Saturday, September 5, 2009

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Ah, Teddy, the great lion of the Senate is dead. I wonder who will take his place? No one who is on the scene right now seems even close to being able to fill his shoes. Certainly not the other Massachusetts senator, the mealy-mouthed John Kerry. When Kennedy roared, people listened. No one listens to Kerry. His wife, Teresa, is the lion in that family. On either the Senate floor or in the younger generation of Kennedy's, I see only pale imitations of the patriarch.

I went to Washington once to testify before a Senate policy forum on unemployment that Kennedy was hosting. There were a handful of us, unemployed and poverty-stricken all, who were flown into our nation's capitol to participate. It was heady stuff for us to stay at an elegant hotel in Georgetown, to be wined and dined at a fine restaurant, to ride the senators' little subway between the Capitol building and their office building, to have lunch in the Senate dining room (Senateburger - $5.00, which was a lot in 1984), to visit Kennedy's office to view all the memorabilia of Kennedy accomplishments, including that of JFK's presidency, to be given a limousine ride to see all the landmarks of Washington.

It was obvious even then that Kennedy was a rock star of the Senate. The hearing room was filled with Senators and media people who were all ignoring each other until Kennedy made a late, grand entrance, at which time, every reporter and camera swung as one in his direction. The Boss had arrived.

He greeted each of us at the witness table. I still have the picture of our handshake. But I felt no warmth flowing from him. I got the distinct impression that he was all about the big picture, that he cared about us collectively but not personally. His focus was on issues, not individuals. That wasn't anything I felt slighted by. I acknowledged that his visions were larger than me as a person but that almost every political battle he fought was for the betterment of people like me....the uninsured, the unemployed, the discriminated against.

I turned against him during the primaries of 2008, both he and Caroline, whom I'd long admired, when they supported Barack Obama. To me, that tarnished both of them. I will always believe that they were motivated in large part by the fear that the Kennedy dynasty would be superceded by the Clinton dynasty....and that they weren't about to let that happen. Above all, the Kennedy legacy had to be protected against the upstart Clintons.

I don't know how much their endorsement affected the outcome. It wasn't even enough to enable Obama to carry Kennedy's own state of Massachusetts against Hillary. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton had campaigned for Ted in his last election when he had a surprisingly strong opponent so it was a slap in the face when he took Hillary's rival under his wing during the primaries. I guess his main loyalty was to his family and that's the way it played out. Although I remained an admirer of Senator Kennedy, I never felt the same fondness for Kennedy the man as I'd had before.

Still, Ted Kennedy will remain forever as one of the giants of American politics. He went from being the handsome, spoiled, lazy younger son, with Chappaquidick hanging over his past as an indelible black blot, to losing one brother who was president to losing another brother (who I firmly believe would have been president) to stepping up as the leader of the family. He could have said, "screw politics, the Kennedy's have sacrificed enough for the people," and lived a life of ease, but he didn't. Rather he worked tirelessly for over four decades to improve conditions for those who hadn't been given as much as he had.

Rest in peace, Teddy. You earned your place in history.