The Irony of Ted Kennedy -- A Different Perspective

10/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Sophia A. Nelson Award Winning Journalist & Author. Corporate/Personal Development Trainer, Cultural & Political Columnist for The Daily Beast/Women In The World, CNN, TheRoot & USATODAY

One of my earliest childhood memories is of a book I found amongst my mother's things when she was a nursing student in the late 1970s. The book was about Ted Kennedy titled, "Teddy Bare -- the last of the Kennedy Clan" (the book written by Zad Rust is now out of print). And it dealt with the Chappaquiddick incident. I must have been about ten years old when I picked it up and curiously started to read through. I was shocked and stunned to say the least.

Up to that point in my life I had only heard wonderful things about the late President John and his younger brother Robert -- I even had a children's book about PT-109 (President Kennedy's famed WWII heroics in the Pacific). I remember going to my older relatives homes and seeing three photos on the wall (one of a white long haired Jesus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and President John F. Kennedy) all in that order.

Like many of my generation, I grew up long after the assassinations of President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Yet, I was still fascinated by the legend of the Kennedy family. I became something of a Kennedy buff, you might say, in my teens and twenties, reading everything I could on the Kennedy assassination and conspiracy theories. I was sad when Jackie O passed away at the still young age of 62, and was deeply saddened when John F. Kennedy, Jr. died in the prime of his life. I felt so sorry for Caroline, who had lost her entire immediate family to death so prematurely in their lives.

Yet, Senator Ted Kennedy's death reminds me of something I have come to know well in my 40 years on this earth: that pain is a great teacher. It can do one of two things to us -- and only two: it will either make us hard, bitter, and rob us of our joy, of our ability to be present; or, if we handle it with grace and purpose, we grow stronger, wiser, and richer than before.

Ted Kennedy was a man who was born a son of privilege. He was the epitome of a spoiled, wealthy, rich, marginal white male who could count on his father or brothers to fix things for him when he fouled up. For example, Ted cheated at Harvard (and was later allowed to re-enroll), drank too much, womanized, and then at 30 years of age was handed his brother's Senate seat in 1963 (he was only 28 when Kennedy became president in 1961 -- so it was held for him by a placeholder until he reached 30) and he literally got away with (at the very least) manslaughter when he left Mary Jo Kopechne to drown off of the Bay when he plunged his mother's car into the pond.

Ted's foibles did not end there -- fast forward to the 1980s and reports of wild drinking and womanizing (that drove his first wife Joan to alcoholism) -- then the topper of them all: the rape trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith in Palm Beach, Florida.

Yet, through it all this was a man of great compassion and empathy for the less fortunate, the disenfranchised and the forgotten among us. Say what you will about Ted Kennedy, he was a very effective legislator and his action over the course of 47 years changed the lives of African Americans, women, the poor, and sick.

One has to ponder how this could be so?

I'll tell you how: the man experienced the most tragic of circumstances and loss of his life starting at an early age. His oldest brother Joe, Jr. killed in WWII when he was a boy. His sister Kathleen killed when he was a teenager. His brother Jack shot down when he was 31, and his brother Bobby when he was but 36. As an adult, he dealt with two of his children being stricken with cancer (his oldest son lost his leg at the age of 12), he had a wife who was an alcoholic (which he felt largely responsible for), his youngest son Patrick battled with depression, alcoholism and drugs.

Most of us would have developed some kind of psychosis or behavior problem if we had so much on our backs. Many of us do with so much less to bear. Most of us would have crumbled. He could not. My point is this: Senator Edward M. Kennedy was the last person on earth anyone would have ever expected to be so selfless, and caring of his fellow human beings.

His legacy was written long before he was born -- son of a wealthy Irish businessman, turned ambassador, brother of a president, brother of an attorney general. Yet, he endured and he was effective as a leader and statesman because he understood pain and loss. As we remember this lion of the Senate and have now laid him to his rest, allow me to borrow the final words he recited at his brother Bobby's funeral in 1968:

We pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.