What will remain of the Kennedy mystique?
The possibility arises that the senior senator from Massachusetts has squandered the Kennedy Mystique.
Never mind, for the moment, trying to figure out what that magical quality consists of. Because it is believed to exist, it does.
Once, in the spikety little mountains called the Cumberlands, where the white clapboard Fundamentalist churches abstain from such architectural formalities as windows, I was entertained in the front parlor by a family of mountaineers.
Their ancestors had left, man and boy, to fight for Virginia and the Confederacy in 1860. There were no blacks on their coal-dug, whisky-making mountain, and no Republicans, either.
And on the wall over the upright piano there were two pictures, one the classical, haloed head of Jesus Christ; the other, the cheerful, Irish visage of John F. Kennedy.
Around the corner of the wall,there was a photograph of Robert Kennedy, less prominent in display. They liked Bobby, all right; but they weren't quite that sure about him.
A couple of years earlier in Rome. Paul VI was Pope. In St. Peter's Square you could obtain, if you tried hard enough, a postcard with Pope Paul's picture on it. But you had to ask.
What you couldn't avoid in the curio, film and medal shops around the square were postcards containing pictures of John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII on the same card. Both men had been dead for years.
In Kuwait in 1975, I visited a shop known to the US diplomatic community as "Crazy Achmed's." Achmed was and probably still is entirely sane and a rug merchant.
From among carpets of Araby, Persia, China and India, magnificent in detail, Achmed hauled out an orange and green one in which the familiar, handsome profile of JFK, hand-knotted and unmistakable, formed the central motif.
In Galway Cathedral there is a chapel in which Padraic Pearse, martyred soldier-poet of the Irish Revolution, is memorialized. For some reason, in the same chapel, with the same prominence, there is a mosaic image of JFK.
Somehow, it is difficult to conceive of Ted Kennedy in terms of popular iconogaphy. Somehow, it is hard to believe that reproductions of his countenance are liable to show up in huts of mud, rough masonry or bamboo.
Now the polls that lured him into the contest against Jimmy Carter seem to have deserted the senator. Events seem to have conspired against him. He must face the fact that the launching of his campaign to oust Carter from the White House has been a disastrous failure.
He seems angry, resentful, ranting against an array of adversaries with bombastic inattention to syntax or articulateness. That extraordinary personal charm on which he was expected to rely sputters sporadically.
The Irish are supposed to be both lucky and articulate. And Ted Kennedy is on display as unable to talk his way out of a parking ticket. He is so unlucky as to encounter the Ayatollah Khomeini. Not only has Iran grabbed media attention that otherwise might be devoted to the Kennedy-Carter fight but it has given Carter a dramatic opportunity to act presidential.
Kennedy, supposedly the master politician, has allowed himself to be positioned against the White House in a time of international crisis.
The Kennedy Mystique cannot survive an image of bad luck and bad verbal performance. Kennedys must be winners, always sexy, glowing with health, rich beyond the dreams of avarice, graceful, irresistible and invincible. They do not falter, stumble or lose. They don't get mad; they get even.
There is considerable truth to this general estimation of the family, but, like all generalities, it is subject to exception. So far, the senator seems to be demonstrating rather ordinary human failings. One reason might be that he is expected to live up to preposterously inflated advance notices.
But it is too early to write off his challenge. The polls are volatile. The perception of Carter as competently managing the Iranian crisis is subject to dramatic change.
Once the hostage situation is resolved, the President is going to have to account for policies which at least permitted the seizure. Ted Kennedy may then have enough "mystique" left to make the incumbent uncomfortable.