By Tom Degan
“To speak for those who have no voice; to remember those who are forgotten; to respond to the frustration and fulfill the aspiration of all Americans seeking a better life in a better land….for all those whose cares have been our concern, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”
Edward Moore Kennedy, 8/12/80
The lion sleeps….
I’ll never forget the night Ted Kennedy gave that speech at the Democratic National Convention after failing to win his party’s nomination for the presidency. I was visiting my old pal, Dan O’Brien, who at the time was living in a one-room kitchenette in Liverpool, NY, just north of Syracuse. It was – and remains – the greatest political oration of my lifetime. Watching the event on a small, black and white television set, I instinctively knew that I was witnessing one of those sublime moments in American history that would be remembered a century into the future. Leave it to O’Brien; he slept through the whole damned thing.
My brother, Pete, woke me up just before two AM with the news. Teddy Kennedy died late last night at the age of seventy-seven with his loved ones by his bedside. I assumed that the end was near when he was unable to attend his sister Eunice Shriver’s funeral less than two weeks ago. I know from personal experience that when a person with a brain tumor is no longer able to move around with relative ease, it’s only a matter of time.
In a life that is littered with ironies, here’s the biggest one of all: His three older brothers – Joe, Jack and Bobby – are eternally frozen in our imagination as the personifications of youth and vigor (or “vigah”). How poignant that our final image of the baby of that family will be as an old man, frail and mortally ill.
His was the most impressive evolution in American political history. When he first ran for the senate forty-seven years ago, I was all of four years old. Had I been writing about politics then, it is a fairly good bet that I would have vehemently opposed the candidacy of Edward Moore Kennedy. Let’s be honest; in 1962 the guy was a lightweight. He ran for the Democratic nomination against another young man, Edward McCormick, whose uncle was the speaker of the House of Representatives. During a debate McCormick told him that were it not for his name, his candidacy would be viewed as a joke. It was a point well made. It is obvious when looking at film of that campaign that our boy Ted is in way over his head.
Who would have dared dream all those years ago that this punk kid would one day evolve into the greatest senator ever to walk those halls?
An incredible realization just came to me: Teddy represented the state of Massachusetts for forty-six years, eight months and nineteen days. That is nearly three months longer than all the years his older brother Jack lived on earth. Forgive the cliche that is so overused it has become trite, but this truly is the end of an era, folks.
The man who would be president….
It was a horrible automobile accident forty years ago this summer, which ended the life of a young woman, that would forever end his chance to pick up the torch that had fallen due to the madness of two different assassins. I know this might sound strange coming from someone who was such an admirer of the man, but in hindsight I am happy Ted Kennedy lost the Democratic primaries to President Carter. It was only after he lost that race – only when he came to terms with the truth that he would never be president – that he became the lion of the senate that history will justly remember him as.
He probably never would have been able to defeat Ronald Reagan had he won the nomination. The pendulum of American politics was swinging in an unfortunate direction in 1980. The right wing lunacy that has dominated our national conversation since then was inevitable, I suppose. It was only when he no longer had one eye focused on the White House that he blossomed as a senator. Most of the legislation that bears his name – that he will be remembered for – post-date the year 1980.
We are fortunate that Teddy spent all of those years in the senate, fighting the good fight for the not-so-fortunate. That he was hated and scorned by the forces of weirdness is as much a testament to the man’s greatness as any example that I can offer. I am told by someone who is at this moment watching FOX Noise (I’m watching MSNBC) that they are focusing more on the man’s shortcomings than his virtues. That is as it should be. They couldn’t say enough about staunch segregationist Strom Thurmond when he died. In certain instances you can tell more about a man by his enemies than by his friends. It will be more than interesting to see how the bloviators in the extreme right wing react to his death. Count on an outbreak of foot in mouth disease.
He was given a gift that would be denied to his three older brothers and one older sister: the gift of years. That he would be the only one of those four extraordinary men to die of natural causes – to live to have a head full of gray hair – is something we should not take for granted. No other family in American history would pay a heavier price in the cause of public service than the Kennedys. The fact that for many years he was a heavy drinker and that his judgment was often clouded should be forgiven. Given what he went through, who among us would have emerged from the storm with our psychological make up as intact as his obviously was? After Bobby was murdered in 1968, it’s a miracle the poor guy didn’t drink himself to death.
His demons notwithstanding, his heart was always in the right place. He was the son of privilege who spent his entire public life working overtime for the poor and dispossessed. I’ll take Ted Kennedy over any of his colleagues – warts and all. Truth be told, I would have loved to have gotten drunk with the guy. That would have been really cool!
It has been said too many times that he never lived up to his potential, that he will forever be overshadowed by his two brothers. I disagree. Given the limited time that fate would allow them, their legacies are decidedly eclipsed by their little brother’s. As John Meacham said this morning on the Morning Joe program, “He certainly belongs in the company of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.” As legislators, Jack and Bobby aren’t even in Teddy’s league. It’s not even close.
So many “red state Americans” who regarded him with suspicion if not outright hatred, will probably never even realize how much they owe Senator Kennedy. It’s kind of sad that a lot of the people Kennedy worked the hardest for despised him with a passion born of decades of anti-Kennedy propaganda. Nothing was handier for a Republican running in a conservative district than the image of Bogeyman Ted in a campaign ad. It usually worked.
TEDDY KENNEDY’S GONNA GET’CHA IF YA DON’T WATCH OUT!
I wonder how these people would react if tomorrow – just for a day, mind you – every law Teddy Kennedy is responsible for were made null and void. Call it a hunch but I have a strong feeling that more people than you might suspect are going to miss him now that he’s gone.
Teddy, they hardly knew ye!
We’re a better country because for seventy-seven years Teddy Kennedy walked amongst us. His impact on the country he loved so much will be felt for generations. The loss his passing means to progressive politics in the United States is incalculable. We need him at this moment in history more than we ever needed him before. It’s so unspeakably sad. He’s gone and he’s not coming back. Now he belongs to the ages.
In the good old Irish Catholic tradition, tonight I’ll be drinking a toast or two (or twelve) to you, Ted. Sleep well and thanks.
Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy
by Peter S. Canellos