Letter From New York

A tale of two towns…

Or – as it seems to me…

September 4, 2009

Much of America paused this past Saturday to watch or listen to some of, if not all, of the funeral service for Edward Moore Kennedy, aka Ted Kennedy, Senior Senator from Massachusetts, the last of the fabled Kennedy brothers and the last male of that Kennedy generation –a bridge to the Camelot years – in other words, someone who was, pretty much, a living legend. He was the only Kennedy brother to live deep into adulthood, the others dead young, this one dying, hopefully peacefully, of natural causes – the only one of the four brothers to do so – male siblings felled violently in war or by assassins.

His brother Joe died a war hero; his brother Jack was the assassinated President and Bobby the martyred politician of such fierce promise. Teddy was the one who seemed to be getting his hand caught in the cookie jar of life – at least when he was younger. He seemed a bit of a charming n’er do well, then forever marked by his handling of the Chappaquiddick accident that claimed the life of Mary Jo Kopechne. That incident almost cost him the authoritative voice the Kennedy name and the iconic weight of his siblings granted him. Later he emerged as a statesman, the lion of the American Senate who was able to get legislation passed, pulling foes together for a common good.

He was a large man, florid, his face marked by the excesses of his life, eloquent, determined, witty, and close to the emotional rawness that comes with loss. I only encountered him in person once, long ago, when he delivered a eulogy for a friend’s cousin. The cousin had been a wealthy man, gay, and an AIDS activist who succumbed to the disease in the years just before the cocktail granted life extension to thousands. I don’t recall the words Kennedy said; I do recall they were inspiring and full of meaning, providing comfort to the family. One came away with the feeling that a lifetime of grieving gave him a gateway into that particular experience.

Perhaps that is what we remember most about Ted Kennedy and why we forgave him his trespasses; he buried so many and so many of us grieved with him over his losses. He was so eloquent in eulogizing Bobby that his words regarding his brother will continue to echo as long as Bobby is remembered. We will remember Teddy, as we will all Kennedy brothers, for their words, well chosen and eloquent, delivered with an elegance that has always seemed more European than American.

The Kennedy family seemed quintessentially American while at the same time sophisticated in an almost un-American way – they seemed to lack the rough edges of most of us. Uncharacteristically, the American nation forgave, eventually, the Kennedys their elegance and even began to emulate it and embrace it. That was part of the Kennedy magic – they could and did win us over. Teddy probably should have lost the love of the public. The Kennedy charm would not have been enough if he had not risen above his flaws. Once he shook the expectation that somehow he should be President, he devoted himself to becoming a skilled Senator, learning the job and performing it well. Tempered by all the tragedy he endured, he not only empathized, he acted upon his empathy. Each Massachusetts family that suffered a loss during 9/11 received a phone call from Kennedy, with follow-ups as necessary. If he knew you and you suffered loss, he would reach out. His strength in life was formed by his ability to survive and endure loss. When others experienced it, he reached out across the sad gulf that is grief to comfort.

His flaws were many, his politics unapologetically liberal [truly the last of a breed], his character suspect early on and almost universally admired later. He endured the tragedies visited upon him by both fate and the flaws of his own character, seeking redemption in hard good work for what he saw as the public good. May he rest in peace, at last.

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