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Ted on Sunday: Remembering Ted Kennedy

August 30, 2009

And so it ends.

Large_kennedys With yesterday's sad, meticulously scripted, and moving sendoff to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the decades-long fascination that many of us had with the Kennedys of Massachusetts has been laid to rest. For as long as the American experiment remains viable, other families will rise to political power and prominence, joining the likes of the Adamses, Roosevelts, Tafts, and Bushes. The family name might be Martinez or Kim or Cohen, for that is part of the genius of America, as the Kennedys themselves so ably demonstrated. But just as we're unlikely to see a phenomenon like the Beatles again, or the kind of cinematic excellence that illuminated American movie theaters in the late '60s and early '70s, the Kennedy story and its grip on the American imagination will remain unrivaled.

I was born in Massachusetts and am old enough to remember where I was (sitting in a kindergarten classroom) the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. My memory of that day, and the days that followed, are as vivid as any I have. By the time Robert Kennedy was murdered five years later, my family was living in northeast Ohio, Taft country, and, after the initial shock wore off, our thoughts turned to Ted, the sole surviving Kennedy brother. His eulogy for RFK at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City in June 1968, a soaring piece of rhetoric that has lost none of its power to inspire, signaled another passing of the torch. And we knew, in our bleeding liberal hearts, that it made Ted a marked man.

He knew it, too. As he repeatedly told reporters in Alaska after learning his brother had been killed: "They're going to shoot my a** off the way they shot Bobby's." Still, as Garry Wills writes in his 1986 book The Kennedy Imprisonment:

He rarely showed fear...; seemed, indeed, too jaunty to some -- with the effort that heaves several lives' weight into the air again. After Robert was killed, he told his aide Dun Gifford: "I can't let go. We have a job to do. If I let go, Ethel will let go. And my mother will let go, and all my sisters...."

He didn't let go; he soldiered on, persevered in the great liberal program staked out by his brother John and championed so compellingly by his brother Bobby in the hundred days of his 1968 presidential primary run. The psychic toll must have been unbearable. Wills again:

Once brother drew on brother for fresh strength; now brother drains brother, all the dead inhabiting the one that has lived on. Edward has managed to outlast three brothers without ever catching up to one of them. Just as he seems to overtake them, their glory either recedes from him, or fades in the public's eyes. It was pretty evanescent stuff to begin with, the glory; but one can hardly look to him for that perception. To show ingratitude toward the ghosts would just make them harder to shake off. Meanwhile, he inherits all their children, while his own partly slip away from him, victims of his own victimhood, and of his wife's....

Chappaquidick. His oldest son Teddy's bone cancer, which cost young Ted a leg at the age of twelve. The failed presidential primary run against Jimmy Carter in 1980, a campaign that featured an unprepared and, at times, seemingly uninterested Kennedy, but one that put some of his ghosts to rest. The carousing and drinking and end of his marriage to Joan. Redemption, in the form of second wife Vicki, a renewed interest in and commitment to his Senate work, ever-deeper bonds with his surviving sisters, his children, nieces and nephews and grandchildren. A final passing of the torch to a young, eloquent senator from Illinois, a grim cancer diagnosis, and a last year filled with moments, big and small, of grace and humanity.

It was an extraordinary life, a life that touched thousands -- as anyone could see who tuned in to the funeral service in Boston, watched the stately procession through the streets of Washington of the hearse bearing the senator's body or the emotional scene on the steps of the Capitol, where friends, colleagues, and staff, past and present, gathered in oppressive heat to say a final farewell. He touched millions more through the legislation he crafted and championed over the course of a 47-year career in the Senate.

I'll leave it to the senator's conservative critics to enumerate Ted Kennedy's -- indeed, the Kennedy family's -- failings. It's easy to mock and criticize, and there will be no shortage of such critiques over the coming weeks.

But on this day, four years after the levees broke in New Orleans and put a human face on levels of poverty and inequality that most of us thought had been eradicated decades ago, I'll honor Ted Kennedy's memory -- and the memory of his brothers and his sister Eunice and the entire Kennedy family, a family to whom much was given and which has given much back in return -- because of what he, and they, believed in and continue to fight for: fairness and compassion for the most vulnerable in society and equal opportunity for all.

Rest in peace, Senator. You did good.

-- Mitch Nauffts

Comments

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Mitch -

A few days after its posting, I got to read your piece remembering Ted Kennedy.... I was struck dumb - for real - registering the thought and heart that went into it. And then I got royally ticked off that not a soul had commented on it. In my time, I've tried to string a few sentences and paragraphs together - it ain't easy - but I've stayed out of the blogosphere for good reasons of my own. Until now.

That piece was very well done. And I thank you for it. It gave me considerable pause, to think back over my own time, which, frankly, I don't enjoy doing very much.

Chappaquidick is a stubborn roadblock to circumnavigate when thinking about Ted Kennedy. Beyond the one word you dedicated to it, there's nothing more to be said.

Be that as it may, I did have one quibble with your piece. When you wrote "... a family to whom much was given and which has given much back in return" - you might have ditched all subtlety and added, "... and from whom so much was taken away."

Again, thank you for devoting your time and energy to remembering. I probably should do it more often.

And I swear that I'm going to post this.

- Rick

Thanks for the post. They say not to speak ill of the dead, so, I suppose those performing the public commeration are allowed to see this with spectacles - rose tinted.

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