Thursday, August 27, 2009

I'm Glad He Lived to Comb Gray Hair

When Ted Kennedy eulogized John Kennedy, Jr., he quoted a line from an Irish poet that caught my attention: 'We dared to dream that some day he would comb gray hair.'
It is a line that could have easily applied to his brothers, Joe, Jack or Bobby. Obviously not Ted.

There was a type of wondrous irony, that the Kennedy brother who seemed to be the least accomplished, the least acclaimed, the least charismatic when compared to nearly any of his siblings, turned out to be the most enduring and effective. To be a 'Kennedyphile' for my generation, was to know everything about conspiracy theories, John and Robert, Jackie O, maybe Joe, Sr. and Rose. There was, for most of our lives, something wildly out of sorts about the youngest Kennedy brother. But he is the one that has always been here. And in someways we were always comforted by that even though there were times we were not always quite sure about him.

We live in an oddly voyeuristic and hypocritically puritanical age now. We want the lurid details about the private lives of public people. At the same time, some of us feel quite at ease self righteously referring to President Kennedy, for instance, as a 'sleaze', while making clumsy excuses for the failures of the people we admire. Its quite easy to look back on the lives of historic figures and determine what they should have been when judged by our enlightened moral standards.

Were ours the predominating attitude in 1969, Edward Moore Kennedy's political career would have been over. Chappequiddick, the sad tragic death of Mary Jo Kopechne, Kennedy's irresponsibility and his clumsy attempt at accountability would have brought it to a screeching halt.

Ours is an political era during which we have disposable national figures. That's why many are cautious about running for office - especially the highest office in the land. Were that mindset the prevailing one in 1980, Ted Kennedy would have gone from contender for the presidency to a minor political player, making the cable news talk show circuit to make banal, partisan points regarding the minority or majority party position. Senator Kennedy went back to the senate and arguably became one of the most powerful Washington politicians of our age. He compiled such a resume of legislative achievements that he impacted the landscape of national public policy in ways that none of the 10 presidents elected during his near 50 year tenure in the senate had.

There was something unique and Kennedyesque about his endurance, even though it was endurance we had never seen in a Kennedy politician before. There was something reassuring about that endurance, so much so, I remember hearing adults (I was just about to vote in my first presidential election) that many hoped that he wouldn't run for the office in 1980 and having lost prayed he would never run again, lest he meet the same fate as his brothers.

So we've had Edward Moore Kennedy. A public figure, for almost 50 years, a senator, no less and a great one by nearly all accounts.

Kennedy became the master of the senate, in the way history records the profiles of, Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn or 'Tip' O'neil. But there was the Kennedy drama that went along with that period. Assassination. Scandal. Personal failure and weakness. We've seen him bear the burden of the legacy that fell on his shoulders; we've seen him buckle under that burden. We've seen him overcome, mature and we've seen him champion the causes that meant so much to so many.

We've seen him forge improbable alliances with political foes and we're hearing the stories of personal kindnesses that knew no ideological boundaries. We're hearing about the humanity of one who transformed the relationship of uncle to that of surrogate father to new generations of Kennedys and we've seen him expend the last of his political and personal character to get the first African-American president be elected.

Joe, Jr., Jack, Bobby and Ted. An era has ended.

People imperiously say they detest the word 'dynasty' when it comes to politics. That's because we now live in a country in which anyone believes they can rise as far as presidential office. Any man. Any woman. Any color. That's possible in part, because of this family were among those Americans committed to making the principles of democracy real; it was a family of privilege that didn't use that privilege as an excuse to hide from public life. Its fashionable to call it 'socialism' to use the wealth of the nation to care for others. The Kennedys used their wealth to free them to make life better for others. And talked of public service as a 'noble pursuit'.

All four brothers died in that pursuit. I don't mind calling that a dynasty.

Edward Moore Kennedy was not perfect. None of the brothers were. None of us are. The family has dysfunctions. Every family does. And they have suffered great tragedy - and it made them empathetic to the tragic sufferings of others. Would to God, that could be the case with more of us. Perhaps the greatest lesson of their lives is that your life doesn't have to be perfect to serve.
And to serve well and with honor.
Ted Kennedy did live to comb gray hair - and we're all the better for it.

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