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Kathleen Parker - 09/02/09
IN DEATH DO US PART COMPANY

Reaction to Sen. Ted Kennedy's death suggests that there really are two Americas.

One side sees in Kennedy a liberal lion who fought for the greater good, the other sees a sinner lionized by the morally blind.

How can one man be viewed so differently? Is there no objective truth, or is all truth filtered through one's own projection of reality? Such, perhaps, is the dilemma in a secularized world bereft of common reference points. You got your gig; I got mine.

Even before Kennedy's motorcade had come to a stop in front of the JFK Library Thursday, conservatives were busy circulating an old GQ profile written by Michael Kelly, the beloved columnist and Atlantic editor who died in Iraq. Kelly painted a complicated portrait of a flawed man, but what stood out most were Kennedy's less-attractive behaviors, especially toward women.

While the left remembers Kennedy for his fight for the common man, the right remembers him as responsible for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne 40 years ago. Nothing about Kennedy's decades of public service could erase the shadow of that early morning when Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick and abandoned the scene, leaving his passenger to drown.

Thus, the tone on the right side of the blogosphere is rather Old Testament, with many expressing delight in the thought that the senator's final judgment will not be light. Elsewhere, Kennedy fans have exploited the propitious timing of his exit. MoveOn.org urged health care reformers to "re-commit ourselves to achieving the thing that mattered most" to Kennedy. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the senior Senate Democrat, has called for passage of reform in honor of Kennedy "as a tribute to his commitment to his ideals."

Timing is everything in death as in life, apparently. Indeed, if Pat Robertson and other religious icons of the right were instead liberal, they might be tempted to say that God wants health care reform.

Just as August's less-than-august health care melees were morphing from shoutfests to fisticuffs, someone changed the channel. Nothing like the gimlet gaze of death to drop the volume and still the masses. Hysteria quickly turns to ruminations on mortality, and perspective is restored. Might we now infer that God is a pro-universal health care liberal?

The answer depends on whether one is the sort to interpret tragedies, deaths and disasters as divine intervention - and whether one's God is compassionate or judgmental. And, of course, it depends on one's politics. God, you may have heard, is a conservative, though his Son had some decidedly liberal tendencies.

For reasons that shall be explained in the hereafter, conservatives are more likely to see the hand of God in matters both mundane and sublime. If one were of such mind, is it not possible to believe that Kennedy's exit was timed to prod America to Do The Right Thing and pass health care reform? Conspiracy theories have been built on much less, and belief in miracles precludes belief in coincidence. Or, does God only act in conservative interests?

A Pat Robertson-type, who (in this fantasy) considers universal health care an act of Christian duty, arguably might view a final curtain on Camelot as a divinely inspired, albeit sad-for-the-family, intervention. Not only could Kennedy's death be viewed as a clarion call for a providential idea, but on a more practical level, the media would forget all about town halls rather than miss the final episode of America's dynasty.

There's always the possibility that conservatives are right and God was removing the single icon whose presence lent energy to legislation that would vastly increase government power in the private sector. Or - and this gets my vote - God is too busy building a better human in a saner galaxy to concern himself with us. Couldn't blame him.

One can't help wondering, nonetheless, how those same Old Testament celebrants would have treated Kennedy had he, as recompense for his sins, embarked on a crusade against abortion and same-sex marriage instead of for universal health care. My modest guess is that they would have found a way to forgive him and insisted that a man's worst moment is not the sum of his life.

Kennedy's life was indeed a mixed sack of good works and sometimes-deplorable behavior. A charitable person would hope that he found peace at the end of his life. An observant person might note, without pleasure, that even in death, it's all politics.

Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.