The Kennedy Cognitive Dissonance

The recent death of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) got me thinking about legacies. Everyone strives to make some sort of familial, societal, political or cultural impact during the course of their lives. To say Ted Kennedy made an impact is an extreme understatement. His fingerprints can be found on some of most monumental pieces of legislation of the last half century. Yet, his personal failings became political media fodder and part of the calculus used in summing up his legacy.

Watching Kennedy’s former colleagues offer heartfelt tributes to the “liberal lion” of the United States Senate left me wondering who the real Ted Kennedy was. Was he the conservative bogeyman who for the last 50 years has been the scary centerfold for Republican and conservative political advertisements? Or, was he as conservative Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said, “a rare person who at times could put aside differences and look for common solutions. Not many ever got to see that side of him, but as peers and colleagues we were able to share some of those moments.”

There is the inevitable gloss applied to a person’s life after they pass. Former President Ronald Reagan saved the world from communism and conservative Pope John Paul II suddenly became a moderate voice overnight. The controversies and foibles (Chappaquiddick, affairs, drinking) suddenly blend into the background. Yet, there was a marked contrast among conservatives and Republicans before Kennedy’s death and following it. Take for instance the conservative Club for Growth’s 2004 advertisement attacking Democratic Senate candidate Brad Carson of Oklahoma.

The D.C. Democrats portrayed in this ad were some of the main players in the 2004 election – Senators John Edwards, John Kerry and of course, Ted Kennedy. Besides characterizations of Edwards as a pretty boy and Kerry as a puppeteer that sounds like Mister Ed, Ted Kennedy is randomly pictured dancing on a beach with Senate candidate Carson and a monkey. Rhetorician and philosopher Kenneth Burke would have broken down the beach scene and associated the images with their actions. Carson and Kennedy are monkeys (the dancing and head movements portray a sense of stupidity) while Carson is tied to Kennedy and thus his liberal policies. In conservative Oklahoma, this would not go over well. It is the classic guilt-by-association technique seen in many political advertisements.

Guilt-by-association transfers the credibility of one actor to another. It is the main reason why all of our moms did not want us seen with the neighborhood troublemaker. Their credibility would be transferred to us and reflect poorly on mommy dearest. This technique was used by Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 elections to tie President George W. Bush to Republican candidates and has been used by Republicans to tie conservative Democrats to the “liberal troika” – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Ted Kennedy. Being the patron saint of American liberalism made Kennedy an easy target for political advertisements for many years.

But how do you square this with some of the comments in the second clip from Senator Orrin Hatch who was best friends with Kennedy and even wrote him songs?

Many other Republicans who battled with Kennedy and ran in elections where he was publicly pilloried have given similar comments, including Senator John McCain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. It could be politics or death or friendship. But I am still confused. Any comparative analysis that you could do would see a marked contrast in tone before and after Kennedy’s death. In persuasion theory, cognitive dissonance occurs when attitudes and behavior come into conflict. The attitudes many expressed for Kennedy before his death conflicted with their behavior after it. Overcoming cognitive dissonance requires a change in the attitude, behavior or both. Persuasion brings about this change.

I recognize Kennedy’s achievements, but I am still facing this deafening dissonance along with other questions. Do these types of ads poison our politics and make gridlock inevitable? Does this confuse the American people and lead to more polarization? And could the negative portrayal of our political officials make implementing universal change, like healthcare reform, more difficult? May Senator Kennedy be granted peaceful slumber. As for me, these questions and contradictions continue to interrupt mine.