Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. vice president, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Fifty Years Ago, Washington Was Burning; Despite Continuing Problems, Advances in Race Relations Have Been Dramatic
Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. Riots exploded in 125 cities nationally, 43 people died, 3,500 were injured and 27,000 arrested in violence during the ten days following King’s murder, according to Peter B. Levy’s new book about race riots in the 1960s, The Great Uprising. Damage estimates reached upwards of $65 million — about $442 million today.
In 1968, this writer, a few years out of law school, was working in the U.S. Senate — as Washington went up in flames. Thirteen people were killed, two of them never identified. The air was filled with smoke and tear gas and the streets were littered with broken glass. Parts of the city resembled combat zones, and 13,000 members of the Army, Marines, and National Guard were brought in to regain control. I remember tanks patrolling the streets of Capitol Hill and a curfew of 6 p.m. From the window of a friend’s apartment across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia, we could see smoke filling the air of the nation’s capital. It felt as if our country was tearing itself apart.
In those days, Washington was a largely segregated city. It did not elect its own city government, but was controlled by the House Committee on the District of Columbia. It was presided over by Rep. John McMillan (D-SC) and other Southern Democrats who were sympathetic to segregation. It represented the very system of taxation without representation against which the American Revolution had been launched. Thus, a majority-black city was disenfranchised, adding to the anger on display in the riots.
Charlene Drew Jarvis, a fourth generation black Washingtonian, and former member of the D.C. Council, recalls that:
“There was a confluence of anger and hurt about the death of Martin Luther King. But there was also a way of breaking out of a cage in which African Americans felt they had been contained. A lot of it had to do with, ‘We’ve been contained here. We’re angry about this. We owe nothing to people who have confined us.’”
Much has changed in Washington since 1968. There is now an elected D.C. Mayor and City Council. Former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who is black, notes that:
“Civil rights advances resulted in the desegregation of the federal and District government work forces, reversing discrimination that began, formally at least, more than 50 years earlier during the Woodrow Wilson administration.”
This is not to say that Washington does not still have serious social problems to deal with, and that many African-Americans continue to feel left behind. But the larger picture, as Anthony Williams points out, is a positive and hopeful one:
“For many residents, commuters and tourists, life is dramatically better. Seen through this lens, 50 years after rioting left large sections of the city in ruin, the District is a great success story. Washington has advanced markedly in its revitalization, its finances are on an enviable footing, its population continues to increase, investment continues to flow, and it is considered a front-runner for a new Amazon headquarters. . . . I am optimistic. Yes, inequality has been persistent; yes, the concentration of poverty in our city is daunting; but we have the capacity, we have the resources, and we’ve shown the willingness to tackle the big problems.”
There has been much concern expressed in recent days about the state of race relations in the American society. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 inspired hope that the country had moved into a new era of racial equality. More recently, the rise of white nationalist groups, such as those which organized last summer’s racist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and continued police shootings of unarmed black men, have caused some to express doubt that real progress has, in fact, been made.
The reality, however, is that, despite shortcomings, things continue to improve. According to the Center for American Progress, the number of black men between 18 and 24 who attend a form of higher education is on the rise. Between 1976 and 2014 the number of black men aged 25 and over who earned at least a bachelor’s degree rose from 6.3 percent to 20.4 percent. In the same time period the rate of high school dropouts for black men has more than halved, decreasing from 21.2 percent to 8.1 percent.
The respected black academician, Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard, believes that the past five decades have been, if not a new Reconstruction, the occasion for tremendous progress for black Americans:
“This period, 1965-2015, I was thinking of it as the Second Reconstruction. This specific period is one between the Voting Rights Act and the re-election of the first black man to occupy the White House.”
Gates refers to this 50-year period as one of “unparalleled advances for black people,” which he explored in a four-hour PBS series, “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” in 2016. While racial injustice continues to exist, in Gates’ view:
“The picture is quite complicated. On one hand, the black middle class has doubled. The black upper middle class has quadrupled. We have more black people elected to state office than ever before. These things were scarcely imaginable the terrible day in April 1968 when Dr. King was killed.”
To those of us of a certain age, who lived in the South during the years of segregation, when a black person could not get a cup of coffee, or use a rest room or, in many cases, cast a ballot, to suggest that race relations have not been steadily improving is to ask us not to believe our own eyes. When I was in college, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to integrate the schools in Little Rock. In our dormitory discussions of events in the world, if anyone suggested that we would live to see a black Governor of Virginia, or a black Secretary of State, let alone a black president, he would have been viewed as mad. We have, fortunately, lived to see things we never imagined. But things don’t move steadily in the right direction. Sometimes, there are those who suggest a backward step. Some problems prove difficult to resolve. But, taking all things in their proper perspective, 50 years after Dr. King’s murder and Washington in flames, we are a better country than we have ever been when it comes to race. Hopefully, despite all of our problems, we will become better still.
