I think it’s fair to say that my political leanings are far more to the right of Ted Kennedy’s, but having a strong sense of history I decided to watch the Senator’s final farewell on Saturday. After all, the Kennedy calamaties are like a side of the road accident that you just can’t turn your face away from. In the pundits’ commentary after the funeral mass and before the Arlington Cemetary burial, I learned a little about the liberal lion that every conservative loves to hate.
As a 6’2″, 200 lb. reciever out of Harvard in the early 1950’s, he was briefly recruited to play professional football for the Green Bay Packers. Yeah, that would have been for the great Vince Lombardi. He declined and joined the Army for a short stint…inauspicous and non-risky, but service nonetheless. In late 1968, after burying yet another brother, Ted set out on a sail from Hyannisport with no particular harbor as a destination and did not return for eight weeks. He was a great lover of music and loved after dinner sing alongs. Over his 47 year career, more than 1,000 laws have his fingerprints with over 300 written by his own hand. There is no U.S. Senator who has had more lasting effect on government than Ted Kennedy. While I don’t agree with many of his programs, I have to respect the body of work of a dedicated public servant.
It is a true testament to the man that the most cherished job in DC for a staffer was to work for him. That’s because you had to be the best of the best to work on Kennedy’s staff. He required smart, confident people to work long, arduous hours, but as a Kennedy colleague you would be on top of every issue and basically have your ticket punched for bigger things if you so desired.
While Kennedy deserves respect for his hard work and dedication to his ideals to provide a better life for those with no voice, his foibles cannot be overlooked. One has only to re-read Michael Kelly’s GQ piece from 1990 to be amply disgusted by Ted’s lavicious behavior through liquor and women. If his name had been Edward Moore, would America and history have been so kind?
The Greek-like tragedy of the Kennedys is well documented and many Americans – conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican – have followed the triumphs and trevails of this large, political family of priviledge. I’m a lover of biographies…always have been. As a youngster, I read everything available on John F. Kennedy and his brief, shining moment. After absorbing all I could from JFK literati of the day, I moved on to Jackie and RFK, but probably the most prolific book that I’ve read on the subject of the Kennedys is, in fact, The Kennedys: An American Drama by Peter Collier.
Written in an informative style and pulling no punches, the book explored the various generations of the Kennedys and how they came to be in America. It explored their inauspicious migration from Ireland and the true political kingpin of the family, Rose’s father, Honey Fitzgerald. In excruiating detail, the authors explored the hubris and audacity of Papa Joe Kennedy in women, business and politics and the dramatic accumulation of wealth through bootleg liquor, moving pictures, and advantageous real estate during The Great Depression. Shrewd in both business and personal matters, Kennedy used every connection and acquaintence to build a monumental fortune. One that would sustain a very large contingent for generations.
There are/were a lot of imperfect Kennedys. Perhaps that is why the nation has identified with the family over the years. Despite their immense wealth and priviledge, the Kennedys are accepted as “one of us” due to their overwhelming loss and calamity. Most people’s barometer of fairness balances the Kennedy wealth and prosperity with their unfathomable tragedy. If the loss of oldest brother, Joe, in WWII, and oldest sister Kathleen shortly after the war, were not devestating enough, the very public and horrific deaths of government servant brothers, John and Robert, ensured permanent and deep sorrow from America for this seemingly congenial, “All-American” family.
After all, didn’t hundreds of thousands of families understand the loss of a son to war? Didn’t millions of families lose daughters to horrific accidents? Didn’t millions of families have mentally difficient children? Didn’t millions watch the assassinations of young, vibrant change agents with dread and indignation? Yes, America’s love affair with the Kennedys is one born more of pity, than envy. Additional tragedies and scandals of the next generation have added to that pity, but none greater than the epic loss of the treasured John-John — that sweet young boy with barely a recall of his fallen father who had grow up to be so smooth, so handsome, and with so much hope in a Kennedy redemption.
While “Uncle Ted” attempted to atone for past sins over the last 40 years, his real reckoning was only realized after meeting his second wife, Victoria. I may be biased, but Cajun women have a way of straightening out troubled men. When Ted met Victoria, his life was really in the shitter. Having to publicly reveal details of drunkedness and debauchery in his nephew’s (William Kennedy Smith) Florida rape trial, it looked to be the beginning of the end for Ted Kennedy. After Vicky, Ted seemed to settle into his patriarch role more comfortably and she appeared to wean him off of alcohol and the irresponsible behavior he used to act out his grief and self-failings.
As I watched the ceremonies yesterday, I wasn’t particularly impressed by the President or past Presidents, nor the 57 Senators in attendance. What really gave me a new appreciation was the Senator’s son, Teddy, Jr’s remarks. His particularly poignant story of his father’s caring and determination with getting the younger Ted to climb up an icy hill on his new prosthetic leg as a 12 year old, showed the love and dedication of a father. The other compelling tribute was from his grandchildren.
I completely understand what it is to be the grandchild of an imperfect grandfather. The whispers, insults and disdain of a philanderer, of which you have no understanding. To these children, Ted Kennedy was the grandfather that they sat on the porch with, sailed around Cape Cod with and who dotted unabashedly about them. Their words were the most compelling and most humanizing of Ted Kennedy. At the end of the day, Teddy was simply Grandpa. Dad. Uncle Ted. Brother, son, father, grandfather.
And, despite significant failings and shortcomings, he was loved. Not only by his family, but by his God. The tenants of Catholicism are centered around forgiveness. There are ample opportunities to be forgiven and it is likely that Ted Kennedy begged that forgiveness over his last 14 months. His sins were grave, but no graver than the rest of us, for all sins are considered of similar consequence. In his letter to the Pope earlier this summer, Ted Kennedy tried to explain his life. He asked for prayer from The Holy See, while offering his own prayers for the Pope and the Church.
While there is a particular duplicity to the life of Ted Kennedy and many refuse to acknowledge the positive impact that Ted Kennedy has had on our country, the fact is that you can’t deny that this “baby brother” steered the helm of the Kennedy ship through its’ darkest, most tumultous waters with stoic determination, compassionate understanding, and loving support. In the end, Ted Kennedy’s honed leadership skills were the most appropriately used where they made a bigger impact than legislation…a family’s legacy.
Rest in Peace.
Waiting on an Angel, Ben Harper