With the passing of Senator Edward M. Kennedy this week, we have come to the official end of an extraordinary era and family legacy. There are still many of us left who cut our political teeth on the Kennedy’s– listening to the newly elected, handsome young man with the appalling Boston accent (this is not intended as an insult, I’m from Boston myself) call us to service to our country. We also remember his younger brother, Bobby trying to pick up the mantle during the turbulent days of the Viet Nam War and asking why we can’t live our dreams. We had remaining within our midst for many decades the youngest of nine children “Teddy” who ended up carrying the torch of an ill-fated family. Now even he is gone and we are left to mourn the passing of one family’s response to the call to public service.
One cannot ignore in the mix, the less visible but equally committed Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who passed away only a few short weeks ago. Her work in establishing the Special Olympics was no less notable in its impact on the lives of thousands of families around the world.
Teddy Kennedy was a large and boisterous man. He was passionate, he was charming and he was imperfect. A scar on his legacy will be that horrible summer’s night when he drove off a bridge in Chappaquidick that took the life of a young woman and left him forever with a blot on his work. Nonetheless, and with that being said, it is his powerful and positive legacy that we should and must remember of him and his life’s work championing the cause of the needy and the poor among us.
A wonderful vignette is circulating on you-tube that captures his passion in a speech to a group about the importance of universal healthcare. Classic Teddy. Passionate. Personal. Genuinely heartfelt. No observor can hear or see him without agreeing that he truly cared, understood the need for better healthcare and felt the pain he had endured himself, having survived a terrible plane crash that killed two others and with family medical crises that stalked his children for years.
Growing up in Boston in the 60’s, I remember watching his debate against another great political Boston family, the McCormacks. I remember so vividly watching our black and white T.V. when his adversary, Edward McCormack taunted the 30 year old youngest of 11 Kennedy kids by saying, ” I’ll bet if your name were Edward Moore, and not Edward Moore Kennedy, you wouldn’t even be here tonight”. Even though he may have been right, Teddy although clearly annoyed, kept his cool and responded, again with that heavy Boston accent, about the purpose and value of public service. .
While the Kennedy’s out-dueled the McCormacks on this one, and Teddy entered the U.S. Senate, that bitterness never hampered Teddy in his effort to be a great Senator. He had an Irishman’s love of the bitters and a good story. He had an enormous love of his children and a hearty meal.
I had the good fortune of serving as an intern in his office when he was the Majority Whip. At the same time, he was dealing with the cancer of his eldest son and the terrible asthma problems of his youngest, Patrick. He had lost his remaining two older brothers in the intervening years and had become the father figure to their families and their broods.
Ted Kennedy was clearly a child of privilege and wealth. He is reputed to never have carried any money with him so that his staff would always make sure they had real currency with them when staffing him. But he was always approachable and funny, with a quick wit and humorous tale to tell at the drop of a hat.
His office was a gallery of family pictures of sparklingly handsome, toothy people almost always photographed in the out-of-doors, always smiling, whether it was playing football, sailing, skiing or just being there. It was almost hard to believe that this very same family had suffered so much at the hands of assassins and war. (Eldest of the siblings was Joe Kennedy Jr. who died as a fighter pilot in World War Two and Joe Srs. first hope for a Catholic President).
I heard Senator Kennedy give many speeches over the course of his career. He had that incredible Kennedy charisma, with those sparkling blue eyes and as he got older, that mane of stunning white hair. He mellowed, especially after marrying his wife and now widow, Vicki in 1992 and seemed to settle into his role as America’s elder statesman. He had found his niche, was comfortable with it and his life and with the opportunity to lead the Senate’s liberals as its spokesman and champion.
In spite of all the tragedy in his life, Edward Moore Kennedy never abandoned the little guy, never gave up the fight for equal dignity for all people and never forgot how his life of privilege compelled him and his family to seek to make life a little better for everyone else. It is a legacy we will do well to remember. It seems only fitting that he left us and left the stage with the following charge at the 2008 Democratic Convention:
“The work begins anew.
Hope rises again and
The dream lives on.”
Whether we agreed with Kennedy’s vision of a better world or focused too much on his flaws and failings, the one thing we can and should agree upon is that his work has impacted all of us and we are the better for it.