The Internet yesterday was flooded with tributes to Teddy Kennedy. For many Americans he was the last surviving representative of a generation of liberals who believed that with steady work and good will all noble things were possible. It was a faith that was severely tried during the Reagan and Bush I and II administrations, and it was a bit shaken even under Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
The most appealing thing about Ted Kennedy is that he was no saint for most of his life. Or if he was a saint, he was one in the St. Augustine tradition, with plenty of sins to confess, which he openly did. He admitted that he was, from time to time, using an old-fashioned vocabulary, a womanizer, a glutton and a drunk. Translated into modern terms, he loved too much and too freely in all sorts of ways, and word got around.
The first time I saw him, he was officiating at the grand opening of a tiny headquarters for his brother Jack’s presidential campaign in a former laundromat on Shattuck near Blake. He was a red-faced kid of 28 in 1960—my roomate’s boyfriend, Irish-American himself, refused to go to the event, saying that “if I wanted to see an Irish mug like that, I can just look in the mirror.” And in truth, young Kennedy did seem like beefy football-playing boys I knew in high school, rude, crude and nothing to write home about.
When he ran for the Senate a couple of years later, there were more derogatory comments from every quarter. It was generally conceded that he’d done absolutely nothing to earn the honor, that he’d just been born into the right wealthy family at the right time and was running on his brother’s coattails. All of that was probably true.
But there’s nothing like growing up in a big family with plenty of smart, high-achieving older siblings to teach humility, and in the end it was his extraordinary humility that distinguished Edward Kennedy among his peers in the Senate. From the beginning, he surrounded himself with the best and the brightest—his staff was famous for being the most competent policy wonks in Washington. A more pretentious fellow might have felt threatened with people like that on his staff, but Teddy accepted them with good grace.
His concern was always for what’s patronizingly referred to as “the little guy,” people who have to make their way in the world with none of the advantages his own background provided. It seemed that he was always asking himself how he would make out without his family and his wealth, and concluding that it would indeed be hard.
An old friend on the radio Wednesday spoke of Kennedy’s long bedridden period recovering from a plane crash. He said that the two of them had talked at great length at the time about the friend’s lengthy tuberculosis treatment as a child and his father’s difficulty in paying for it. It was at this time that Kennedy took up the crusade for health care for all Americans that was to dominate his career in the Senate.
Even as he was becoming the most effective senator of his generation, he couldn’t stay out of trouble, of course. I was in Washington to do a story in the late ‘70s and was confined at my hotel for a weekend by an unheard-of foot-deep snowfall. A fellow magazine writer kept me company in the bar while we waited out the storm, a glamorous creature who went on to a television career. Her assignment was a profile of Teddy Kennedy, for which she’d done weeks of interviews with him, and she’d also gathered a lot of unprintable gossip with which we whiled away the hours. Much of this stuff never saw print, and probably just as well. Finding a solid second wife in the ‘90s helped him to clean up his act.
It was easy enough to document Kennedy’s feet of clay, but what came to matter in the end was the man who grew to tower above them. We saw Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s stunning performance of Julius Caesar over the weekend, and many lines from the Bard’s expert dissection of the political human in that play illuminate Ted Kennedy’s life and career, like these:
He doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs…”
A couple of lines from Mark Antony’s eulogy for Caesar capture Kennedy’s rare passion for helping ordinary people:
“When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.”
But unlike most of his peers, Kennedy never allowed personal ambitions to dominate his career.
Even when he knew that his time was just about up, he carried on the work as usual, lending his enthusiastic support to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in his last months. Shakepeare also described that kind of courage:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”
Now that Sen. Kennedy’s time has finally come, it seems that the whole world is mourning him, even his colleagues with whom he sometimes disagreed. According to the poet,
“When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
But that’s one sentiment Ted Kennedy wouldn’t have approved of. In his view, he was no prince, no more important in the grand scheme of things than the beggars to whom his life was dedicated. Instead of blazing comets, the best memorial for Teddy would be to carry on the work he loved.
Paul Hogarth of San Francisco’s BeyondChron.org has started a Facebook group dedicated to naming the significant public option portion of the pending health care bill after Kennedy. That might be a good place to start constructing a memorial in his honor. You can find the somewhat clumsily named group on Facebook as “Name the Public Option AFTER Ted Kennedy.”