The Strange Criticism of the Movie “Chappaquiddick” — A Seeming Defense of Ted’s Kennedy’s Admittedly Bad Behavior
Political partisanship, on all sides of the political spectrum, makes people do strange things. Many find a way to defend the most outrageous behavior on the part of those within their own party — behavior they would find completely unacceptable if engaged in by those in the opposition. This is part of the reason people have such a low opinion of politicians, both Republicans and Democrats.
The new movie “Chappaquiddick,” which this writer found to be a fair presentation of what occurred on the night of Friday, July 18, 1969, is becoming the subject of controversy. The late night accident occurred on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, and was caused by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s negligence, and resulted in the death of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped inside the vehicle.
According to his own testimony, Kennedy accidentally drove his car off the one-lane bridge and into a tidal basin. He swam free, left the scene and did not report the accident to the police for ten hours. Kopechne died inside the fully submerged car. The next day, the car with Kopechne’s body inside was recovered by a diver, minutes before Kennedy had reported the incident to local authorities. Kennedy later pleaded guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of a crash, causing personal injury, and he later received a two-month jail sentence.
The film begins the day before the crash and ends six days later. The film’s producer, Mark Ciardi, says that:
“It’s amazing how compelling that narrative is when you just look at the facts. The writers used the inquest. It wasn’t off of a book. We went with the facts we knew, and didn’t make a movie for the left or right. It’s for the truth. . . . It’s a very tight line to walk because it’s a pretty bad incident that happened. A girl died at his hands, and his actions after proved pretty incredible — not in a great way.”
Mary Jo Kopechne was a member of Robert Kennedy’s staff for four years, and was considered a political idealist with a promising future. On the night in question, Kennedy attended a party on Chappaquiddick, an island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Also attending were a group of young women who had worked in Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Kennedy left the party early, and Kopechne asked if she could join him for a ride back to the hotel.
In an interview with Breitbart senior editor Rebecca Mansour, Ciardi discussed the film’s revelation of how Kopechne might have been saved if Kennedy had acted differently after the accident. He notes that:
“We spoke and tracked down the scuba diver, John Farrar, and he had been on record. . . . As he was recounting it, it was chilling, as if it was yesterday. He said when he got into that car and saw the position of the body and the way it was almost kind of reaching for her last breath up in the corner, hands up. When he took her out and they put her on the beach, when they compressed the stomach and chest, that there was a kind of pink froth coming out of the nose and mouth, which that signals to him that it was asphyxiation.”
Kopechne’s death, says Ciardi:
“. . . was not drowning. He didn’t know how long. He said it could have been five minutes or up to a couple of hours. . . . But she was alive in the car. The fact that he (Kennedy) walked past, 75 yards away, the dike house with the light on, he could have lit that island up and they could have had help there. Maybe she could have been saved. We can’t say for sure. But even if there’s a chance, it’s pretty bad not to try. At least have that wherewithal, even if you’ve been drinking. You don’t worry about your own consequences. That’s his biggest failing, and he didn’t report it for ten hours. You cannot get around that, and then he was having brunch the next morning. And that’s factual.”
In Ciardi’s view:
“Kennedy portrayed himself almost as a victim following the accident. . . . I mean he’s responsible for someone’s death, and then not to notify anybody, and pretend like it didn’t happen. In some ways he was reduced to a kind of child. He was like a ten-year-old who threw a baseball through a window and pretended that it didn’t happen.”
Kennedy says that he “was not driving under the influence of liquor” and that his conduct after the accident “made no sense to him at all.” He regarded as “indefensible” the fact that he did not report the accident to the police “immediately.” He says there was “no truth whatsoever to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct.” At the inquest in January 1970, Judge James A. Boyle, found that Kennedy:
“. . . failed to execute due care as he approached the bridge. . . . There is probable cause to believe that Edward M. Kennedy operated his motor vehicle negligently . . . and that such operation appears to have contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.”
The movie does not allude to the many conspiracy theories that have surrounded the Chappaquiddick incident. It has received largely favorable reviews from such liberal publications as the Village Voice, Vanity Fair and The New York Times. But it has also come under attack.
CNN was particularly harsh. “‘Chappaquiddick’ is heavy-handed history, a film that at times seems to owe as much to ‘The X-Files’ as the many cinematic dives into the target-rich territory that is the Kennedy clan,” wrote critic Brian Lowery. New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote that, “The sketches of Kennedy-family tensions and loyalties are thin and simplistic; the action rushes by with little insight or context.” An opinion writer in The New York Times, Neal Gabler charges the movie with “character assassination.”
