliberated and decided by the American people"—which, then and now, would not endorse the outcome she preferred. The statement emphasized "alternatives" such as "support[ing] women in caring for the children they choose to raise."
Eunice Shriver was never a single-issue voter. She was on the stage at American University as her brother gave the pro-choice Barack Obama a crucial endorsement in January 2008. She profoundly believed in her church's social gospel and in the imperative of economic and social justice. The only Republican I ever knew her to support in the past 37 years was her son-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger—and he's pro-choice.
So was Ted Kennedy. Douthat wishes the senator had "shared some of his sister's qualms on abortion." In fact, for years after Roe v. Wade, he said he supported Roe v. Wade but was "personally" opposed to abortion. He only stopped saying so because it angered anti-choice forces who insisted that his personal belief should be written into public law.
Kennedy argued that principle a quarter of a century ago in the lion's den of Jerry Fallwell's Liberty Baptist University. Some issues, like abortion, he said, "may be inherently individual, or people may be sharply divided about whether they are...[Then] the proper role of religion is to appeal to the power of conscience, not the coercive power of the state." Even in his famous denunciation of Robert Bork, which Douthat scorned as "demagogic," Kennedy was upholding precisely that principle: That there is a constitutional right to privacy—and that whatever choice anyone of any faith or conviction might make, women of different belief, in distressed circumstances, should not be told that their only recourse is "back alley abortions."
Although it's irrelevant to his argument, Douthat can't refrain from a sideswipe about the supposedly "stifling milieu" in which Eunice was raised and which she had to "transcend"; that view is properly classified as "opinion," but she would have disdained it. She treasured the milieu in which she was raised. And from it, even because of it, she became a remarkably liberated woman who, with her life's work in behalf of the Special Olympics, and the unstinting support of her family, literally changed the world for millions who had been stigmatized. It is fitting that one of her brother's last landmarks was the Mental Health Parity Act of 2008, which expanded their shared commitment to inclusion by requiring insurers to cover mental health in the same way they cover other conditions.
Douthat concluded by charging that Kennedy—so "different" from his sister—has an "immediate legacy" in a national health reform bill that would "subsidize abortion." The charge is one of the distortions of August that poisoned the public square. The bill does permit coverage of abortion—not with federal tax dollars, but with the premiums people themselves pay if they choose a plan that provides such coverage. The government would collect the premiums, but it's not the government's money. What opponents seek is a back-door way to deny that option, even to those who have it under their existing coverage.
More curious than Douthat's column, if less error-filled, was one with the arresting headline (you almost had to read it twice): "Missing Richard Nixon." Paul Krugman began by noting Edward Kennedy's "regret that he didn't accept" Nixon's "offer of a bipartisan health bill." In an oral history, Kennedy did wonder whether Democrats "should have jumped on that"—and "grab that," as he said in 2003—to reach an agreement. But it wasn't for Kennedy's lack of trying. All Krugman needed to get the story straight was to consult the definitive Kennedy biography written by his retired colleague Adam Clymer.
Nixon, in the bleak winter of Watergate, offered a plan that Kennedy praised as "serious and carefully prepared." Kennedy immediately started negotiating with Nixon's secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Caspar Weinberger, and House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills, a moderate Democrat from Arkansas. Kennedy was suddenly labeled a "sellout" on the Left and by labor. The Progressive magazine accused him of "taking a dive."
Clymer explains why the process faltered: "By early summer, it seemed the Congress would have to spend the fall on impeachment, and so with none of the major groups, especially the American Medical Association, and labor ready to compromise, the effort seemed dead." Kennedy sought to renew it with the new president Gerald Ford, who was willing to move forward; but Mills was caught up in a scandal and forced to resign his chairmanship. His successor, Clymer reports, had no interest in the issue.
Krugman is probably right that a health deal can't be reached with today's Republicans, but he's wrong that Kennedy "balked" at doing it back then.
The problem with this, and with Douthat's column, is not just that history's claims must be honored. It's that misreading the past can mislead us into the future—not the distant one, but the coming weeks, as we decide on what Kennedy called "health care as a right and not a privilege." The lesson is not as simple as the one Krugman suggests—that this time, with these Republicans, there can be no compromise; indeed, compromise may be essential to secure enough Democratic votes to enact reform. The lesson is that even on America's Op-Ed page, you're entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.