Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Dream Lives On: Ted Kennedy 1932-2009

His is a uniquely American story, one of triumph and tragedy, sin and forgiveness, personal failing and public redemption, a life that, in the end, left the United States a more equal and just society and the world a better place. I was only three years old when Ted Kennedy was first elected to the U.S. Senate, so I am particularly saddened by his loss this week. For the past nearly 47 years, he has been a major force in American politics and a constant presence in the events of our time. I feel a profound sense of loss, as if his passing marks the end of an era, the final chapter of Camelot. He was not the brightest of the Kennedy brothers, nor the most eloquent, but he was the most hard working and, in the end, it was Ted, not John, not Robert, who materially improved the lives of millions of Americans – advancing the causes of economic justice, civil rights, health care, medical research, education, inclusiveness, and peace.

Although I always admired the flair and charisma of John Kennedy, through the years I have maintained a particular affinity for Robert Kennedy, a prophetic and unifying voice at a time when our nation was in turmoil, divided over Vietnam, civil rights, and the sexual revolution. He gave voice to reason and justice at a time when many Americans had lost faith in our institutions, our laws, and our values. It was Ted’s eulogy at Robert’s funeral, however, that captured best the significance and meaning of Bobby’s life:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.
41 years later, these words may just as easily be spoken of Ted, a flawed but decent man, whose public legacy lives on in the great legislative achievements of the past half-century. It was Ted who led the fight for, and helped to enact, virtually every major civil rights bill since 1964 -- laws that improved the lives of millions of ordinary and previously disenfranchised Americans, giving voice and political power to blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women. Ted led the way in passing and later renewing the voting rights, fair housing, and public accommodation laws of the 1960’s, and fought the Reagan Administration’s attempt to gut these laws in the 1980’s. He led the fights for immigration reform, the abolition of the draft, and the right of 18 year-olds to vote. He was instrumental in passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and his fight for universal health care spanned nearly his entire legislative career and became, in some ways, the cause of his life.

A man of wealth and privilege, he became the voice of the poor and the outcast, the protector of working families and the middle class, and a passionate advocate for peace. He fought tirelessly to increase the minimum wage, to provide health care for the unemployed, to fund cancer research and services to those with HIV and AIDS; he was instrumental in obtaining federal funding for community health centers, Meals on Wheels, and health and nutrition programs for pregnant women and infants. He articulated the cause of peace in Northern Ireland and the end of apartheid in South Africa. And at a time when most of his Democratic colleagues lost their backbone, he passionately opposed the War in Iraq. The list goes on and on.

Ted will be remembered as one of the most effective Senators in U.S. history, one who understood when to hold firm to principle and when to compromise, when to fight and when to shake hands. He understood that politics is, and always has been, the art of the possible and, while he was unwavering in his desire to give voice to the least powerful in society, he understood that you must sometimes accept small victories before you can achieve larger ones. But even when he compromised, he never lost sight of the larger objectives, the dream of a better, safer, more equal and more just America.

He was fun loving and gregarious, the life of the party and, as we know, at times incredibly reckless. He was indeed an imperfect man. But intertwined among his many failures was profound suffering. He lost all three of his brothers and a sister by the time he was 36, buried three of his nephews, and experienced the pain only a father can feel when cancer and illness strikes a child. It would have been completely understandable on numerous occasions had he simply wallowed in self-pity and withdrawn from public life. Yet the pain and suffering he experienced internalized within him a profound sense of humility, and empathy for the sufferings of others. Despite his fame and fortune, he has frequently reached out in deeply personal ways to others burdened by pain, loss, and the need for redemption. Think what you may of his personal failings, but he has suffered more tragedy and loss than most of us will ever know in a lifetime, and yet he has shown a resilience and perseverance to work for a more just and caring society. And along the way, he helped raise three children and acted as the surrogate father to twelve nephews and nieces who had lost theirs.

The heart and soul of the Democratic Party, Ted was unapologetically moral in his public discourse, something very few Democrats over the years have been able to master. Unlike his ideological opponents on the right, however, Ted’s morality did not concern the private lives and failings of others – of which he knew he had fallen short – but instead concerned a public morality, the duty and obligation of Americans to take care of the weak and powerless.

