Band of Brothers in Happier Times: Ted, Jack and Bobby Kennedy in 1958, two years before Jack's election to the Presidency of the United States
Early this morning, word reached us in England of the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts after a battle with brain cancer. Gone was one of the most notable senators in contemporary American history. Despite a personal life that, until his marriage to his present wife Victoria, was chaotic and controversial, he devoted his life tirelessly to helping the oppressed and the underprivileged. His death comes on the heels of the passing of his beloved sister, Eunice Shriver, who as the founder of "Special Olympics" established an organization that has highlighted and honoured the talents of special needs children everywhere. Whatever one may think of the politics and/or the personalities of the Kennedy clan, they were a force to be reckoned with and American politics were forever changed with their contributions. The death of the last remaining Kennedy patriarch has been met with a mixture of feelings. No one would have believed that it would have been "little baby Teddy," who would have been the one to be the politician and statesman with such a long and dogged career. He defied his detractors and despite the continuing tragedies and excesses in his extended family and in his own life, he never let that interfere with his one passion and that was service to his constituency and to the country. He often championed bi-partisan causes which at times was maddening to the Democrats. But this led to admiration by conservatives and liberals alike and he had friends on both sides of the aisle.
In Britain, however, the newspapers have not been at all kind. They have been scathing, actually and feel that Kennedy should not be eulogized with such high praise. He was long known as a supporter of the Irish nationalist agenda and once demanded that "Ulster protestants" opposed to a united Ireland "go back to Britain". The headlines were quite harsh some calling him "a bully" and there is certainly no love lost between Great Britain and the senator. His issues with his lack of propriety with women and with drink has also been skewered publicly and upon his death, every minutiae of his life was opened for scrutiny and judgment. This is rather bold since almost every day I have been living here, the newspaper is filled with another lurid story about a politician who has once again been caught in some back alley crime or compromising situation.
Despite it all, I still believe that Kennedy's death has marked the end of an era in America. He played hard (much too hard as some say) but he was still a statesman in the old and grand sense of the word. There aren't any left like that. It is obvious that he suffered his own inner demons. It is obvious by his personal foibles that he was plagued with guilt and acted out accordingly. We can only guess the extent of the pain that drove him to such excesses. And if anyone believes that this man felt he was absolved of his sins, one only needs to know the soul of an Irish Catholic and the depth of Catholic guilt. I am sure he died feeling deep regret. In the Senate, however, he had a reputation as one of the hardest workers and it was known that if you were meeting with the senator, you had better be prepared because he would be. He championed a cause and stuck with it until the end. In this pursuit, he was tenacious and revered. He was especially loved for the little things...reading to students every week in a school in Washington, DC...pushing through citizenship for a father who had lost his son in Iraq...establishing small health care centers for those that could not afford insurance...he helped poor farmworkers....he tirelessly championed the disenfranchised. It was touching to hear the hundreds of stories of the people lining the streets of Boston and the Cape, stories from regular folk who had been helped by Ted Kennedy without any front page stories, or a need for publicity. He just gave because he genuinely cared about those who had been oppressed. That's why he was so loved. That's why people in America overlooked his indiscretions. Thousands of people lined the streets to pay their last respects. I couldn't imagine anyone doing that for a politician here in the UK. Not any working politician today, anyway. The next and younger Kennedy generation is distinguished by outstanding public service and not by the old-time politics of the previous dynasty which had begun with Joe Kennedy, Sr. They have, for the most part, been exemplary in the same championing of the underrepresented as Senator Kennedy. What I always admired about the Kennedy clan is that they took their vast wealth and gave back and instilled this in all their children. In this way, they very much embrace the best of what is American.
The harsh reality was not as idealized as Jackie Kennedy had wished in the early days of Jack's presidency. The days when hopes were still high and her "Arthur" was newly crowned "king"...but with the death of Ted Kennedy, the sun has finally set on the dream that was once Camelot. If there is another mythology to be lived by the third and fourth generation Kennedys, it will have to be named something else. And that myth may well be told. Only time will tell.