Romanticising the late Ted Kennedy

A great man, with a dark past

Here in the New Statesman offices, we are in the midst of drafting a leader that pays tribute to the "Lion of the Senate", Senator Ted Kennedy, who has died following a battle with a brain tumour at the age of 77.

Kennedy was undoubtedly a great man who, in the word of the BBC online obituary, "possessed the full mixture of the virtues, and the vices, that defined America's most famous political dynasty".

It is the "vices" that are often underplayed or even conveniently ignored when a great man or great politician (especially a Kennedy) passes away. But, to be fair, the BBC obit does refer to the infamous "Chappaquiddick incident" in some detail:

On 18 July 1969, he was at a party on the small Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick with a group, including six women known as the boiler room girls, who had worked on his brother Robert's presidential campaign.

Kennedy left the party, supposedly to drive his brother's former secretary, Mary Jo Kopechne, to catch the last ferry back to the mainland but, instead, the car turned on to a side road and crashed off a bridge into a tidal creek.

Kennedy pulled himself from the upturned car and, swimming across a narrow creek, returned to his hotel without reporting the accident.

It was the following morning before local fishermen found the sunken car and discovered the body of Mary Jo Kopechne still inside.

Evidence given at the subsequent inquest suggested that she had probably remained alive in an air pocket for several hours and might well have been saved had the alarm been raised at the time.

Think about that for a moment. This great man, who was one of only 23 senators to oppose the Iraq war, so bravely and presciently, a key figure in helping Barack Obama win the 2008 Democratic nomination for the presidency and at the forefront of the ongoing progressive campaign for health-care reform in the United States, nonetheless was responsible for the wholly avoidable death of a 28-year-old woman. He served no jailtime, continued to be re-elected to his Senate seat until his death, and will now be lionised as a political saint across the liberal commentariat.

Would we be so forgiving, I wonder, were he not a Kennedy?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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