One morning in the late 1970’s, I took a break from my college studies to watch an episode of the Phil Donahue Show, when Senator Kennedy was the guest. Pointing to charts and graphs, he argued his case for national health insurance. Although I cannot remember the statistics he recited that morning, I do remember the moral simplicity of his argument, one based on a strong sense of right and wrong – that in the richest country on earth, a nation blessed with abundant wealth, talent, and natural resources, basic medical care was a right, not a privilege. Kennedy understood just how privileged he was, and he believed with all his heart that the working class Irish family in South Boston and the poor black family in Roxbury had as much right to take a sick child to a doctor as did a millionaire from Martha’s Vineyard. He believed that, in America, health care was not a commodity to be bought and sold like soap and toothpaste. His concern for the poor, the disabled, the disenfranchised, came from his deep Catholic faith, one that stressed an obligation to care for the poor, the sick, and the less fortunate. It is no accident that the Gospel lesson at Kennedy’s funeral was a reading of Mathew 25:40, “whatever you did for the least of these my brethren, you did for me.”

On June 6, 1993, the 25th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death, I attended a Mass for Courage and Reconciliation at Arlington Cemetery. It was a magnificent affair, attended by the entire Kennedy clan, along with President and Mrs. Clinton and an assortment of dignitaries. A beautiful summer evening, I was seated on the grass very close to the invited guests (I remain forever grateful to Patricia Riley, my then supervisor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, who had worked in Robert Kennedy’s senate office when he was assassinated and who invited me to attend this event). Senator Ted Kennedy read from Ulysses by Tennyson, one of his brother’s favorite poets. The words reflect, in part, why I continue to be inspired and moved by the mystique of the Kennedy brothers. It is not so much who they were as individuals – for they, like us, were flawed human beings with varying strengths and weaknesses – but for what they symbolized: A sense of purpose, a higher calling, a constant striving for perfection. I love the Kennedy brothers because they have inspired in me a desire to be a better person, to do more for my community and my country, to aspire to an ideal for which I cannot help but fall short. On that summer night in 1993, Ted recited these words:

Come, my friends
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are ---
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
I will miss you, my friend.


  1. Mark,
    Very nice article about Ted. Thanks for articulating what many of us feel.

  2. Ben,

    Thank you for the comment. I am glad it had meaning for you.

  3. Mark,

    Your piece is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing it, and there are many people to whom I want to pass this along. The weekend was extremely moving and inspiring for me.

    I spent Saturday morning in tears, watching the funeral. Saturday afternoon, along with my sister who was visiting, and my niece, we headed for the Capitol and waited to see the hearse pass by. Appropriately, we stood next to a family from Ireland who coincidentally was in town for 2 days.

    You captured many of our thoughts and emotions in your article. As a member of a big Irish Catholic family, you know the Kennedy’s were my heroes. I still remember, as a little girl, my best friend (not Irish) telling me that her Dad said that JFK would never be elected president because no one would vote to elect an Irish Catholic. This sentiment reinforced what my grandmother had told me from birth (she grew up in the “no Irish need apply” years,) that we Irish were not welcome by mainstream society. So with JFK’s election came a semblance of societal legitimacy. But, more than standing in society (‘cause to be honest with you, I don’t think that really mattered to many of us) what the Kennedy’s gave us was pride in our culture and heritage, infused as you noted in Catholicism --it’s tenets of love, equality and social justice —which are firmly rooted in our belief system. Even with their human mistakes and shortcomings, as you mentioned, the Kennedy’s did not back down from their social commitment, their Christian message, and every Irish person I know was proud of that. They were brave in verbalizing these beliefs, in a world where such expressions were/are often viewed as sappy and weak. They gave us even more than their lives, in that they left behind direction for our lives. (When my dad died last year, and I was broken hearted I thought to myself, “how would the Kennedys act”, and drew upon their strength to carry on.) Like you, I am feeing extremely sad, and as a member of this society, vulnerable—the person I could count on to do the right thing in Congress is gone.

    However, this past weekend inspired me to re-commit to action, social justice and my Christian beliefs, and once again, I owe thanks to the Kennedy family. Maybe in our own small ways we have to assume responsibility for society where Ted left off.

    Kathleen B.

