THE BLOG
09/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ted Kennedy's Life is a Parable

It was mid-December 2007 when longtime politico Steve Smith beseeched me to go hear fledgling presidential candidate Barack Obama speak at the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal City. He's the real deal, Steve insisted.

To Baby Boomers like us, saying someone was the "real deal" meant something. And indeed, not since 1968 and the excitement generated by presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy had I felt the aspirations of youth embraced so authentically as they were that night by the thin African American embodiment of change American needed.

And it meant even more about six weeks later when "liberal lion" Ted Kennedy endorsed Obama over Hillary Clinton, passing the mantle of the Hyannis Port Kennedy legacy to the son of an integrated marriage when such a union was widely scorned and outlawed in some states. It was as if Kennedy was anointing Obama with the joyful burden of fulfilling the promise of Camelot -- a promise of an age of peace, prosperity and humble nobility as it was romanticized in the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and the presidency of his brother John F. Kennedy.

Ironically, the life of Ted Kennedy, who passed away from brain cancer late Tuesday night, may also serve as just a potent a parable for America as JFK's Camelot.

For Baby Boomers born in the aftermath of World War Two, the Atomic Bomb, the Cold War and the subversive, commie-and-queer hunting black and white conformist 1950s, the world changed the day Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the nation's youngest president. The young, rich Catholic personified the torch being passed to a new generation - a generation that cherished public service as a noble calling. With Kennedy came dreams in color, idealism expressed in folk music, the civil rights awakening, the Peace Corps and heroic deeds done for the Greater Good - all intertwined with the myth of Camelot as portrayed in Kennedy's favorite musical.

But there was also the darker side of Camelot -- the Bay of Pigs, the beginning of the Vietnam War and an inauthentic collective effort to deny that the handsome young president wasn't cheating on his beautiful wife Jackie with Marilyn Monroe and a mob bosses' mistress.

When JFK was assassinated, the burden of the Camelot legacy fell to Robert F. Kennedy, JFK's younger brother. As JFK's Attorney General, the very private RFK was pugnacious, from integrating the administration to going after corrupt mobbed-up labor leaders and openly defying the FBI's untouchable J. Edgar Hoover. He also approved Hoover's wiretaps on civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. while also defying the supremacy of "state's rights" by upholding voting rights and prosecuting local southern election officials. As a senator from New York, Bobby opposed the Vietnam War, spoke out against the poverty of the "two Americas" and served as a hero to the civil rights movement. Like his brother, Bobby was the picture of youth, vitality and idealism when he ran for the presidency. He was assassinated in 1968 on the cusp of victory.

Younger brother Edward M. Kennedy -- Teddy -- was a handsome third wheel during most of this time. Though he'd won a special election in 1962 to fill JFK's senate seat, he was largely overshadowed though he developed legislative skills pushing for voting and immigration rights.

His eulogy for RFK exhibited a flare for oratory and an understanding of the Kennedy/Camelot legacy of idealism and patriotic public service:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: 'Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.'

But there was also the dark side. Ted seemed to publicly embody the privileged world of arrogant excesses, which was thrown into sharp focus when, after a party, the infamous married womanizer drove his car off the Chappaquiddick bridge -- resulting in the death of his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. He didn't report the incident until 9 or 10 hours later and received what many thought was special treatment, pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident with a suspended sentence and a televised mea culpa.

Everyone knew that Ted's chances for the presidency died with Mary Jo Kopechne. And, indeed, he didn't run for what many believed was a Kennedy family mission if not self-selected birthright -- to become President of the United States -- until 1980 when he challenged low-polling incumbent Jimmy Carter.

Chappaquiddick hung like an albatross around Kennedy's neck, though he scuttled himself by his silent pause then rambling answer to CBS Newsman Roger Mudd's question: "Why do you want to be President?" The confounded expression on Kennedy's face was the real response -- "just because."

Kennedy's conduct -- taking the primary fight to the convention floor -- was not viewed favorably by many Democrats, either. I was working at CBS News in New York at the time and lived near the broadcast center on West 58th street. There was a gay bar up the street on 9th Avenue when I frequented pretending I was a journalist on foreign soil. The bartender and some of the gay patrons talked about this crazy woman named Anita Bryant and this religious right wing group called the Moral Majority backing the Republican, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Yeah, Kennedy had done some good stuff in the Senate -- but given his reputation and given the Iranian hostage crisis and the need to rally around the President -- they thought Kennedy was making a vanity run and hurting Carter's chance for re-election -- which meant the religious nut-jobs would win with Reagan.

I thought that was a pretty rough assessment. But when Kennedy failed to win enough delegates and refused to raise Carter's hand in a show of support -- I remembered the "vanity run" comment. The election was called for Reagan even before the polls closed in California -- and sure enough -- those religious right wingers ran Reagan's domestic policy when AIDS first started claiming gay men.

Ironically, the profound loss of the presidency seemed to free Kennedy to become one of the best senators the nation has experienced. He embodied liberalism when the word "liberal" was shunned and shredded to nothing, replaced by the word "progressive." He fought tenaciously for women, gays, labor, immigrants, labor, education, and people with HIV/AIDS -- making health care reform and civil rights his priorities.

But Kennedy's reputation for drunken excesses and sexual exploits often overshadowed his legislative successes. He became the butt of late-night jokes when he was tangentially involved in a rape lawsuit brought by a woman with whom his nephew William Kennedy Smith claimed to have consensual sex. And women's groups felt betrayed when Kennedy sat silent when Anita Hill alleged sexual harassment by US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas during Thomas' senate judiciary confirmation hearings.

During this time, in the summer of 1991, Kennedy met his future wife, Victoria Anne Reggie. He came to recognize what he later described during an October speech at the John F. Kennedy School of Government as "the disappointment of friends and many others who rely on me to fight the good fight. To them I say, I recognize my own shortcomings -- the faults in the conduct of my private life. I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them."

Today, as politicians, pundits and the public -- including friends such as David Mixner -- sing the praises of the late "liberal lion" of the US Senate -- beloved even by many of his old political opponents -- it is that recognition and full admission of personal responsibility that sticks with me the most.

Indeed, today Ted Kennedy might echo the words he spoke about his brother, that he "not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it."

For Teddy Kenney's life is finally about redemption and in that, it's about me. This fallible, flawed white straight man of privilege lived parallel lives -- one devoted to public service and one devoted to his own excesses. When the pain of realizing he'd disappointed so many became too great to bear -- he turned his life around. And he did all this in the public eye. And while I'm considerably more private and my excesses are not documented in tabloid headlines -- I do have them; I have failed others, and if Ted Kennedy can turn his life around, so can I.

But beyond me, Ted Kennedy's life - his foibles and failures and endurance and success - is also a parable for America. For the real colorful dream of this country is not about a mythical Camelot but a real land of second-chances, a land of reinvention and fresh opportunity. It's the country that elected Barack Obama with the Kennedy blessing. Now it's up to us to fulfill the dream.