“Our future may lie beyond or vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature, nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny.” Kennedy, Edward , Funeral Oration of Robert F. Kennedy , 1968
He started out as Teddy. That’s what we all called him when he ran for the Senate in 1962. He was Teddy for a few years, then Ted, and finally he began to be referred to as Senator Edward Kennedy, a note of respect that took a long time to arrive. But Kennedy himself took a long time to arrive.
Every life deserves a second act, and Kennedy made the most of his. Timing is everything in life, and if “everything” can be doubled, that goes double for politics. For a time in his life, Ted Kennedy was a cheat and a dilettante, the facts speak for themselves. For a time in his life he was a drunk and a womanizer, the record is clear beyond any hope of rebuttal. Some feel that he was worse, that he was no better than a murderer. Of that event, we will never know the whole truth. But somewhere along the road away from Chappaquiddick, the man changed for the better. It did not happen all at once, there were starts and stops, but he did finally change and, in the end, he deserves the respect being accorded him this morning.
As I was watching the news shows this morning, my thoughts went back to the same shows broadcasting the death of Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. Some sweet old Irish lady was crying on camera and telling a reporter that she had told her daughter that the mayor was now the “Saint” of politics. The camera cut back to the newsroom where Ted Kennedy, about to be interviewed, sat, stifling a chuckle. “Well”, he said, “we heard allusions to Sainthood, that may not be quite accurate.” The same can be said of Ted. Even among all the loving tributes you will hear over the next few days it should certainly be remembered that Ted was no saint.
But you don’t have to be a saint to have an impact. Kennedy worked hard for many, many years and , in the course of those years changed many people’s lives. In some ways, almost all people’s lives in this country were changed by Ted Kennedy. Whether they were changed for the better (as I believe) or for the worse, is a matter of political preference, but the change was undeniable. Every time an 18 year old votes, we see a change wrought to a great extent by the work of Ted Kennedy. In the end, a life should be judged by its totality, not by its parts, whether they were good or bad.
Kennedy had many, many tragedies in his life. All three of his older brothers were lost to him through violent means. One in war, two by murder. Kennedy himself survived a crash landing by being pulled out of an airplane. In another accident, he, unlike his companion, survived the icy waters of a car crash off of a bridge, and made it to shore.
But Kennedy was lucky too. Had Chappaquiddick happened today ,with around the clock cable news shows, Kennedy would have been hounded out of office in less than thirty days, never to be heard from again, at least politically. So his timing there was good. With regard to gaining the Presidency, his timing (and judgment) were bad. Ted was simply not destined to be President of the United Sates, and that’s probably a good thing. I voted for Ted and showed up for him at my precinct convention in 1980. I shed tears at his oration at the convention that year and felt , in my heart that he would be back. The Reagan revolution overtook him and four years later, and up until last year, it was impossible for a Democrat of his stripe to be elected President. If he had not lived in Massachusetts he would have been voted out of office along the way. But he was not, and I think that’s good.
In 1982 my wife and I went over to hear Kennedy speak in Houston, a friend of ours was involved in some local races and we wanted to see Kennedy’s endorsement of them. This is the Kennedy I will remember the rest of my life. His strong baritone, a voice which mellowed with age, far beyond that of his brothers, went through the slate of candidates until he got to the County Commissioners. There he paused, “And since 1948, E.A. “Squatty” Lyons has served proudly on the Harris County Commissioners Court, no Republican has ever run against him until this year. How DAREEEE they run someone against our “Squatty”! !!” The crowd roared. My wife and I were standing next to Squatty in that crowd. Kennedy came over after the speech and said, “What do you think Squatty, did I do all right by you ? “ Then he turned to us and shook my wife’s hand. Knowing his reputation, this did not surprise me, given the choice between Rayda and I, I knew that he would pick Rayda. He had a huge politician’s hand and in person he was simply bigger than life, an overwhelming figure. He lived for 25 more years and never got any smaller. In the end he was a man who stood up “for an ideal”, sending off a “tiny ripple of hope”, such ripple which when, combined with others can “build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Many of those walls have still not been torn down, but at least for his part, not from any lack of trying.