  4. There is an ancient Chinese curse that goes: “May you live in interesting times.” A related curse might be: “May you have a defining moment.” Most people go their whole lifetime without experiencing a defining moment, forever ignorant of who they really are down deep in the marrow. For those not so lucky, the answer to who they really are can be a blessing or a curse. John and Edward Kennedy did not escape their defining moments and oddly enough they both involved water.

    John Kennedy used his family’s name not to avoid war, but to serve, and soon enough found himself the commanding officer of a fast sinking PT boat in the middle of Japanese infested waters in World War II. Kennedy and his men swam three and a half miles to an island, with Kennedy towing an injured man using his teeth to hold onto the man’s life jacket. Kennedy then swam to another island in search of food and water and for more than six days protected his men from harm and capture until being rescued.

    Twenty-six years later, Ted Kennedy found himself the driver of a fast sinking Oldsmobile in a tidal channel in the middle of Martha’s Vineyard. Also in the car was Mary Jo, the only child of Joseph and Gwen Kopechne, and a true-blue believer in all things Camelot. After escaping from the car, Kennedy claims to have tried to rescue Mary Jo, but having failed, thought it best to catch a few hours of shut-eye before reporting the accident to the police nine hours later and only after learning that the body had been discovered.

    It seems apparent that Kennedy agonized over how this incident would affect his political career, and so instead of picking from one of only two possible options: save Mary Jo himself or find someone who could, Kennedy chose Option Three: do nothing. The sad thing is this: no one would have faulted Ted Kennedy for saving his own life first, and had he run to the nearest house and called for help, not only might Mary Jo have survived (the diver who pulled her body from the car believes she may have lived for two hours desperately trying to keep her mouth in a shrinking pocket of air) but there would have been lots of witnesses for future campaigns giving testimonials to seeing Ted Kennedy valiantly trying to save the life of an innocent girl as rescue people arrived on the scene. The problem was that Ted and his brothers were never taught to do the right thing, but to take the things they wanted.

    Water took the measure of both brothers, finding one exceptional and the other all too average.

    The saddest thing about Edward Kennedy’s passing is that as interest in this fatally flawed man wains, there will be less and less reason to remember Mary Jo, a person who has always proved a barrier to those who wish to deify Kennedy and perpetuate the myth of Camelot; a time that only existed in the fevered imagination of a sycophant news media and impressionistic and idealistic young people like Mary Jo. But barriers can be knocked down any number of ways: Melissa Lafsky, citing Kennedy’s impressive and endless legislation over the years, which would not have happened had Mary Jo not died and ruined Kennedy’s presidential aspirations, wonders what Mary Jo would have thought and answers that she might have felt her death was worth it. Others, like Adam Clymer, simply judge that all lives are not equal in importance, claiming Kennedy’s “achievements as a senator have towered over his time, changing the lives of far more Americans than remember the name Mary Jo Kopechne.” And still others simply gloss over or ignore Kennedy’s seminal moment, when his very soul was on display for all to see.


  5. I read your essay and had two thoughts. First, that I must have somehow missed the part about Kennedy’s soul being on display for all to see because I didn’t recall seeing Mary Jo’s name mentioned. I reread it again carefully and realized my mistake was in not reading between the lines, or more specifically, the words. That’s when I saw Mary Jo’s name: smashed tightly between “incredibly” and “reckless.”

    My second thought was that your essay idolized the wrong Kennedy. Regardless of Edward Kennedy’s accomplishments, his actions the night Mary Jo died and continuing until he read his self-serving statement a week later, doomed his chances of redemption by anyone this side of heaven. And it should not be about John F. either, who had as many spectacular failures as he had victories. Not Robert or Joseph and certainly not their barbarous father. I was thinking of the one person who personified the mystical Camelot, who made John F. Kennedy’s inspiring words real and transformed them into action and who managed to conduct herself with dignity.

    Like the Kennedys, Mary Jo Kopechne was a Roman Catholic, but unlike them she was devout and for a time considered becoming a nun. She graduated with a business degree from a Catholic college in New Jersey and, inspired by her idols, John F. and Robert Kennedy, joined the Civil Rights Movement and moved to Montgomery, Alabama to teach black children.

