Twin Causes: Ted Kennedy’s Legacy Endures in His Son

One of Ted Kennedy’s last great legacies is also one of the least known and most personal of his legislative achievements. It is the one that his son U.S. Congressman Patrick Kennedy briefly reminded the audience about during his father’s funeral early this afternoon.  

For those watching the televised mass who do not know the younger Kennedy, it may come as a surprise that he boasted so frankly about The Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act and even cited his own struggle with mental illness. Anyone who knows Patrick Kennedy, however, is familiar with this forthright display, this Hemingway-esque display of fortitude—courage not as the absence of fear, but as resilience in spite of fear—“grace under pressure,” as the great writer put it. It is an attitude Kennedy has bared in recent years, one that made his father proud and would have made his uncles even prouder.

If it must be said that Ted and his brothers lived for one virtue, they would probably say Courage. It was how their father raised them, grateful and generous and strong of conviction, remembering always the words of Dante that “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” The one trait that Patrick seems not to share with his father and uncles is their charming, confident oratory. He is just a bit too self-conscious and unnatural, which only makes it more courageous that he speaks so openly about such a private, stigmatized issue.

Patrick Kennedy had co-sponsored the bill with Wellstone and Pete Domenici a decade ago, but it wasn’t until Kennedy took his case to the public last year that it finally gathered enough steam to make it to the President’s desk. Kennedy had struggled for years with bipolar disorder—which, just to give you a sense of the magnitude of the illness, used to go by the more visceral name “manic depression”—and Wellstone and Domenici each had close family members with mental illnesses. Mental illness is something that people usually do not accept or understand unless they know someone who suffers from it. The same kind of correlation, unfortunately, exists with homosexuality, where people are usually averse to gay rights unless they know someone who is gay. We fear what we do not know. We distrust what we do not understand. We demonize what we do not experience. Primal instincts die hard.

Kennedy’s transformation began at 2:45 a.m. on May 4, 2006, when he crashed his car into the security barrier in front of the Capitol. A life of binge drinking, cocaine addiction, and most recently abuse of pain medication had caught up to him. Between mental illness and drug addiction, Kennedy didn’t need society’s reprimand: He stigmatized himself. He felt crushing guilt for besmirching the family legacy. But if any Kennedy knows the pain of failure and the path to redemption, it is Patrick’s role model, his father Ted.

After rehabilitation, Patrick took to the campaign trail, filling town halls and legislative chambers with his life story. It was a therapy that reached beyond himself in the style of Jack and Bobby, that made it impossible to turn away from the broken lives in our midst, that made us feel uncomfortable—as he did for a moment at the pulpit today, though few of us will acknowledge as much—if only because that is the only way to break our narrow outlook on two unfortunate groups of fellow human beings who have been treated as if they are to blame for the hand they have been dealt.

Kennedy is not the only one trying to get the message out. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez became famous for his relationship with a Julliard-trained musician, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, who became homeless and alone because of paranoid schizophrenia. Lopez and Ayers are now household names because Lopez gave Ayers a voice in his newspaper column and later a book and movie, both titled The Soloist. In the book, Lopez recalls a conversation he had with a woman whose son’s battle with mental illness has inspired her to crusade for better mental health awareness and treatment:

Stigma, [she] says, keeps families from accepting a loved one’s illness and seeking treatment for them, and it also marginalizes those who are afflicted. Why else, she asks me, would it be socially acceptable for them to sleep on filthy and dangerous streets? Would anyone tolerate an outdoor dumping ground for victims of cancer, ALS and Parkinson’s?

The signs are all around us. A few weeks ago, I reported that the federal government had cut all “Safe and Drug Free Schools” state grants from its 2010 budget, despite U.S. Army research showing that every dollar invested in treatment and prevention saves taxpayers up to seven dollars. The same day, The New York Times reported that juvenile justice systems are overflowing with inmates, two-thirds of whom suffer from mental illness. Meanwhile, “32 states cut their community mental health programs by an average of 5 percent this year and plan to double those budget reductions by 2010.” Just yesterday, I was informed that my home state of Pennsylvania is in that category, yet magically they found the funds to build four new prisons.

