Senator Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy—February 22nd 1932 ~ August 25th 2009
When the news slipped out two weeks ago that Senator Edward Kennedy was pressuring Massachusetts state officials to ramp up the speed of their succession plans for his eventual exit from the Senate, it didn't take a genius to surmise that things were probably not getting any better for him health-wise. In fact, when I heard the news, it was clear to me that it would probably be a matter of weeks when he would leave this mortal coil.
As it has tuned out, the remaining time was but days.
There will be eulogies and essays, and yes, an awful lot of grave dancing on the part of the lunatic fringe that is screeching about everything and nothing at all these days. These are the expected things when a political / pop cultural / American near-royal giant like Ted Kennedy passes away. For those who loved him and those who reviled him, the thing that is undeniable is his impact on this country over the last forty-plus years. He was pretty much the last of a class (and quite possibly a family) of politicians who practiced what is called “Noblesse Oblige”—the idea that those “to the manor born” owe a special something to those who were not. In the society and business worlds, Noblesse Oblige played itself out through philanthropy. In the political world, it manifested itself in people like Ted Kennedy's expending herculean effort to initiate, support, and ram through legislation aimed at leveling the playing field in America so that those who were not of means or having access to the levers of power could live their lives with an extra modicum of comfort.
Ted Kennedy did this with more gusto than anybody in the halls of Washington since the late Harlem Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Considering his pedigree and family fortune, he could have lived a life of absolute sloth, making nary a positive ripple in the world as we know it...but he didn't. He shepherded legislation that expanded education opportunities for the poor, increased access to health care, fought for a woman's right to control her own body, stood for those coming to our shores getting a chance to live the words at Lady Liberty's feet, went toe-to-toe against South African apartheid, sought an end to disability discrimination, and yes—stood against the opposition of Ronald Reagan and a supplicant press in fighting draconian cuts in government funding that would have damaged this country far worse than what the 40th President managed to do without his efforts. He was the last “classic” Fighting Liberal—of that New Deal-affected generation when those types...unabashedly wore that mantle and proudly kicked ass while sporting it. Kennedy was a iron-rooted bulwark against the country's rightward drift over the last thirty-five years, capable of either cagey parliamentary procedure to foil his retrograde opponents behind closed doors or calling down righteous verbal thunder in the well of the Senate to publicly rebuke, embarrass and sometimes chasten them into reconsideration.
Taken superficially, the whole of Edward M. Kennedy would make some think of him as having lived down from his potential. “He could have been more” is the mantra of those who skim the record carelessly. To look at the obvious—a royal-class ascension to the Presidency Brother Jack attained and left us all-too-young in, and Bobby seemed aimed and fired arrow-like towards before an assassin's bullet denied him—Ted's getting nowhere close could myopically be viewed as a failing. But a closer perusal shows us that his remaining a Senator for as long as he did, and in so doing, honing his skills as a dogged legislator unfettered by the constraints of appealing to all, but answering to a progressive constituency and ultimately the side of right for millions beyond Massachussetts may well have been a better thing for us all, and perhaps even for him. Because for all of his fire and drive, there was a blanket of humility over him, a denial of an destined omnipotence...a certain humbling partially born of the aforementioned Noblesse Oblige and clearly some innate selflessness. But what we all know of him as he lived his life in the fishbowl of a quickly maturing media (unlike Jack and Bobby who ascended when outlets were fewer and the presenters more...charitable, shall we say) is that un-hideable mistakes, a thrill-seeking recklessness and yes, fate were the things that while dashing those hopes for the ultimate prize, brought the hereditary Kennedy 'Presidentialomania' to heel and forced him to play the real-er, more performance-demanding part of 'Senator' on the smaller stage.
He was a functioning voluptuary—hopelessly sprung on the easy access to every bacchanalian excess his family's prominence and wealth facilitated. Food. Drink. Women. And all of the wild combinations therein. As the last in the procession of big-dreamed Kennedy boys, what with Jack having already claimed the golden ring, and Bobby's eye drawing a bead while on the political merry-go-round, Teddy thought he could afford in his youth to be a bit more loosey-goosey. This was not the case. The road is littered with all manner of reckless deeds that would blow up in his face...but none worse than the infamous Chappaquiddick incident. There are times in all of our lives when bravery must win out all costs, and many of those times in our human-ness...we fail. We maul ourselves for the rest of our days over these lost chances. For Ted Kennedy, the shame of Chappaquiddick could never be subsumed. Perhaps there was nothing he could have done to change the final, tragic outcome, but there would always be more that he could have been done that while difficult—would have been right, and shown far more integrity than the short-sighted machinations of that fateful evening.
