Ted Kennedy lived through more history than many of his colleagues ever learned, and played a role in the making of much of that history. He was elected to his brother John's old seat in 1962. He struggled all his life with the tragedy and elusive grandeur that surrounds the Kennedy name. In the mid 60s, he was in a plane crash; a fellow Senator dragged him out of the wreckage and he survived, although he was bothered ever after by the piercing his lung had sustained in the crash. He lost two brothers in five years, John in 1963 and Robert in 1968. There were many times that he could have been President; indeed, many thought he should have been President, both for his own talent and to finish the work his brothers had left undone. In 1968, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago and several other leaders of the Democratic Party asked him to run at the Convention against Hubert Humphrey, to take his brother's place. He refused. Many people assumed he would run in 1972, and once again give Richard Nixon nightmares of the Kennedy name. When he did not, they felt sure he would run in 1976, but he did not run then either. He seems to have felt burdened by his brothers, burdened by destiny. Perhaps he thought that if he reached for the same prize both brothers had sought, he would share their fate. And who can blame him? Particularly since his brother Robert's large family had been put into his care after his brother's death. When he finally did run, in 1980 against Jimmy Carter, it was an uphill battle against all odds, and ultimately he did not prevail. Perhaps the world would be different if he had prevailed, in the primary and in the general election, and perhaps the world would be better too. In the face of defeat, he gave himself to his work, immersing himself in committee work and the crafting of legislation. There were more crises, more setbacks, more failures, yet he persevered through all of them somehow, and every time made a comeback.
It is hard, writing this, to believe he is truly gone. Ted Kennedy was a fixture of the nation's political life for over two generations. He was part of the history of the Senate even while he was still living. The world changed around him, yet he remained much the same. God only knows how many people were fostered into politics by him, and how many more were inspired by his example.
To be fair, Ted Kennedy was not a perfect man. But he does not need to be to have our respect. Unlike other men who served long years in the Senate, such as Strom Thurmond or Jesse Helmes, Ted Kennedy will be remembered because of what he built, and what he spoke out for. For over thirty years he pushed the argument that in America, in this day and age, everyone should have health care. The tides have gone up and down and up and down and up again with that argument, and all the while, whether he was winning or losing, Ted Kennedy was there, pushing for it. He spent decades trying to get justice for the people of Northern Ireland, who have suffered dreadfully at the hands of the United Kingdom through the years. He consistently supported increasing the minimum wage.
The 2008 campaign was, it turns out, the last ride of Ted Kennedy. Oddly enough, his speech at the Democratic National Convention was the first time I had seen him give a speech. I was entranced. It was not so much the words he was saying, but the knowledge that this man had seen it all in his lifetime, and still had the fight to carry on, even though he was in cancer treatment then and probably in a great deal of pain. He never let it on. He was still talking about the future, talking about the grand things that would be done in the Congress the next year. It was said of him that he never let illness, or anything else, get in the way of his work. He could have been coughing up a lung, and he would still appear on the Senate floor for a speech or a vote.
Ted Kennedy, who was 77, was the only one of the Kennedy brothers to die a peaceful death. His eldest brother, Joe Jr., was shot down by German artillery during World War II. John, the luckiest of them all (he was given the Last Rites on four separate occasions), was assassinated. So was Robert. Compared to them, particularly John and Robert, Ted seems much smaller than they were. Perhaps this is because he was the youngest brother, or perhaps it is because John and Robert were killed while still young, their fires undimmed by age and disappointment. Yet even if Ted Kennedy were the smallest of the Kennedy brothers, he still stands tall as a giant among the petty and cringing figures that pass for statesmen today. I do not know if we will ever see his like, or the like of his brothers, again. The new generation of Kennedys seems in many ways a pale mockery of all that was and all that could have been. But it is well, in this difficult time, to remember what it was that made the Kennedy brothers great. They carried in them a sense of responsibility, a sense that they all owed something to their country. They were the sons of great wealth -- their father had made millions in the stock market -- and yet never developed the sense of entitlement that so often afflicts the sons of great wealth. Rather, they felt that everyone had a responsibility to serve their country, and because they had been born wealthy, they had a responsibility to give more of themselves to their country than other men. And give they did. John gave service to his country twice, once in the Navy during World War II and later in politics. His service in the Navy nearly killed him, and his service in politics did kill him. Robert served his country first as a counsel to Senate committees, then as his brother's Attorney General, then as Senator from New York, and then as a man who would be President. He gave and gave and gave of himself, until he gave his life. And last of all there was Ted, who served long years in the Senate, always being torn between people's expectation that he run for President and his own belief that he was unsuited to it. It is ironic that it was the descendants of a poor Irish immigrant who best embodied the principle of noblesse oblige, of service to the nation, while so many of the rest of us have forgotten it.
I have no words left, and in fact have spoken too long on this matter. I will only say this much more: god speed, Ted Kennedy.