Wednesday, August 26, 2009

He Was a Kennedy

A friend roused me from my bed to deliver the news of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. We mourned together. We wondered together what kind of mindless hatred fosters the vile murders of not one, but two, Kennedy brothers. We wondered about the playboy kid brother, the last prince of the American Camelot. Should he retire from public life, build a Maginot Line around the Hyannisport complex, and shield himself from the forces of ignorance and hate? Or did he have the stuff in him to carry the torch?
Ted Kennedy's life, which ended just before midnight Tuesday, gave us our answers. As John M. Broder wrote in his excellent New York Times obituary:
"He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue, his powerful but pained stride. He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly. He was a Kennedy."
When the large flaws cost him the opportunity to seek the presidency, as his brothers had done, his large faith in himself drove him to become the most effective senator of his century. In the last 46 years, no piece of legislation to help the the sick, the poor, the wretched masses yearning to breathe free has become law without his stamp upon it. When President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act last April 24, we inaugurated the largest expansion of civilian service since the Depression Era Civilian Conservation Corps.
I hope legislation that establishes quality health care for every American will be enacted, and will bear his name, as well, for it was probably the greatest cause of his long and distinguished career.
Journalists' memories of Teddy tend to be associated with the Large Flaws. I directed a team of superb journalists, including the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Miller, covering Apollo 11. On the day before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren were scheduled to fly down to the moon, Miller told me that the bosses had ordered him off the moon flight. What could possibly be more important in July of 1969 than the first moon landing? "They want me to go to Martha's Vineyard," Miller said. "Teddy Kennedy's got himself into another mess. A young woman's dead." We expected "another mess" for the playboy brother. He was a Kennedy.
Similarly, we were not surprised when a Kennedy nephew hit the supermarket tabloids after a night of drinking with Uncle Ted. He was accused of rape by a woman he picked up in a bar after what he said was consensual sex on the beach at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach. A New York editor remarked to me, "it wasn't the kids who suggested that they go out bar-hopping. It was the 60-year-old guy." He was a Kennedy.
Another journalist friend remembers walking into the Sherry Netherland bar in midtown Manhattan late one night. "I sat down about three barstools from Teddy, then married to Joan," he recalls. "He was in the enthusiastic company of several girls, and surrounded as well by a band of dark-suited protectors. Everybody in the place was watching the Kennedy action, in which the three or four ladies were all vying for his attention. No mystery there, as beyond being Teddy, he was the best-looking guy in the place. " He was a Kennedy.
I remember a guy so focused on the legislative process that as he strode across the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda one day in the 70s, two of the bevy of aides jogging to keep up with him had to steer him by his elbows to prevent his walking into a pillar. He seemed to be conducting four or five conversations at once, barking orders, questions, thoughts, dictating memos. . . .until he spotted my companion, David Rosenbaum of the New York Times. Instantly he was transformed. His smile lit the hall. He thrust out his hand in welcome in that vigorous Kennedy style. "DAY-vid, " his brogue roared. "How ARE you?" He was a Kennedy.
But what I will never forget is the venom and bile he inspired in the Republican right.
A confession: In my college days I was an officer in the campus Young Republicans. My roommate then -- and lifelong dear friend thereafter -- was chairman of the organization.
Over the years we drifted in opposite directions politically. A few years ago we had dinner in Los Angeles. As usual, we agreed to disagree, in gentlemanly fashion, on the political topics of the day. Until Teddy's name came up.
John fulminated so apoplectically that I feared he'd have a stroke. "Why do you hate Ted Kennedy so much?" I asked when he'd calmed down.
John, one of the fastest thinkers and most articulate speakers I've known, sputtered briefly. Finally he blurted:
"Because he's a KENNEDY!"

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