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May 22, 2008

Ted Kennedy

To be Irish is to know that in the end, the world will break your heart. --Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Call me a cultural stereotype. A boomer. A limousine liberal. I don't care. Ted Kennedy being diagnosed with malignant cancer of the brain floored me. I don't even know why.

Long ago, Duke University, which changed my life in a number of ways, awarded me my first paid desk job to work for Wisconsin's Senator Gaylord Nelson. With some help from my father, I rented an overpriced and horrible little apartment across the street from the hospital on Washington Circle where I had been born 21 years earlier, and excitedly entered the world I'd been seeing on television since I was in my early teens growing up in the Midwest. That first sunny Monday morning in May, I walked all the way to work, zig-zagging down Pennsylvania Avenue, and then up Constitution Avenue, well over two miles total, just to take it all in. But I walked in a hurry.

The Hill job was in health policy, and I was asked to follow and report on the work of the busy U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Health, chaired by then 42-year-old Ted Kennedy. I saw Kennedy up close a lot during committee sessions and mark-ups during the next 3 months. (A few years later, I worked again on Capitol Hill, and lived there for many

years. I'd see him around. Today, if I were lucky, he might recognize my persistent face if he saw me--but I certainly wasn't important those first 3 months.) But way before that, as the "last Kennedy", he was always part of the soundtrack of my life and my friends' lives since we were in our early teens. But he was more than a name, mystique and the booming populist oratory and Gaelic cadences of speech which come naturally to him.

For me, Ted Kennedy has never been about ideas, legislative agendas or even the Kennedy schmaltz: the hope, the dream that never dies, the struggle, all that. He left that music to others, like to his uber-aggressive brother-in-law, Steven Smith, and to his staff. I just never saw Kennedy as an ideologue, even when he ran for the American presidency--which I bet he never really wanted. A character out of a novel, he's simply as Irish as they come: brooding, playful and contradictory. Quietly but definitely war-like. He's smarter than people think, and remarkably adept at sifting through and making sense of too much information thrown at him. In the main, though, he's passionate, human, even poetic--and vulnerable in all the best ways.

Like lots of senators, he's also distracted as hell, even endearingly spacey--but warm and charming, a natural politician, easily the best in his family. He can turn that on and off. Like Bill Clinton, and for whatever the reason, Kennedy genuinely likes people; it's not for show. Watch the guy in a crowd. He's at ease once he's there. He physically resembles most, and is most like, his mother Rose, the family saint and caregiver. And that soulfulness, I think, helped him to be very good at his job. Family friend and economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said that Ted Kennedy was the best U.S. senator he'd seen in his lifetime.

Finally, the last Kennedy is as wounded as they come, too. Try, if you can, not to cry when you watch a clip of his eulogy of his brother Robert in 1968, when he was 36. Kennedy's voice cracked badly, and I can't forget the sound of him as he struggled to finish the speech for his older brother. It wasn't about politics, ideas, or even about anyone's family. The sound was pure grief and loss, unashamed.

Posted by JD Hull at May 22, 2008 11:59 PM

Comments

Hearing the news was a good body blow for me as well on Dan. Unlike you've so eloquently done here, I was unable to adequately explain why to others.

My guess is that the Kennedy's just became part of the fabric of one's life growing up in an Irish Catholic famly in the 50's and 60's. Hard to explain that to someone born 20 or 30 years ago.

Posted by: Kevin OKeefe at May 22, 2008 07:01 PM

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