Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I had planned a very different post today, but it can wait.  The wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the responses to them of governments and NGOs alike will remain.  The question of martyrdom will linger.  The freshness of Senator Edward Moore (Teddy) Kennedy's death will not.

In the last couple of hours I have read and heard a great deal about the man known as the "Lion of the Senate."  His colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the Senate miss the role he could have played in pushing through the necessary compromises to accomplish meaningful health care reform.  Some, like Orrin Hatch, remember respectful battles royal in committee debate.  Journalists, of course, feel compelled to mention the scandals of Chappaquiddick and Palm Beach.  None can overlook his eulogies for his brother Robert F. Kennedy, "a good and decent man," and his nephew, John F. Kennedy, Jr., who all had hoped "would live to comb grey hair."

Familiar if moving stuff, all that.  One hesitates to wade into it, not knowing what one can add. Some of the subtleties fade to the background at a time like this, such as the point a journalist made recently that Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama for the presidency in the run-up to Super Tuesday because of his outrage over the Clintons' race-infected campaigning in the South Carolina primary.  I admire him for that, for the preservation of his family's association with decency and respect in race relations going back to the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which concluded an effort his deceased brother Jack had begun.

All moving.  I found myself crying most openly, though, at a small detail in a piece on NPR's "All Things Considered" this morning posted on their website.  Kennedy had reached out to the victims of 9/11, as had many politicians.  He had shown considerable kindness to a woman who had lost her husband, as I recall.  Two years later, she got a phone call from Kennedy's office.  Did she have any plans that weekend?  Would she like to go sailing with the senator?  By 2003 he knew that such a gesture would do her more good than it could ever do him.

Any of us who have admired the Kennedys feel some grief at this loss.  We know the failings, at least the public ones, and the fact that so many cannot overlook them.  My supervisor at work last fall expressed his utter unwillingness to forgive Kennedy for Chappaquiddick and perhaps even more for "getting away with it."  The precise meaning of "it"we will leave open.  My pointing out that Jesse Helms, a particular hero of my boss, worked closely with Kennedy, as did Orrin Hatch of Utah, a conservative's conservative, had no impact on him.  

We overlook his faults perhaps because we know our own, and know we could not have accomplished what Ted Kennedy did, family money or no.  His privilege helped and he freely acknowledged it.  He worked harder for the poor precisely because of the perspective afforded him from his hospital bed recovering from a broken back in 1964, wondering how fellow patients paid their enormous bills.  That experience made him a champion of health care reform, which he remained until last night in Hyannis Port.  

We grieve him for another reason, a more important one, at least those born before 1960 or so do.  The Kennedys have always stood in liberal Democratic circles for a brand of reforming idealism that asserted the ability to transform the world.  Ever major figure in Democratic politics since then--even Carter, who would probably profusely deny it out of personal animus--has benefitted, directly or indirectly, from the prestige the Kennedys have lent reformist liberal politics.  Certainly the Clintons, disappointed as they were by Ted's turning on them last spring, and above all Obama, would not deny it.

Grief comes from loss.  Losing Ted Kennedy for some of us means losing the last link not just to the glamor and cliche of Camelot, but to a time in our lives when we believed in the heroic as not merely the survival of war's horrors, but the courage to rethink how we face opponents.  In this, we risk idealizing.  Jack and Bobby Kennedy woke up late to the horrors of racism, and Bobby came late to seeing Vietnam as a disaster.  In both cases, however, once they saw, they acted.  Ted Kennedy's broken back from a plane crash probably had a more profound effect on the history of health care in this country than any other single event.

We will rely on others now.  Indeed, as a senator, Ted Kennedy has not held the center of our attention as much as have the Clintons and Obama for some time.  That, too, causes us to grieve.  As we watched his gradual acceptance of a quieter role, and then his precipitous decline and now decease, we see a mirror and anticipation of our own.  We grieve for Ted Kennedy as a surrogate for our own griefs--in my case, a father gone whose mother did political ward-heeling for Kennedy's grandfather in Boston--but also as a lightning-rod for our own fears and dreads.

Requiescat (requiescamurque) in pace--may he rest in peace, and we with him.

1 comment:

  1. When I was working on the pilot project for AmeriCorps, the Summer of Service, I had a chance to meet Senator Kennedy. Like President Clinton, who was also a great fighter and advocate for National Service, Senator Kennedy was absolutely larger than life in person.

    When I have met other well-known people, I have not always felt that larger than life experience as I did with Kennedy. He wore his life's experience on his being. He projected no hubris because he had experienced so many of life's tragedies.

    When I saw the headline of Kennedy's death on the front page of the newspaper, I thought back to June when I saw Michael Jackson's obituary headline. They were two totally different men who both struggled with good and evil in the public domain.

    Kennedy found a way to move on. He found a way to be productive again, despite hardship. Is this a white man's privilege? Is it Elizabeth Edward's resilience? Is it a walk with God? Is it sailing?

    Whatever it is, I hear the lesson and I will keep on too.