When a comedian leaves the stage at the end of a show, you always want to leave the audience laughing. No matter how well your performance was received, your last routine tends to leave the most lasting impression on the audience.
And so it was with the closing act in the life of Ted Kennedy. Although he accomplished more than any Senator in history, the quality of his that has been referred to the most is Kennedy's great, bellowing laugh, his wonderful and at times mischievous sense of humor, and his refusal to take himself too seriously even as he grappled with the serious issues of our time.
There were personal missteps along the way, but just as an audience allows a comedian to redeem himself after a joke misfires, Ted Kennedy left the stage for the last time with the enormous respect and gratitude of most Americans. And just like a successful comedian, he left us laughing too.
His memorial service and his funeral were filled with wonderfully funny stories about how funny Ted Kennedy was. And how much fun he was to be around. And among those who expressed those sentiments were John McCain and Orrin Hatch, who usually disagreed with Kennedy, but as Hatch said, were "fighting brothers". Which meant these three men from widely different backgrounds and with starkly contrasting ideology, still found common ground the way a family does. Because all three men were passionate about their beliefs, passionate about public service, and passionate about getting things done for the American people.
Today most Senators and Congressmen are passionate about themselves, passionate about their political future and passionate about being mean to those they disagree with. Those Republicans who care only about trying to defeat President Obama and hope that a failure to get healthcare reform passed will be his "Waterloo", will receive no laughter, and no applause when they leave the stage. And they will have left no lasting impression with their audience.
And those Democrats who are more interested in protecting the interests of the insurance and pharmaceutical companies than standing up for the rights of the people, will likewise be ignored and forgotten by their audience when they leave the stage.
Someone told me they thought the way Ted Kennedy got along with his adversaries was "old school". There's nothing old about treating people honestly and respectfully, there's nothing old about seeking the facts and honoring the truth, and there's certainly nothing old about being a nice, charming, funny, smart person who treats people in a caring way.
I would call the political discourse of today more like elementary school, except that would be unfair to elementary school kids. And the mean spiritedness of some politicians and some of those in the media is more like high school.
One of the few to rise above this pettiness and demonization is President Obama, whose judgement, intelligence, fairness and humor often make him appear to be the only adult in the room. That's why Ted Kennedy saw Obama as the best person to carry the Kennedy torch.
As we approach the closing act of the healthcare debate, both Republicans and Democrats are not connecting with the audience. They can choose to leave the stage before the show is over, like some Republicans have done. They can try to win the audience over with cheap, mean-spirited material.
Or they can do as Teddy would have done. They can be smart. They can be honest. They can be nice. And yes, they can be funny. And if they can do all of that, they will earn the standing ovation America just gave Ted Kennedy.
And when that happens, Ted Kennedy will have the last laugh.
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