Mr. Gabler argues that the film’s advertisements claiming to tell the “untold true story” of a “cover-up” is pointless because:
“. . . the story has been told plenty, and no one but the most lunatic conspiracy theorists see this as anything but a tragic accident in which nothing much was covered up. . . . Many scenes cross from dramatic interpretation to outright character assassination. In this version, the Kennedy character leaves Kopechne to die as she gasps for air, and then with the aid of his brothers’ old advisers, cooks up a scheme to salvage his presidential ambitions.”
But, in fact, the movie’s portrayal of events is quite true to history. Washington Times columnist Joseph Curl notes that:
“Contrary to what the Times’ writer claims, the movie does not delve into conspiracy theories — Kennedy does not appear drunk and there’s no mention of the rumors that spread after the accident that Kopechne was pregnant with Kennedy’s child. But the film does wade into some territory for which there is much factual support. An autopsy was never performed on Kopechne (the police chief and judge involved were all in the bag for Kennedys) but there is evidence that she did not drown. . . . And the movie perfectly captures Kennedy’s attempts to cover up the circumstances of her death, bringing in a team of high-powered politicos to concoct a plausible story. In one hilarious scene, Kennedy dons a neck brace to look injured (he wasn’t) and his only true friend, cousin Joseph Gargan (who throughout the movie plays a sort of Good Angel on his shoulder), forcibly rips it off him.”
What the viewer is left with, writes Curl:
“. . . is simply a portrait of a weak man — perhaps beaten down by a brutal and demanding father and the pressure of being the last of four of America’s most famous brothers. But throughout, Kennedy’s weak moral core is exposed. He makes the easy choice every time, the one most likely to save his skin.”
The movie ends with Kennedy giving a nationwide T.V. speech. He ends his speech with a quote from his brother Jack’s book, Profiles In Courage (which was not written by John F. Kennedy at all, but by Ted Sorenson):
“It has been written, ‘A man does what he must — in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures — and that is the basis of all human morality. Whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience — the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow man — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage cannot supply courage itself. For this, each man must look to his own soul.’”
Noble sentiments, indeed. But Ted Kennedy’s actions that night in 1969 were something quite different. This story is a part our history, and in this movie that story is told accurately. Did Ted Kennedy regret his actions and move beyond them in later life? This seems to be the case. And the movie ends on precisely that note.
As the film ends, the camera is on a still image of the Chappaquiddick bridge where Kopechne died and the audience hears a sound montage listing all of Kennedy’s legislative accomplishments throughout his long political career after the incident at Chappaquiddick. The film challenges viewers to consider the life of a complex man, with both achievements and great character flaws.
Why some narrow partisans have attacked this movie is difficult to understand — just as it is difficult to understand why honorable men and women will defend the dishonorable actions of politicians they view as being on “their” side. The political issues we debate — whether health care, the environment, taxes or education — may be less important in the long run than the moral character of those we choose as leaders, and the example they set. There is much to think about concerning our contemporary political life when considering “Chappaquiddick.”
Whatever Happened to American Conservatism: Remembering Russell Kirk
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Russell Kirk, who may be most responsible for the emergence of an intellectually vigorous and politically viable conservative movement in the latter part of the last century. If he were still with us, it would be interesting to consider his assessment of the many strange formulations that call themselves “conservative” at the present time.
Historian Bradley Birzer, author of the recent biography, Russell Kirk: American Conservative, notes that, “Amidst today’s whirligig of populist conservatism, crass conservatism, consumerist conservatism, we conservatives and libertarians have almost completely forgotten our roots.”
Writing in The American Conservative, Birzer declares that:
“These roots can be found in Kirk’s thought, an eccentric but effective and potent mixture of stoicism, Burkeanism, anarchism, romanticism, and humanism. It is also important — critically so — to remember that Kirk’s vision of conservatism was never primarily a political one. Politics should play a role in the lives of Americans, but a role limited to its own sphere that stays out of rival areas of life. Family, business, education and religion should each remain sovereign, devoid of politics and politicization. Kirk wanted a conservatism of imagination, of liberal education, and of human dignity. Vitally, he wanted a conservatism that found all persons — regardless of their accidents of birth — as individual manifestations of the external and universal Logos. One hundred years after the birth of Russell Amos Kirk, those are ideas well worth remembering.”
For all of those who knew him, Kirk was a gentleman and scholar of the old school, always seeking to understand how men and women and societies work and interact, and to carefully delineate which things are permanent and must be preserved, and which are temporal and can, and often must, be altered.
The author of more than 30 books, his best-known work, The Conservative Mind, was published in 1953 and presented the intellectual and historic framework for contemporary American conservatism. It was a bestseller when it appeared and has never been out of print in subsequent years. Speaking at a testimonial dinner in Kirk’s honor in Washington in 1981, President Ronald Reagan said:
“Dr. Kirk helped renew a generation’s interest and knowledge of ‘permanent things,’ which are the underpinnings and the intellectual infrastructure of the conservative revival of our nation.”