    Mary Jo then got a job in Senator Robert Kennedy’s office and became a tireless worker in his 1968 presidential campaign. As reported in "Time Magazine" back then, although she became politically savvy, she remained “engagingly wholesome, did not smoke and rarely drank.” She was devoted to her parents and always let them know her travel plans.

    After Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Mary Jo joined the Southern Political Education and Action Committee, registering black voters in Florida.

    A reunion party put together by Ted Kennedy brought Mary Jo and her former campaign co-workers back together on Martha’s Vineyard. It was a way for Teddy to assure them that they would always have a “home with the Kennedy family.” It’s likely that they watched some of the Apollo 11 flight to the moon, an adventure made possible by Mary Jo’s idol, John Kennedy. And then Mary Jo made the deadly decision to accept Ted Kennedy’s offer of a ride back to her hotel.

    The whole story has the feel of a Greek Tragedy: The only Kennedy brother to survive was the lessor of the four, and his survival meant the death of not only the true personification of Camelot but also of the very idea of Camelot.

    Mary Jo had the Kennedy idealism without the Kennedy narcissism. Maybe in time she would have entered the arena herself and picked up where John F. left off, heading towards a type of Zell Miller, common sense, Democrat. As the Time article relates, Mary Jo idolized John and Robert, but not so much Teddy.

    But what ifs are ultimately pointless; we’ll never know what might have been because Mary Jo was denied her defining moment by a man who failed his.

    Rich R.

  6. Rich,

    First, thank you for sharing what a truly wonderful human being Mary Jo Kopechne was. I wish I had known her, and I wish Chappaquidick had never occurred. I would never try to excuse or make light of Ted Kennedy's incredibly bad conduct and judgment he displayed on that fateful night in 1969. But I also recognize that people -- including many good people -- make some very bad mistakes during their lifetime. When the accident happened, Kennedy panicked and exercised poor judgment and character. But I prefer to judge a man's life by what he did over a lifetime, not by his darkest hour. Was Chappaquidick sufficient to preclude Ted from becoming President? I believe that it was, and I was not upset when Ted was defeated in the 1980 primaries (in fact, I was somewhat angry at him that he ran, as it helped to elect Ronald Reagan, a man who single-handedly did more to defeat the vision of America that Mary Jo Kopechne held and, for a tragically short time, worked for).

    My piece, however, was as much about what Kennedy -- all the Kennedys -- have symbolized for me (and millions like me), not because of who they were as individuals (flawed and very human), but for what they strived for, and for how they inspired us. I am sure you feel similarly about Ronald Reagan, so that is great, but Reagan never did it for me, the Kennedys are more my cup of tea.

    As for Mary Jo, my heart goes out to her soul, her family, and her spirit.

  7. Mark,

    I agree that good people can make bad judgments in moments of great stress, but when the dust settles they must be able to do the right thing, as opposed to the politically expedient thing or the selfish thing. What Ted Kennedy did in the week after Mary Jo died was to get together some great political minds, including Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger, and figure out the best way to spin Mary Jo’s death. Surprisingly, these very talented people came up with a transparently self-serving mea culpa speech, the main objective of which was to save Kennedy’s political future. Mary Jo’s death was a tragic accident; Kennedy’s speech was calculated propaganda.

    Take a look at the speech and imagine Nixon saying the words. Would you be as forgiving? Here are some of my favorite parts:

    “Nor was I driving under the influence of liquor.” (That’s just plain funny.)

    “...the car that I was driving on an unlit road went off a narrow bridge which had no guard rails and was built on a right angle to the road.” (It was the car’s fault... no wait, the road’s fault... no wait, the bridge’s fault... no wait...)

    “I made immediate and repeated efforts to save Mary Jo by diving into the strong and murky current...” (“ the dark and stormy night.”)

    “...I suffered a cerebral concussion, as well as shock, (but) I do not seek to escape responsibility...” (But it was one of those really bad cerebral concussions! Did I mention I was in shock?)

    “I walked back to the cottage...” (This is petty of me, especially considering it is probably the most accurate description of his actions that night, but why would Sorensen, the guy who wrote “Profiles in Courage” for crying out loud, not have at least written, “I walked briskly back...”)

    “(I) directed them (Joseph Gargan and Phil Markham) to return immediately to the scene with me... in order to undertake a new effort to dive down and locate Miss Kopechne. Their strenuous efforts, undertaken at some risk to their own lives, also proved futile.”

