As Susie and I watched the funeral service of Ted Kennedy, I thought back to a 1976 TV movie, FRANKLIN AND ELEANOR, starring Edward Herrman and Jane Alexander. The part of the movie that I recall most vividly dealt with the early years, when Franklin was courting Eleanor [the two were fifth cousins once removed]. The couple came from old upper crust New York society -- Theodore Roosevelt was Franklin's role model, and Eleanor's uncle. In one scene, at a formal society party, the two step out onto the veranda of the stately home in which the party is being held, and carry on a long, thoughtful conversation about what they owe to those less fortunate than themselves. There is nothing condescending or pompous about the conversation. It seems perfectly natural to these two young fortunates that, because life has to given them so many of the material blessings of wealth and social connection, it is incumbent upon them to find some way to justify that good fortune by making a contribution to the welfare of others.
Wealthy White people were not better when I was young. In some ways -- racial prejudice, restriction of opportunities for women, even -- heaven help us -- acceptance of gay and lesbian men and women -- they were a good deal worse. But many people really did think as Franklin and Eleanor did, and those who did not had the decency to pay lip service to principles they knew they ought to embrace.
Those of you too young to remember that period could do worse than to watch the 2003 movie, SEABISCUIT. Although it is a movie about a race horse, it conjures up the Depression mentality and era better than any movie save the immortal GRAPES OF WRATH.
Say what you will about the Kennedys, especially their appalling father, Joe, they seem to have been the last large, wealthy White family to keep alive, and genuinely to live by, this ideal of Noblesse Oblige. It has become fashionable of late to use that phrase with a sneer. Many of the privileged these days would not be caught dead suggesting that they, or any of their fellow fortunates, owe anything to the world. The hollow ideology of the free market encourages the fortunate to attribute their wealth and position to their own sterling character.
One last story, which I have told before. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, in the very early fifties, my hero Carl Sandburg came to Cambridge to give a lecture. New Lecture Hall was packed, and I ended up standing along one wall, as I recall. Sandburg told the following story:
Two cockroach brothers were riding into town on the back of a farmer's truck, when the truck hit a bump. Both brothers bounced off the truck. The first fell onto a pile of dung -- very heaven for a cockroach. The second fell into a sewer. For weeks, the second brother struggled mightily to pull himself out of the sewer and back onto the road. By the time he had succeeded, he was thin, his coat was mottled and dull, and he looked just awful. Meanwhile, the first brother had prospered, growing fat and shiny. The unfortunate cockroach looked up and saw his kinsman, fat and sassy, on top of the dung heap. "Brother," he cried. "How have you done so well for yourself, while I have barely survived?" His brother looked down from his perch with a sneer, and said, complacently, "Brains, and hard work."
Can anyone imagine at speaker at Harvard today telling that story?