How unusual to mark the death of a Kennedy man in old age and from ordinary circumstances like illness. No tragic accidents. No political homicides. No footage to watch, obsessively, for decades to come, wondering what brought that moment on.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy lived on beyond his legendary brothers and faced the task that both John and Robert were denied: living. Living on to face the ebb and flow of an over forty year political career in the US Senate. Living on to represent the state of Massachusetts, the voters of which returned him to that job over and over again. Living on to craft a place of true effectiveness within the numbingly ineffective culture of the US Capitol. Living on to also serve as the titular head of a large (in modern terms, enormous) family. The other Kennedy men died young and two are enshrined in a place in the American soul that few humans can ever know. Ted lived on. To care. To serve. To love his country, his countrymen and his family.
Ted Kennedy died once. More than once, you might say. But beyond the crippling legacy of Chappaquiddick, Kennedy died in 1980, when the last brother played his last dynastic card in pursuit of the White House and lost to the smug Carter. Carter never had a more satisfying moment than when he vanquished a Kennedy in order to take the nomination. Months later, his Plains plain-ness was upended by another man with real charisma and less baggage than EMK.
After his "death" in 1980, he began the slow and deliberate effort to become a great lawmaker. Many Americans today forget that the role of the legislative branch is to make laws. The laws that stop abuses of power. The laws that enable men to live free. The people we send to the Hill today, what passes for leadership in America now, are easier to identify as partisan assassins, like the ruffian on a hockey team. You are more clear about what they are against, as opposed to for.
Barney Frank is, perhaps, one of the best examples of what a great legislator is today. Set aside your view of the policies themselves and keep your eye on who gets things done. On who sets out to do something ambitious and gets close. Never actually "there," mind you (that's only a war vote). But a law emerges that begins to improve the lives of many, many Americans. Kennedy worked a long time to become the Michael Jordan of that. The Nolan Ryan of that. The Joe Montana of that. He was a winner, in legislative terms. And even when he didn't win, he made you take it from him. He was a fighter. He knew, inwardly, that this is why he lived on. To fight. And he never stopped fighting.
I had the great privilege to travel to Massachusetts to campaign for Kennedy during the 1994 re-election. I had befriended the late Michael Kennedy at the 1988 Democratic convention, and Michael coordinated several trips I made to speak at mostly universities, colleges and community colleges. (I was much younger then, so my message played to a college crowd.) Ted was in some real trouble, according to the polls. His opponent, Mitt Romney, seemed more Kennedy-esque than Teddy. Young, handsome, rich, poised, Romney was looking unbeatable. Debates had been set for late October and some in Ted's campaign were clearly worried. Could Romney do to Ted what JFK did to Nixon? "Less will tune in for the second debate," Ted said. The first debate was all that mattered. Kennedy dug down deep and showed the voters of Massachusetts what the Kennedy who had lived on had to offer. Where time had taken his youthful passion, the very thing that had deified his late brothers, Kennedy's vast experience as a savvy, engaged lawmaker, not to mention political campaigner, knocked out Romney in the first round. It was on that day, I believe, that the Lion of the Senate emerged. A man who realized that living on, fighting on, with all of its attendant heartaches and pressures, had paid off. Other Kennedy men, as time raced on, were icons, figures, names. Here was Ted, alive, and giving it all he had.
After the debate, I was in a van with Michael. His phone rang and it was the Senator. "Whatever we've been able to do here these past weeks, you've played a part in that and I'm very grateful." I think I said "You're welcome, Senator Kennedy." Then I looked out the window and started to cry. I had believed in this man, and in various members of his unique family, all of my life. I had campaigned for many men and women seeking public office But here was one instance where I was able to believe that I had placed one brick in the wall of that 94 effort. Kennedy, a man who lived a life of service, had infected me with that spirit. It was 1960 or 1968 again. Ted inspired me to remember that politics, though spiritually demoralizing much of the time, is really the Great Calling. It is what matters most.
My thoughts and prayers are with his entire family. And Vicki. What a great woman, what a great person, Vicki is. Ted was lucky to have her.
Don't name a bridge after Ted. Or the wing of a prestigious university or airport. Name a building on Capitol Hill. That is where the heart of Teddy Kennedy can be found. On a sail boat, yes. At Hyannis or anywhere with his remarkable kin. Sure. But Edward Kennedy's legacy is the legacy of a man who lost the Presidency but lived on to become an effective and, therefore, great American political leader. That is something you and I and this country could not have lived without.
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