To those who argued that it was liberal ideas that defined the American experience, Kirk, through an extensive discussion of Edmund Burke, John Adams, James Fennimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Benjamin Disraeli, Herman Melville, T.S. Eliot, and George Santayana, presented readers with a different intellectual and moral tradition, one with deep roots in the past — the Judeo-Christian tradition, the experience of Greece and Rome, the tradition of democratic self-government as it evolved in England from the time of Magna Carta.
It was Kirk’s view that if our nation were to grow and thrive, it must remember and understand the historical roots from which it grew. In The Roots of American Order, he wrote that:
“Lacking a knowledge of how we arrived where we stand today, lacking the deep love of country which is nurtured by knowledge of the past, lacking the apprehension that we all take part in a great historical continuity — why, a people so deprived will not dare much, or take long views. With them, creature comforts will be everything; yet historical consciousness wanting, in the long run they must lose their creature comforts too.”
The roots of the American order, Kirk showed, went back to the ancient world — to the Jews and their understanding of a purposeful universe under God’s dominion, to the Greeks, with their high regard for the uses of reason, to the stern virtues of Romans such as Cicero, to Christianity, which taught the duties and limitations of man, and the importance of the transcendent in our lives. The roots of our order, in addition, include the traditions and universities of the medieval world, the Reformation and the response to it, the development of English common law, the debates of the 18th century, and the written words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The beliefs which motivated the Founding Fathers, Kirk pointed out, were ancient in origin:
“From Israel . . . America inherited an understanding of the sanctity of law. Certain root principles of justice exist, arising from the nature which God has conferred upon man; law is a means for realizing those principles, so far as we can. That assumption was in the minds of the men who wrote the Declaration . . . and the Constitution. . . . A conviction of man’s sinfulness, and the need for laws to restrain every man’s will and appetite, influenced the legislators of the colonies and of the Republic. . . . Thomas Jefferson, rationalist though he was, declared that in matters of political power, one must not trust in the alleged goodness of man, ‘but bind him down with chains of the Constitution.’”
It was Kirk’s hope to persuade the rising generation to set their faces against:
“. . . political . . . fanaticism . . . and utopian schemes . . .’ Politics is the art of the possible,’ the conservative says; he thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, justice, and freedom. The ideologue, on the contrary, thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society and even transforming human nature. In his march toward Utopia, the ideologue is merciless.”
The ideologies that have been so costly — Nazism, Communism, Fascism — are, Kirk pointed out, really “inverted religion.” But, he noted:
“The prudential politician knows that ‘Utopia’ means ‘Nowhere,’ and that true religion is a discipline for the soul, not for the state. . . . In the 20th century it has been the body of opinion generally called ‘conservative’ that has defended the Permanent Things from ideological assault.”
Conservatism, to Kirk:
“. . . is not a bundle of theories got up to by some closet philosopher. On the contrary, the conservative conviction grows out of experience, the experience of the species, of the nation, of the person. . . . It is the practical statesman rather than the visionary recluse, who has maintained a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of freedom.”
Not long before his death in 1994, this writer, who knew Kirk for more than three decades, spent a leisurely lunch with him and his wife, Annette, at which we discussed many of the problems facing our society. He lamented the fact that the evidence of decadence is all around us — growing crime, increasingly unstable families, schools which are no longer transmitting our history and cultural traditions, and ever more wasteful government. He saw this as not dissimilar to Greece and Rome in their days of decline. Still, he was not a pessimist, for he took history’s long view, as he did in the epilogue of The Politics of Prudence, which had recently been published. He wrote, “We may remind ourselves that ages of decadence sometimes have been followed by ages of renewal.” He urged the young to explore the past, discover the roots of our civilization, and work to restore its sensibility. “Time is not a devourer only,” he concluded.
Both Time and Newsweek described Kirk as one of the nation’s most influential thinkers. He often quoted the 1843 speech of Orestes Brownson, given at Dartmouth College: “Ask not what your age wants, but what it needs, not what it will reward, but what, without which it cannot be saved, and that go and do.” For 75 years, Russell Kirk did just that.
It would be interesting to know what Russell Kirk would think of the politics of 2018, in particular what those who now call themselves “conservative” proclaim — the lack of civility, the characterization of those with whom we disagree as “enemies,” the coarseness and vulgarization of our political life. It is certain that he would be unhappy, but equally certain that he would not be surprised. Human nature being what it is, periods such as this have been seen before. He would, more than likely, lament that the conservative movement he helped to launch after World War II, had evolved into something quite different. But this, he might say, will not last either. Something better, he might predict, is just over the horizon. If that would indeed be his prediction, let’s hope he’s right. *