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Senator Edward M. Kennedy

The Little Pictures of The Last Liberal

By Carter B. Horsley

Ted Kennedy is past.

His passing was not a surprise as the diagnosis that he had brain cancer came 16 months before he was interred at Arlington National Cemetery August 29, 2009.

His passing was a great revelation, however, as the services accompanying his funeral were full of a remarkable number of testimonials to his quite wonderful personality and humanity.

We all knew, of course, of his role as the surviving patriarch of the "Kennedy family," and of his 47-year career as a United States Senator from Massachusetts in which he never wavered from the fight for the ideals and principles of the Democratic Party.

The onerous weight of the family setting impractical standards.  Can you top brother Jack, or even Bobby?  Must you, too, be assassinated, oh handsome young caesar?

His father was not a perfect shining example of political brilliance and noble causes: a bootlegger who was not repelled by the Nazi horror.

His brother Jack was an inspirational Presidential candidate in 1960 who surprisingly did not nominate Adlai E. Stevenson as Secretary of State after he became President and revealed a very conservative strain of anti-Communism that lead to the American involvement in the Vietnam War and an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba, an endeavor that ultimately brought the world to the very brink of nuclear war when he enforced a naval blockade of Cuba, which is a classic definition of an act of war.

His brother, Robert, did not have the guts of Senator Eugene McCarthy to oppose the war in Vietnam until he saw that opposition was popular and then he undercut the courageous Senator McCarthy so that he could run for president himself as a carpetbagging senator from New York, a move that no doubt inspired Hillary Clinton's carpetbagging in the same state rather than her own Arkansas.  There ought to be a law against carpetbaggers!

Ted Kennedy did not have the "credentials" or intellect of Jack and Bobby but since the nepotism that made Bobby the Attorney General did not create a storm his brothers encouraged him to run for Jack's seat in the Senate.  He did and he won.  After all, a lot of the world was enchanted with the Kennedys then and Ted was the handsomest and it wouldn't hurt a new Senator to have "friends in high places."

The Kennedys were very rich and rich enough to adopt some liberal causes like civil rights and the Peace Corps and the Race to the Moon.  The world was changing.  Color TV was dawning.  The Age of Aquarius was rising.  Psychedelic art and drugs were rampant.  The Beatles' incredible burst of creativity showed the world that almost anything was possible.  All's right in such a marvelous world....Ah, Camelot.

The assassinations of Jack and Robert, of course, were very ominous.  The Humpty-Dumptism of America was in full-frontal agony.  Could the dream be remembered, or saved?  The civil rights problems persisted and the napalm-heavy Vietnam War outrages only grew worse.  To quote James Dean's memorable line from "Rebel Without a Cause," "You're tearing me apart!"

The climax, of course, was the assassination of Martin Luther King, who, like President Kennedy, erred on the side of caution.  He could have declared a one-day national work stoppage but told me he did not want to go that far...yet.

The world and the country wringed hands.  How could three major leaders be assassinated in this day and age with "The Sound of Music" waxing in the elevators.

The world hungered for some sense, some leadership out of the errant, shifting morass of moral instability.

Then, Ted Kennedy approached a bridge in Chappaqquidick on Martha's Vineyard and a 28-year-old woman named Mary Jo Kopechne died in the car crash and he did not come forward for a day.

His life, everyone thought, was over at least politically and with it the Hollywood dreams of happy endings and the endurance of the Kennedy "myth."

Life did go on and a few years later he initiated a run for the Presidency but it became clear pretty soon that the memory of Chappaquiddick and his delinquency in coming forward would not disappear or fade away.

Arrogance is pretty repellant and yet America has had a strange fascination with evil and redemption and the convenience of rhetorical oversight.  Charles Lindbergh's aerial  accomplishment was not all that spectacular but it was done at a time when public relations men ruled and the world was giddy and eager for heroes and therefore would later not get too outraged at Lindbergh's flirtation with the Nazis.

Some things should be unforgiveable but in a country where almost everyone is driven by greed who would cast the first stone?

Truth is definitely strange, perhaps even stranger than fiction and the growing population of the world created really complex problems and the sophisticated fought hard against simplistic answers and this was long before the mealy-mouthed hypocrisy of Post-Modernist interpretations of life.

Stanley Kubrick's "2001" (see The City Review article) crystalized the mystery and awe of our lives and futures.