He would labor under that cloud until the day he died. It would effectively short-circuit the more grandiose plans down the line for him. But it would humble him, and in many ways, force him to work harder than he ever thought he would.
He lived perhaps the most public life of blunt-force “Catholic Guilt” this country's ever seen. His every day public service was a bold penance for a personal life that was to put it mildly...more than a tad unkempt. He bobbed about in that guilt like some giant, furrow-browed, in-utero child surrounded by fluid. Oh, he would try to break free of the thing from time to time—as he tried one last time during the 1980 Presidential election season, but he knew even then that the bubble was inescapable. No one would forget—and really, no one should have. As to forgiveness, well...that was relative. Long-time haters who fairly hissed his family surname (for decades) would revel in crude and spiteful reminding of everyone about the incident. Friends and supporters would understand the human frailty in his panic and self-serving actions after the event, but still harbored more than a small amount of resentment over his cavalierly letting a chance of saving America from the scourge of the Reagan years slip away. “Yes...you screwed up Teddy, we understand that—but you also probably screwed us up too. 'Sigh!' ”
That guilt over perceived “let-downs” shone through in his mien for the last thirty-five years of his life—a shaggy, craggy almost over-thoughtfulness worn on his face every day. But that regret over roads untaken (and self-detoured) did not destroy him. He seemed to plumb meaning from those self-consumptive depths—knowing that he had taken so much from himself, he poured that energy into seeing to it that others who had less than he, would get more. It turned out that he, the most publicly flawed of the Kennedy princelings would in the end do the most as a public servant for the most people. Not merely because of fate's three-card monte game where he would end up pulling the longevity card instead of the ultimate power card, but due moreso to his need to atone, and a superhuman desire to be remembered for having done good things—repeatedly—for people who needed a voice and a hand on the levers of power to look out for them. Folks will always remember Jack and Bobby for the way they made them feel about America, and the grand, bold strokes they painted on history's canvas—the eye-popping awe of the JFK's NASA Space Program and Bobby's “Walk a mile in their shoes” empathy of his 1968 campaign tour of the country's socio-economic underbelly. Ted Kennedy was a long-form political pointillist, hashing out over the last thirty years or so of his public service a focused, progressive agenda stuffed with the aforementioned legislative highlights and a supremely impressive multitude of smaller, constituency-level crusades that brought his from-Olympus influence to bear on issues affecting the everyman—unlike many of his co-horts in the Senate who were bought and paid for and beholden to to the interests of fat cats alone.
I would find myself chuckling sometimes at the sentimentality of ‘folks” who hung those beatific portraits of JFK and RFK in their living rooms-cum-altars to their martyr-ific, tragic 60's majesty. Good men (for the most part) they were, but in the grand scheme of things, not quite the selfless, dutiful demi-gods our hagiographical, death-scarred memories make them out to be. If it were based on sheer quality and quantity of deeds done for those needing a pull upwards, a portrait of Sen. Edward Kennedy would be the one displayed above the others.
That will not happen, though. His foibles were too un-royal and too public to allow for such an anointing. Which in the end...is actually good...because we can judge him as a human being honestly and in the simple terms of his good and bad, and if you look at the record, said good not merely outweighs the bad, but is amplified in that it was almost invariably a selfless good. Let that be the “portrait” we display invisibly of him—of inalienable rights preserved, of illnesses that didn't bankrupt, of a poor person's college degree earned, or a racist system shattered by righteous opposition.
Hang that in the “living room” of your memory proudly.
Everyone sadly knew his diagnosis was a terminal one when we heard it last year. The hope from many was that he would live to see an America where his progressive idealism would wield the power to fix what had ailed—especially since the damaging Reagan years. He had held on...past Reagan, two Bushes and a Congress whose serrated pendulum swung hard against his causes, but this was his toughest fight yet. He willed himself back to the well of the Senate to fight for right, and then back to the podium to audaciously endorse then-Senator Barack Obama—and then saw him claim the Presidency that had ironically eluded him as the younger man hitched his star to the senior senator's own long-held beliefs. Beliefs a long-suffering America found herself belatedly ready to embrace at last this past November. It was but a matter of time for Senator Kennedy and that alarm he sent to his colleagues in-state was as close to a self-administered last rites as we've ever seen. His causes live on though...and it is up to those who are with us now...those who have benefited from his efforts and those who he thought worthy enough to continue the fight in his name and with his blessing. to do just that.
For Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy, the battles are at long last, done, and peace has finally come.
Godpseed Senator, on your journey home.