    “All kinds of scrambled thoughts... went through my mind during this period... whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys...” (A woman dies and it’s all about him! The curse is powerful enough to kill brothers Joe, John and Robert, but to get Teddy it must do so by proxy!)

    Another scrambled thought: “...whether somehow the awful weight of this incredible incident might in some way pass from my shoulders.” (Nice, but I like the original better: “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me...”)

    “I suddenly jumped into the water and impulsively swam across, nearly drowning once again in the effort, and returned to my hotel...” (Got that? Teddy almost died, too... Twice!)

    “In the morning, with my mind somewhat more lucid, I made an effort to call the police...” (Crap, got that wrong; replace “the police” with “a family legal advisor.”)

    “...I felt morally obligated to plead guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident.” (“And because trash floated out of my car, I also insisted that they cite me for littering.”)

    “These events... raises the question in my mind of whether my standing among the people of my state has been so impaired that I should resign my seat in the United States Senate.” (“I’m not going to, you understand. I’m just saying...”)

    “The people of this state, the state which sent John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster, and Charles Sumner, and Henry Cabot Lodge, and John Kennedy to the United States Senate are entitled to representation in that body by men who inspire their utmost confidence.” (Did he do what I think he did? Man he had a pair!)

    “For me this will be a difficult decision to make.” (“Just kidding!”)


  8. Kennedy ended the Sorensen speech by quoting a passage from his brother’s book, ghostwritten by Sorensen, without attributing it to either man: “It has been written a man does what he must in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles, and dangers, and pressures, and that is the basis of human morality. Whatever may be the sacrifices he faces, if he follows his conscience -- the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow man -- each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of the past courage cannot supply courage itself. For this, each man must look into his own soul.”

    Wish were it true...

    Even if you view the entire week as one long panic, in which case you would have to believe in conspiratorial panics to explain the shameful thinking of his advisors, that doesn’t explain his behavior over the next four decades.

    Over the years Kennedy twice invited Mary Jo’s parents to visit him with the understanding that he would explain to them what really happened to their daughter and twice, after traveling to meet him, Kennedy said he couldn’t talk about it.

    After Kennedy’s death, his friend, Newsweek Magazine editor Edward Klein, revealed that one of Teddy’s “favorite topics of humor was, indeed, Chappaquiddick itself and he would ask people, ‘Have you heard any new jokes about Chappaquiddick?'”

    He named his dog “Splash” for God’s sake!

    Possibly I’m being mean, but double standards get under my skin. I can’t tolerate the toleration others have for those with whom they agree, while being unforgiving to the mistakes of those with opposing opinions.

    Since 1967, using a bully pulpit that he did not have the honor to give up, Edward Kennedy has repeatedly slandered good men.

    “Shamefully we now learn that Saddam’s torture chambers reopened under new management, U.S. management.” (He learned of this misconduct because our military policed itself!)

    “There was no imminent threat. This was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically. This whole thing was a fraud.” Said sometime after saying, “We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction.”

    “The war in Iraq has made the mushroom cloud more likely, not less likely.”

    And what can only be described as political pornography of the lowest order: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, school children could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens of whom the judiciary is -- and is often the only -- protector of the individual rights that are at the heart of our democracy.”

    Ted Kennedy’s behavior is excused or forgiven because of the “greater good” he has done over the years. But this rests on the assumption that there is almost universal agreement that his accomplishments have been good for America, which in many cases, is not the case. In fact, good arguments can be made that more times than not his legislation has hurt this country and the very people he claims to champion. To cite just one example, minimum wage laws, besides being ant-American, anti-capitalist and anti-freedom, also result in the loss of jobs by those who are in the most desperate need.
    We cannot judge a man’s life using an arbitrary yardstick of our own design, but instead must judge him by standards that have stood the test of time.

    Rich R.

  9. Rich,

    That you think minimum wage legislation is anti-American and anti-freedom says all we need to know. Your distaste for everything Kennedy has little to do with his handling of the accident at Chappaquidick and almost everything to do with your ideological opposition to virtually all of his accomplishments outlined in my post. Despite the Senator's flawed personal history, I much prefer his value system and concern for others over that of your political heroes.