At the other end of the problem, the government is throwing even more money—while complaining about out-of-control budget deficits, mind you—at stopping drugs before they reach our shores. Economists call this a “supply-driven” strategy, but most will point out that we’ve been trying this approach since Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” four decades ago with little to show for it. As Council on Foreign Relations Associate Director and Latin American expert Stephanie Hanson wrote recently, “We eradicated coca crops in Colombia, and farmers in Peru upped their coca cultivation. We made it harder to move drugs through the Caribbean and Miami, and drug cartels started moving drugs across the Mexican border. We tightened regulations on the ingredients used to make methamphetamine, and the production of meth in Mexico soared.”

The Obama administration considered this evidence so encouraging that they chose to mimic it in Afghanistan. Stephen M. Walt reports one criminal justice expert’s reaction:

Sounds smart at first glance, but given how lucrative the drug trade is, what do you think will happen after few of the top leaders are bumped off? Answer: others will compete to take their places. Police in the United States are just beginning to admit that their own efforts to remove drug dealers from the street drug markets of the late 1980s may have been the cause of the spike in violence in America’s cities in this same period. Why? Because the police operations threw drug markets into chaos, leading to a ruthless competition among those who would take the place of the dealers whom the police were eliminating. In short, this is a formula to escalate the cycle of violence in Afghanistan, not to end it.

The Obama administration now says they will put someone on the kill list if there are two credible sources plus corroborating information. Sounds to me like a reasonable standard for getting a search warrant, but not for an assassination. Gee, if that proves a legal and ethical standard, we might try it at home in the war on drugs. Sure is cheaper than those long prison sentences, and a far lower evidentiary standard.

And let’s not forget that Afghan drug lords aren’t socially isolated individuals: they are embedded in their own tribal and family networks. Killing them won’t eliminate the drug problem, but it could easily anger their kinsmen and make efforts to pacify the country even more difficult.

At home, we pay less and less attention to the demand side of the equation. Nicholas D. Kristof recently reported, “The United States incarcerates people at nearly five times the world average.” Now consider the fact that 85% of the prisoners in federal prisons are there for drug-related crimes, and tell me we don’t have our priorities mixed up. Kristof also noted, “California spends $216,000 annually on each inmate in the juvenile justice system. In contrast, it spends only $8,000 on each child attending the troubled Oakland public school system, according to the Urban Strategies Council.” Nothing like investing in the future, eh?

Let’s juxtapose two more data points. From Kristof: “Of those sentenced to state prisons, 82 percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to one study.” Via his colleage Charles M. Blow: “[Data] overwhelmingly support the idea that locking up low-risk, nonviolent offenders makes them worse, not better.” Oh, and “putting nonviolent drug offenders in rehab is cheaper than putting them in prison.” I’m shocked, shocked!

Mental illness and drug addiction are medical conditions and should be treated as such. The Wellstone Act ensured mental illness gets treated with the same respect and care as physical illness, but as mental health expert Tom Davis reminds us, “it’s useless legislation for the millions of Americans who don’t have health insurance.” The work goes on, indeed.

To dehumanize someone, as Victor Frankl taught us through his recollection of the Holocaust, is the lowest form of immorality. Patrick Kennedy, together with his father and their colleagues, took an important step toward a more just and compassionate world, but our streets are still cluttered with shattered souls, many of whom risked their lives to defend this nation. Millions more fill our most intimate lives, afraid to disclose that they live in sheer terror within their own skin, for what will we think of them? Will we extend a loving hand, or will we look at them anew, as a burden instead of a person? If the way we spend our resources, and how we prioritize our “War on Drugs,” and what we deem socially and economically acceptable, are indications, they have good reason to wonder.

As beautiful as all the speeches were, including Patrick’s, my favorite speech at Ted Kennedy’s funeral today was written two millennia ago. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger and welcome You, or naked and clothe You? And when did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”

Now there’s a legacy.