Ted Kennedy's finest moment, if you ask me, was the eulogy he delivered for brother Bobby in that scary summer of 1968. Wisely, he chose to rely, not so much on his own words, but on words Bobby had spoken. And toward the end, his voice audibly breaking up, he came up with this:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."

Nobody heeded Teddy. Bobby was idealized beyond all understanding; forty years later, mourners faded away and were supplanted by yearners, people who saw 1968 as a watershed year in American culture, perhaps because so much was happening in the rest of the world and they wanted to be a part of it. And they took that last quotation to heart: "Why not?"

It never occurred to them then and it doesn't occur to them now that there might be good and sensible reasons why not. In the summer of 1968 we were not quite four years into the War on Poverty, and no one except for those evil, wicked conservatives ever wondered if it was ever going to end; poverty was already on the decline after Lyndon Johnson made his pitch and Congress followed through, and the level of poverty hasn't changed very much in the decades since. (Did someone say "quagmire"?)

If you think about it, just about every single ostensibly-"progressive" idea pitched in the last forty years has been motivated largely by "Why not?" It's not a function of partisan politics per se: pie-in-the-sky notions have risen from both sides of the aisle on a regular basis, and there's no reason to think the practice is in decline. And once in a while, something actually works: the air, for instance, is markedly cleaner in our biggest cities than it used to be. (In the Fifties in Los Angeles, they say, the smog was not only visible but darn near touchable.) But generally speaking, the more utopian a proposal the less its resemblance to reality, in other words the more likely it is to generate something downright dystopian.

And you shouldn't be surprised at that, really. Here's the original quote, before Bobby Kennedy got to it:

"I tell you I am very subtle. When you and Adam talk, I hear you say 'Why?' Always 'Why?' You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?'"

So spake the Serpent, in George Bernard Shaw's play Back to Methuselah, and you have to figure that the Serpent knows dystopia like no one else: the road to his very abode is paved with the good intentions of those who enlisted under Bobby's banner.

I don't blame Bobby, or even Teddy, for this. Bobby was generally careful to give the proper attribution for his Shavian paraphrase, and there certainly wasn't any reason for Teddy to namedrop GBS during a funeral. Still, a lot of us obviously didn't do our homework before we volunteered for our assignments. All the more reason, therefore, to mention it here.

The Vent

  8 March 2010

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 Copyright © 2010 by Charles G. Hill