Thursday, August 27, 2009

O Brothers, Where Art Thou?

Camelot ended years prior to my own arrival and any hopes for a revival were shattered by an assassin's bullet slightly more than sixteen months after I got here. Thus, I know only the lives and deaths of the second and third sons born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy secondhand - from what I have read, have heard and have seen over the course of my own life. I have visited them only in the hallowed ground that both John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy have called home for more than the past forty years - having done so with my own son last November.

The only male member of Joe and Rose Kennedy's gang of nine children with whom my time here overlapped at all was the family's youngest son. And in the wee small hours of the night on Tuesday, August 25, 2009, that ceased to be the case. Edward Kennedy, still fighting hard against brain cancer and for the various things he believed in in the United States Senate, died at the Kennedy Compound at Hyannis Port. Whether you shared the same political ilk of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' senior Senator (I most certainly do not) is, respectfully, irrelevant. To my ear, the statement released by the Kennedy family early on Wednesday morning, announcing his death, struck just the right chord: “Edward M. Kennedy — the husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle we loved so deeply — died late Tuesday night at home in Hyannis Port,” the statement said. “We’ve lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever.”

It seems to me that my first distinct recollection of Ted Kennedy was watching him challenge Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party's nomination to run for the Presidency of the United States in 1980. Carter, the incumbent, had little to no hope of re-election given the Iran Hostage crisis and the "economic malaise", both of which happened on his watch. Sensing an opportunity perhaps to be the third and final son to chase his White House dream, Kennedy challenged him for the nomination. He did not wrest it away from Carter, which freed the incumbent to absorb an ass-kicking of historical proportions at the hands of Ronald Reagan that November.

What I remember most about Kennedy from that era was that - for reasons that were then unclear to me - he evoked a reaction that was equal parts disappointment and loathing in my father, which reaction I had presumed (based upon life experience and stories handed down to me from my two older male sibs) he reserved solely for Irish Catholic males to whom he contributed some DNA and a last name. In the eyes of many, after having run a fairly lousy primary campaign and having helped to weaken further a candidate who probably ultimately only received about 40% of the vote in his own immediate family, Kennedy's speech at the Democratic National Convention in New York City (which I have a vivid recollection of watching with my old man on our little 13" black and white television that he kept on the front porch of the Harvey's Lake house) was his atonement. In it, he spoke eloquently while abandoning his Presidential aspirations one more time, “For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end,” Mr. Kennedy said in the coda to a speech before a rapt audience at Madison Square Garden and on television. “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

I subsequently learned that my old man's distaste towards him had its genesis in what had occurred on Chappaquiddick Island in the summer of 1969. I have read a great deal about that incident since - and would encourage you if you have not done so yourself to feel free to do so - and Kennedy's behavior was criminal. But forty years further on up the road, the axe to grind on him belongs only to the family of Mary Jo Kopechne. It shall not be unsheathed here.

My father was quick throughout his life to show off his "famous person" stuff he had accrued over the years. Not surprisingly, as an Irish Catholic who lived and died in the Northeast, my father had apparently been quite the fan of JFK. At some point, while I know not whether it was in response to a class trip to DC or as a result of having taught a niece or nephew of the President, Dad had received a letter from President Kennedy. It was typed, of course, but it was on fancy, bonded paper with "THE WHITE HOUSE" embossed across the top and it was signed simply "JACK". One would have thought that it was comprised entirely of $1 Million bills given how proud he was of it.

After watching him snarl at Senator Kennedy's 1980 Convention speech, and inquiring as to why we were not rooting hard for the Irish Catholic fella this time around, he gave me the abridged (no pun intended) version of the Chappaquiddick story - and explained about his letter from President Kennedy - until I fully understood that in Dad's somewhat egocentric view of the world, Edward Kennedy had managed to let him down. He had managed to disappoint a father who lived hundreds of miles away and who did not know him.

Dad died in 1981 and probably to his great joy and relief Senator Kennedy never seriously pursued the White House again. He ultimately settled back in to the business of the United States Senate where he developed a knack for getting things done with colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle while wearing his "Liberal Lion" badge proudly for all to see. In the immediate aftermath of his death, he was saluted by those who shared his party affiliation as well as those with who him battled, scrapped and scraped.

My first reaction to hearing the news early Wednesday morning, while driving to the office in the still of the darkness, was not of his role as a statesman. Rather I thought of his funeral, which is imminent, and wondered who from the Kennedy family would be the one responsible for holding all of the rest of them together and upright as they again are left to publicly mourn the death of the one who seamlessly handled that role for the past four decades.

I thought of the man, who while the youngest of four boys, had been predeceased by all three of his big brothers - Joe, Jr., John and Robert - all of whom died violent deaths while still young men themselves. I thought of the man, born the baby brother yet fated to live more than half his life without any of his three older brothers to turn to for companionship or for guidance. Senator Kennedy died at age 77 in 2009, which means he was but 36 or 37 years old when RFK was gunned down in Los Angeles California in June of 1968. I thought of the man born into a family of unlimited wealth and incomparable influence who on more than one occasion had almost choked himself to death trying to swallow his silver spoon yet came back to live a life in which he gave all he had to those people about whom he cared and those things about which he cared and accomplished one hell of a lot.

At the end of the day, I suspect that for all that shall be written about him and spoken about him between now and his funeral, Ted Kennedy would be content if he lived enough and did enough to have earned the following eulogy, "[He] need not be idealised or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered 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."

Whether he has or not is not for me to decide. And I reckon that whether you loathed him or loved him, it is not up to you either. And while I do not pretend to know how you feel about it, I am relieved to be spared the work.


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