By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—So the family will be gathering again. No, not the family, the clan. That’s the word we always used to describe the Kennedys, as if they were the huge sprawling royal tribe of our political life. And they were.
Kennedy funerals have marked our history: JFK. RFK. Jackie. John Jr. And two weeks ago, Eunice. This time the death to be mourned is the youngest brother who became the oldest, the only male to achieve something tragically denied the others: longevity.
Teddy Kennedy. “The Lion of the Senate.” I first met him in 1962 when I was a student and he was a neophyte. My father, a JFK stalwart, was strong-armed into supporting this brother in his run for the Senate. The 30-year-old was so raw that when reporters asked him about an issue, he would excuse himself to check the notes from his handlers. The man who ran against him said bluntly and unwisely that if Teddy’s name were Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, the candidacy would be a joke.
But he was “a Kennedy” in Massachusetts.
Like most Boston reporters, I have stories that come to mind this day but none so fond—if you will indulge me—as the time I was flying from D.C. with my young daughter. Having spotted the senator, she asked to meet him. I made her promise to just say hello and leave him to his peace. But Kennedy stood up in the aisle and talked to this 10-year-old about school and life for 10 minutes, while she warily eyed me to see if she had violated our agreement.
He was like that, less a patriarch than a father, most at ease and most himself with children, especially the children of his brothers. It was Teddy who showed up at graduations and weddings when their fathers were missing. It was Teddy who, tempered by loss, reached out to innumerable others in pain.
The obituaries say that Kennedy never achieved the dream of becoming president. But there is a difference between a family destiny and a man’s dream. When Teddy took on Jimmy Carter in 1980, he ran a desultory campaign, uncertain, floundering, bumbling. Some blamed the weakness on Chappaquiddick, some on the press.
As I followed him on the trail, one thought kept coming to my mind: He doesn’t want it. When I wrote this, my political colleagues laughed at my naiveté in believing that “a Kennedy” wouldn’t want it. But then CBS’ Roger Mudd lobbed the softball question—why do you want to be president?—and Teddy couldn’t answer.
The youngest brother closed that chapter with a convention speech that left his supporters in tears: “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.” But by running and losing, he had exorcised the family burden. He was no longer a President-Kennedy-in-waiting. He became a survivor, a senator and his own man.
I do not have to list his accomplishments. They are stamped on bills from voting rights to minimum wage and the work for health care reform. He called health care “the cause of my life” even as his life was slipping away.
Nor do I have to list his flaws. For a time they were legion enough to compete with this year’s graduates of that infamous house on C Street. In a mea culpa speech in 1991, he said, “I recognize my own shortcomings, the faults in the conduct of my private life ... and I am the one who must confront them.” They were put to rest in a second marriage.
But it wasn’t the flaws that made Kennedy the biggest target for conservative fundraisers until that flaming torch was passed to Hillary. It wasn’t the flaws that made him the prime target of haters until that torch was passed to Obama. It was his power and commitment in the fights against poverty and for civil rights, education, health care. It was his willingness—no, his insistence—in being a liberal when others wanted to make the L-word a badge of shame.
When Kennedy came to the Senate as the youngest brother, he was told by an older senator, “you measure accomplishments not by climbing mountains, but by climbing molehills.” As an insider for more than four decades, he climbed molehills. As “a Kennedy” he bore the loss and burnished the legacy. As his own man he never lost sight of the mountains.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman1(at)me.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group