Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy -- Voting Rights Act

I've heard and read comments over the last couple of days that give Ted Kennedy credit for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. More specifically, I have heard that Kennedy sponsored a provision that outlawed poll taxes.

Those taxes were one of the methods that southern segregationists used, to prevent African Americans from voting, during the period between the 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment, which theoretically gave former slaves the right to vote, and the 1965 enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which finally gave effect to that goal.

Many African Americans were impoverished at that time and place and, therefore, putting a monetary price on voting placed yet another hurdle in their path. By and large, black would-be voters simply could not afford the tax.

Poll taxes for federal elections had already been rendered unconstitutional by the 24th Amendment, which was ratified in 1964. I presume that the effect of the 1965 Act on that issue was to extend that ban to state and local elections, as well.

I recall a documentary film I saw on public TV during a recent visit to my native state of Minnesota. The subject was former Vice President Walter Mondale. He entered the Senate in 1965, two years after Kennedy. That film gave Mondale credit for getting the Voting Rights Act through the Senate during his freshman year in that body.

The question of who wrote a bill, or sponsored it, is never as clear in practice as it is in theory. While the present-day application of the Voting Rights Act is controversial, Congress's original enactment of it in 1965 is almost universally praised. Therefore, it's no surprise if multiple senators have claimed credit for it over the years.

I'm reminded of something Ted Kennedy's brother Jack said, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco early in his presidency. In accepting the blame for his failure to follow through on promises to support Cuban exiles who had tried to overthrow the Castro regime, President Kennedy noted that victory has a hundred fathers, while defeat is an orphan. I imagine that many of the Republicans and northern Democrats who supported the Voting Rights Act, in addition to Kennedy and Mondale, have claimed paternity.

The Voting Rights Act seems to be the main basis for George Will's surprising statement that Kennedy "lived his own large life and the ledger of it shows a substantial positive balance". In at least one sense I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised. Libertarianism has never been at the core of Will's ideology, and, as I see it, it's primarily from a libertarian perspective that Kennedy's policy achievements can be criticized. (I suppose someone who is much more of a hard-core libertarian than I am, would have been happy to leave the issue of voter registration to the states, but I most definitely do not share that point of view.)

I suspect that the Washington-based Will largely reflects the inside-the-Beltway perspective at a time like this, much as he might try to resist. And he may, over the years, have succumbed to the charms of the most gregarious of the Kennedy brothers who lived long enough to establish political careers.

Kennedy deserves praise for his role in the ensemble cast that produced the Voting Rights Act. But that's not enough to change the opinion I expressed, here, that is, on balance, negative toward Kennedy.

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