Watching the pageantry accompanying the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy was striking, touching something way deeper in my heart than I expected.
Okay, full disclosure here – Irish Catholic, went to the schools, went to Mass, did the Missal thing, the Confession thing, the Rosary thing, learned the prayers and the hymns and when you stood up and when you sat down and when you genuflected. All my male Irish Catholic elders wound up looking pouchy and potato-like, with thick, full heads of white hair just like Teddy’s. Their wakes were perhaps a little rowdier than his. I could identify with this. Even when my father veered off into Reaganism, it wasn’t all “IGMFU” (I Got Mine and the other two initials tell you the rest). He still carried that same deep sense of obligation to remember where you came from, look after those less fortunate, and to stand up to racism and discrimination.
For several days now, I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what it is that has moved me so deeply about the end of this era in American politics and history. I never met Senator Kennedy. In my days as a reporter, I interviewed several of the members of the next generation of his illustrious family, but never anyone at his level. I was a little girl when I witnessed another even littler girl and her still littler brother frolic in that big mansion where the President lives. It was the first time I could even minimally identify with anything about Washington DC realities, long before I understood much about politics or any of its major national players. Everything before Ted’s brother John and his family ascended was vaguely about the stewardship of benign elderly grandparents – never about anyone who reminded me of my parents or myself. Maybe that was it. The Kennedy family was loaded with vibrant young-ish adults who kind of looked like my mom and dad, and lots of kids only a little younger than I was. Something to latch onto.
As I grew, learned, observed conditions in my country that I did not like, and searched for ways to change and improve those conditions, I came to appreciate the mission of the Kennedy family. I learned that matriarch Rose Kennedy infused her babies’ bottles with the moral nutritional supplement summed up by – “of those to whom much is given, much is expected.” Translated to my own children’s baby food decades later, that would become “much blessed, much obligated.” No matter how many or how few words, the idea behind such slogans was always the same. You gave back. You helped someone who couldn?t help themselves. If you had more, you thus had more to share. If you were positioned such that you could afford to offer assistance, then you were morally bound to do so.
Raised in Catholic schools, we studied The Beatitudes and the mission of Christ on earth. Nowhere did The Savior ever measure your worth based on your politics or your wealth or position or connections or your race, age, nationality, fitness, sexuality, religion or lack thereof. When a poor person asked Him for help, He never sneered back to stop mooching off the system and go get a job, and there was never a litmus test applied to gauge the merit of the querant. It always seemed to me that He meant for us to follow that example. Something else for which I came to appreciate the Kennedys.
Maybe I came to revere Ted Kennedy’s work all the more because unlike his brothers, he had time and many years to make a difference, large and small, and a terrific and powerful podium from which to do so. He never hesitated to use his stature or gifts for good, to help somebody. But I was accustomed to admiring him from a distance for his legislative achievements or his efforts to inspire and uplift. This week, on the other hand, I was touched in a far more personal and intimate way.
I’ve learned over the past several decades to be relentlessly and sometimes ruthlessly partisan. I don’t like Republicans and conservatives because of what I understand of their world view – that the haves should be protected and helped, their interests looked after above all else, and the have-nots should maybe hope the haves gain so much that perhaps many more crumbs from their overladen table will fall to the needy below. That no one should feel obligated to chip in, or share, to support and sustain the America we’ve all built. That this government – you know, the one that’s “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” is somehow bad. That the status quo is sacrosanct. To try to change or question it, or dare to call for improvements, is impractical, too soon, too much, even unpatriotic, and certainly too expensive.
However, watching Ted Kennedy’s tribute-cum-wake at the JFK Library, I found myself changing. It was a time to embrace PEOPLE. People I saw there, even those not of my own philosophical tribe. People – not enemies. To celebrate what we shared – even with those we might perceive as unwilling to share. I NEVER, for example, thought I would hold warm feelings toward GOP Senator Orrin Hatch because I couldn’t disagree with him more on so many issues – many of which are deeply personal and important to me. But the figure who shared his memories of his friend Ted, wiping at his nose and laughing with flustered embarrassment at his emotional public display, could only be described as dear. I will never think of Orrin Hatch the same way again. He will always be, in essence, dear to me for what his recollections of Ted Kennedy brought out from within him.
The next day, with the funeral Mass, there he was again, sitting next to his ideological brother-in-conservative-arms, John McCain, respectful and quiet. They felt compelled to be there, too, to offer support and love, to stand with the grieving mourners and family members and help carry their burden. Regardless my opinion of what they stand for politically, my feelings for them have expanded to make room for more compassion. It’s the compassion I rightfully SHOULD feel as a liberal. I saw the very fellow against whom I’ve spent more than eight years railing, and his wife Laura, sitting in the second row, near the Democrat who was at times much decried and abandoned by those of his own party, as well as the opponents whose loathing of him was never a secret. But there they all sat, together, all for the same reason. The elegance of that tableau, in which bitter foes joined to share a respect, love, and a salute for one remarkable and staggeringly memorable man, all politics aside, might be that man’s most significant legacy of all.
I still don’t like Republicans and conservatives. But now I don’t see them necessarily as villains. This week has shown me their humanity. Sad that it takes such a week to do so. I needed that reminder, though. We all did, and do, particularly now when America is far angrier and more virulently and hideously divided than ever.
Many by now have remarked about how the Kennedys, Ted in particular, changed things. He continued to do that even after he died – with all those divergent individuals, and also with me. That was the best of him. As we carry on without him – our “National Uncle,” hopefully that best of him will leaven the best of us.