Saturday, August 29, 2009

Montage From an American Funeral

Distilled from a half century of seeing Kennedys up close and reporting their history, feelings about today's mass in Boston prompt renewed wonder about the complexity and unpredictability of American life.

President Obama's eulogy, eloquent as always, was after all the tribute of someone who has known Ted Kennedy for only a few years, graciously lauding him as "a Happy Warrior" and "a kind and tender hero."

His words were part of a much larger tableau, the sense of how love and conflict, wealth and ambition, personal failings and the search for redemption play out across generations of a public family.

The weekend's celebration was graciously orchestrated by Ted Kennedy's second wife, Vicki, who saved him when his personal and political fortunes were at low ebb in the early 1990s.

There was only a passing mention of his first wife, Joan, mother of his children, a stunningly beautiful woman who wrote about her chronic alcoholism for me in McCalls before their divorce in the 1970s and, of course, none at all of Chappaquiddick, which in 1969 marred the legend of Camelot and ruined the chances of another Kennedy in the White House.

Fittingly enough, an unspoken theme in that church today was atonement, and Ted Kennedy's most impressive advocates were his sons, Ted Jr., telling how his father's relentless devotion carried him through the loss of a leg to cancer and Patrick, still visibly shaky from addiction, testifying to the healing power of paternal love.

Their tributes brought no outward reaction from two men in the first row who grew up without that, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but it would have taken a heart of stone not to be moved by them.

As Ted Kennedy is taken to join his brothers in Arlington Cemetery, what comes to mind is something JFK said in an interview with me only weeks before he died.

He was talking about the brutal and violent instincts of human beings that, in his words, “have been implanted in us growing out of the dust.” In controlling those destructive impulses, John Fitzgerald Kennedy said sadly, “we have done reasonably well——but only reasonably well.“

He would have been proud of what his little brother did about that in the 77 years he was granted on earth.


Unknown said...

The passing of Senator Edward M. Kennedy has brought back to mind the terrible day of Nov. 22nd, 1963. I know in my heart that there are people who care for the wellbeing of freedom, liberty, and justice here in our United States of America! May Senator Edward M. Kennedy R.I.P.! Amen.

jf said...

Great post, especially the JFK quote.

Twenty years ago, while living in New Hampshire, I remember a bus ride conversation with a Massachusetts man, who didn't much like the Kennedys, about Ted. The question was raised why Mass residents continued to elect Ted given the man's flaws and relentless tabloid slime hurled at him over so many years.

The bus rider's answer was simple and it boiled down to great service. Ted Kennedy had a dedicated staff and he worked them hard. The Kennedys' style of politics required close personal interaction with ordinary constituents. If you called the Senator's office with a problem with your VA benefits, for example, somebody talked to you and got back to you with results.

It's only an anecdote but the TV coverage of the Kennedys, yesterday, greeting and talking with people who lined up to pay their respects, taking time to talk with folks, backs up the notion that, for the Kennedys, politics was and is personal. It's about how people are getting along in life.

Holte Ender said...

The White House and Congress has been, and still is, inhabited by flawed men. Kennedy was no exception. He confronted his shortcomings in public, and then continued to try and bring out the best of America.

Fuzzy Slippers said...

This is a lovely tribute. I adored Ted Kennedy, and I was so saddened by his death. My heart goes out to his family, to all of us who've lost a truly great man.

I'm glad that few dragged up Chappaquiddick. That was an accident, he was young, drunk, mourning his brother and probably trying desperately to be close to Bobby by being close to his former staffer, Mary Jo Kopechne. No doubt he didn't do the right thing immediately, but few would have in his position. He did soon enough, and he faced that tragedy and his momentary weakness with a courage that few among us possess. He paid for that many times over in his life, in the good that he did, and in the good that he *was.*