Saturday, August 29, 2009

The "Other" Ted Kennedy

Senator Kennedy

I spent last evening watching the wake for Senator Ted Kennedy at the presidential library in Boston. Long-time friends spoke, sharing personal memories that rarely reach the public eye. At the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, for instance, Ted privately took soil from the graves of his brothers, and spread it over Rabin's grave after the crowds had left the scene.

The Vice-President Joe Biden related how Ted had been like an older brother, helping him find his way as a senator. Had it not been for Ted, he said, he'd not be where he was in life. Bobby's eldest son, Joe Kennedy, thanked Ted's children for sharing their father because he, his siblings, and Jack's children, needed a father figure and Ted was there for them.

There was laughter as stories about sailing, practical jokes, and family trips to historical sites surfaced. Some talked about the visible change that took place in Ted's life when he met his wife, Vicki. Everyone talked about how, in one way or another, they felt like they were members of his extended family, whether by kinship or by friendship.

I was struck by one thing in particular. The Ted I had met was the same one they had known. This was his way with everyone, it seems, and I wondered what made him so. As I listened to their stories, I came to believe his pain had made the difference. Not simply losing his brothers, but the failure of his first marriage, Chappaquiddick, his own struggles with alcohol.

Whatever history or those who somehow feel qualified or justified in passing judgment might say, I think he learned from his pain and turned it into compassion. Love helped immensely. Watching his wife that snowy day in Maine, she struck me as natural, unaffected, spontaneous, and kind. She took a man 22 years her senior and helped him find his heart. The debt many feel they owe Ted, they owe her as well.

A community choir sang last night -- not the great hymns of faith that one might expect, but rather the bluesy-jazz-gospel mix you hear in an African-American church. And like Ted, when I first met him, at the very end they led the crowd in singing, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. And that's when I lost it.

(Image by Barack Obama via Flickr)
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