So, in the midst of such universal mental chaos, did Ted meekly retreat to the nightclubs of Manhattan and the pleasant gusts of Hyannisport?  For a while, apparently.

But just as some Christians believe that Jesus Christ was resurrected, Ted did not hide under the rocks of the very rich but scampered about the Capitol's hallways in the finest traditions of the 1962 great political movie, "Advise and Consent," (see The City Review article), and, ostensibly, dedicated himself to being a good legislator in support of the common good.  Over the years other well-intentioned Democrats fell by the wayside of compromise until Ted became The Last Liberal, the heroic, iconic figure of democracy surrounded by a sea of conservatism and mediocrity and selfishness.  

Ted's rags were bloody but his profile unbowed.  One conjures him now, a bit puffy, but inclined forward with upraised right arm and booming voice incanting and enjoining the good, righteous fight.  Slings and arrows could no longer hurt him.  

There are a few good men.  

There are fewer great men.

Ted became great when principle overcame pride.  

Who would such fardles bear and who would so foolishly remain in embarrassing broad light?  

Who did he think he was?

That question perhaps begins to take us to the kernel of this statuesque figure.

Stripped of dignity and glory, he became fearless and fought many good fights, so many over so many years that he redeemed himself in the eyes of many.  Many sinners of course do public good works but it was only after his death that most of Ted's private good works came to light in the eulogies and praises about him from his colleagues and family.

The three-hour-and-seventeen-minute celebration of his life at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston the night before his funeral was remarkable.

Senators Orrin Hatch and Christopher Dodd spoke of his surprise visits and messages in time of need and suffering and Joseph Kennedy II spoke of the countless calls and visits by Ted to the families of soldiers from Massachusetts lost in the wars and individuals from Massachusetts lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and his son, Ted Jr., spoke of how he almost gave up his struggle to climb a hill after he lost one of his legs to cancer when he was 12 years old but managed to do because of the very  patient and confident prodding of his father.  

The  anecdotes were heartbreaking because they were all away from the public eye and all were not symbolic but real and constant.  He somehow managed to be the most complete and wonderful father to the entire Kennedy family if we are to believe them and there was no reason not to believe their sincerity.  Somehow, it seemed that his family oversight and caring was total, vital, important and heartfelt.

Ted was very human.  We, who did not know him, personally, could tell that from the gusto and rapture so obvious in photographs of him sailing, with his family, and with his colleagues and friends.

One of the last of so many speakers at the library was a former classmate of his from Harvard who told a very long tale of his first sailing experience with Ted.

Drolly and with poignant and exaggerated drama and emotion, he recalled his fears during a storm during the Nantucket Regatta and his relief at seeing Ted's father on the family yacht hailing them.  He said he looked forward to the shelter of the big yacht and its liquor cabinet and the fact that he and Ted could climb out of their soaking clothes and have the big yacht tow Ted's 26-foot sail boat back to the mainland  Ted's father broke that dream, however, and told them they would have to sail it back by themselves.  The episode didn't end with a great punch line but it reminded the television viewer of Senator Hatch's earlier comment that Ted after berating him fervently and loudly asked him "how he did."  

Such anecdotes, of course, should not surprise those of us who watched countless black-and-white photographs of the Kennedy's romping on their family estate's lawn playing touch football.  This was a competitive bunch.  Of course, Ted had to run for the Senate.  It was the nature of the game.  

What are friends and family for but to prod on, challenge, and commiserate and celebrate, the vicissitudes and vigor of life.

As many commentators have remarked after Ted's death, he had the luxury of a life much longer than his brothers and one in which he could appreciate and enjoy the adulation of his family and friends.

There was great passion and compassion in the speeches and remarks that night.  For this viewer, watching the burial the next day at Arlington made him cry in part because he had walked the same path over the bridge and up the hill at President Kennedy's burial but that memorable moment was overwhelmed when darkness overtook the ceremony for Ted and some of his grandchildren continued to speak without being seen underneath an incredibly dramatic sky of lightning.

This viewer will remember Ted not so much for his legislative accomplishments and record or for his famous family but for learning how he kept his eye on the importance of little things and gestures.  For him, the little picture apparently meant as much as the great big picture that he never lost sight of - the responsible pursuit of doing good for the less fortunate and also for one's friends and family.

The gods were making way for Ted, who was scrambling for every yard.


(In New York City, the only television channel that carried the entire burial service was MSNBC and it did so, to its great credit, without commercial interruption or editorial comment.)

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