I truly believe this is a sad day in American history—regardless of your politics.
I know Ted Kennedy was a punchline for many years for conservatives and also a target since, unlike a lot of Democrats, he never hid from the word liberal. But he was someone who was a force in the United States senate for a staggering amount of time—47 years—and, if you ask those who worked with him on both sides of the aisle, became one of the few people in an increasingly polarized political world who could actually get bi-partisan legislation moving in spite of Congressional gridlock.
In all, this has been a difficult summer for American icons (forget Michael Jackson PLEASE): Walter Cronkite, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and now, her younger brother, Teddy. There’s no doubt that all the living presidents from Jimmy Carter to Bush 1 and Bush 2 to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama will attend the memorial service for a man whose personal indiscretions kept him from being president but didn’t prevent him from making huge contributions to American life.
I certainly can’t claim to have known Senator Kennedy well at all. I interviewed him once, when I was researching my book on Red Auerbach. He and Red were good friends and had become very close when the senator’s son, Ted Jr., was fighting cancer as a 12-year-old. He was being treated at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Every other Friday he had to go in for a chemo treatment and, without fail if the Celtics were in town, Red would show up with at least one of his players to try to distract the younger Kennedy. In those days the Celtics almost always played at home on Sunday afternoons and Red would set the father and son up with tickets for the game.
“I think I can honestly say that a lot of the reason Teddy got through that period were the visits from Red and his players, plus looking forward to the games on Sunday,” Sen. Kennedy said to me. “Red always tried to portray himself as this gruff, tough guy, but he was always great with kids.”
As he talked about those days, Kennedy’s voice broke a couple of times. Obviously remembering his son going through cancer was a difficult memory but there was a poignancy to his memories of what Red had done that was quite genuine. I’m glad that—thanks to Red—I had a chance to meet him and spend a little time with him.
Politics have probably never been more polarized in this country than they are now.
Democrats like me are still taking shots at Bush and Cheney and the Republicans were ripping Obama about 15 seconds after he finished his Inaugural Address. (In the case of Rush Limbaugh that’s literally true). It is worth noting then that Kennedy was probably involved in more bi-partisan legislation than any other member of Congress in spite of his (well-deserved) reputation as one of the senate’s leading liberals. If the right wing gives him credit for nothing else, it should give him credit for being one of the last important politicians to recognize that the opposition party was just that—the opposition—and not the enemy. The enemy flies planes into buildings.
There is a lot to remember about Ted Kennedy. Certainly, Chappaquiddick is part of that. So are his many fiery convention speeches through the years. What I will remember is what was (for me) a very early memory. As a 12-year-old, I stuffed envelopes in Bobby Kennedy’s campaign headquarters at 81st and Broadway during the 1968 election. I remember waking up that June morning and asking my father, who was shaving in the bathroom, who had won the California primary. That was when my dad told me that Bobby had won but had been shot in a kitchen and was in critical condition.
He died, of course, two days later and I still remember his younger brother’s eulogy. “A man who saw suffering and tried to end it. A man who saw war and tried to stop it…” Voice cracking. I got to hear his voice crack again 35 years later sitting in front of him and I flashed back to that eulogy and remembered him as a heartbroken little brother, burying an old brother as a public figure for a second time in less than five years.
Some will, of course, focus on Chappaquiddick, which can’t be ignored. Others will through the liberal word around as if it is a profanity of some kind. I hope that most will be smart enough to understand that a great man, who dealt with more tragedy in his life than most of us would see in 10 lifetimes, lost a courageous battle yesterday.
Last summer, there was a story in The New York Times about Kennedy returning to the floor of the senate after his surgery for brain cancer to cast a key health care vote. His return had been kept very quiet and he was very weak but when the doors opened and he came in—the floor was packed because of the vote—99 senators were on their feet in an instant, cheering. A number of Republicans said afterwards that even though they knew his presence signaled that they were going to lose the vote, they were happy and moved to see him.
That’s the sort of thing people should be remembering about Ted Kennedy today. And this is very much a day to think about his life and his legacy.
We can all turn our attention back to sports tomorrow.