Monday, August 31, 2009

Missing Ted

I miss Ted.

In our family we were not Kennedy fans in the beginning. My parents and grandparents were Massachusetts Republicans. Leverett Saltonstall and Henry Cabot Lodge. Francis Sargent and Elliott Richardson. Ed Brooke. Joe Martin had a summer home half a mile away.

And within the Kennedy family, Teddy seemed far behind Jack and Bobby. He got his Senate seat because his brother was President.

He was, as everyone knows, a deeply flawed human being. Before Chappaquiddick he was thrown out of Harvard for cheating (although he went back and graduated after two years in the army). And after Chappaquiddick, there was the womanizing and the drinking.

His speech at the Democratic Convention in 1980 was one of the best I have ever heard. Though he was conceding the nomination, he promised that, “The dream will never die.” And it was a good dream, of equality and justice, of lifting up the poor, of peace and community. But after the speech, when he had the chance to embrace President Jimmy Carter and give the clear signal that he was backing his party’s choice, he held back and his reticence helped to elect Ronald Reagan.

I miss his clear voice on issues of social justice. Ironically, Ted Kennedy became the voice of conscience.

On a variety of issues, Ted had no fear of taking up an unpopular cause. He did not need a focus group to tell him what he should say or how he should say it. On everything from gay rights to the minimum wage, he would not waver. It didn’t hurt that he was so popular in Massachusetts, but there are plenty of popular leaders who seem to live in constant terror of losing their popularity.

For Ted, health care was a moral issue. It has been his issue for forty years. It would be good to hear his voice in the national debate.

As I listened to the speakers at his memorial service and then at his funeral mass, it was wonderful to hear the stories of friendships that transcended political boundaries. He respected those with whom he disagreed, and he was willing to work with them to do what needed to be done. In legislative matters, he was willing to take less than perfect in order to do something good. But he maintained his principles. Strategy was flexible. Principle was not. With Ted, everyone knew where he stood.

At his funeral mass, the Gospel lesson was from Matthew, chapter 25. It was Jesus’ description of the final judgment. Ultimately, says Jesus, the question is about what you have done for the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the outcast. As his parish priest said so eloquently, that was Ted’s vision and passion as a legislator.

Jack and Bobby’s little brother left a very large legacy.

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