Ted Kennedy’s Environmental Legacy
Americans of a certain age grew up with a very common stock political caricature as part of our culture: he (invariably a man) was a Southern Gentleman with a quick wit and syrupy drawl, never without his vested suit and pocket watch, and—at least in popular satire—always with one hand cradling a well-chomped cigar and the other out for a bribe. To some extent, he was epitomized by Boss Hog. But, that was then.
Today, one political caricature resonates in American pop culture like no other, and he is the Simpsons’ Mayor Quimby. Rarely if ever has an animated character drawn so many of traits, mannerisms and context from one living person so directly. Mayor Quimby is Senator Edward Kennedy, making the late Liberal Lion from Massachusetts the most well-known and widely-recognized political figure in generations.
Kennedy was not known for his environmental politics, but what will be his legacy vis-a-vis the environment and energy? Will he be remembered for what many viewed as self-interested and elitist opposition to the proposed Cape Wind project, an offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound, barley visible from the Kennedy’s Hyannisport compound?
The League of Conservation Voters scored Kennedy at 82% over his career – although they had him at a decidedly lower sub-40% score so far this session, they have already removed Kennedy’s page from their site so there is no telling if that low number could be attributed to missed votes rather than anti-LCV positions. Nonetheless, a quick survey of Kennedy’s votes on energy or environment issues shows that he was consistently with the progressive wing of the Democratic party when it came to clean air and water, EPA authority and management/mitigation of toxics and energy efficiency funding and improvements like CAFE standards and alternative fuel vehicles.
Kennedy’s opposition to Cape Wind later in life did draw the ire of some in the green movement and even some fans in his home state, including at the local liberal-leaning newspaper. But, Kennedy may be most fondly remembered by the green movement for a particular moment in his 1980 DNC speech assailing Ronald Reagan, in which he took the opportunity to take the then Republican nominee to task for his climate science shortcomings, saying: “The same Republicans who are talking about preserving the environment have nominated a man who last year made the preposterous statement, and I quote, ‘Eighty percent of our air pollution comes from plants and trees.’ And that nominee is no friend of the environment.”
If the early returns from the online environmental community are any indication, Kennedy’s progressive credentials earned him green cred that may even outstrip his actual accomplishment in the field. Thought leaders at places like Treehugger and Grist are singing his praises as an environmentalist, though it should be noted that they both cut and paste large swaths of their tributes from Kennedy’s own Senate page of accomplishments.
A Google search of the Senator’s name and the word “environment” brings up first-page hits that are incredulous about his opposition to the wind project, and a search pairing his name with the word “green” brings up mostly hits touting the rumor that Teddy had once been a Green Bay Packers prospect after his Harvard football career wound down.
In the end, I suspect that many Americans will be left with the mental image of the Senator as a sailor, so often was he photographed in nautical blue and white (with a touch of Red Sox red), sailing the waters off of Cape Cod. That image, his solid—if not aggressive—environmental voting record, and his unequaled progressive bona-fides will likely leave Senator Edward M. Kennedy with an environmental legacy that will only be burnished over the years – regardless of whether wind turbines ever tower over Horseshoe Shoal.
Campaign photo courtesy of Obama for America at TedKennedy.org