Friday, August 28, 2009

Ted Kennedy

Here's a bit from an admittedly liberal blog. When he attended the funeral of murdered Israeli PM Rabin, Ted Kennedy quietly placed earth from the graves of his brothers on the grave of the slain peacemaker. His brothers were known to us all as political figures which we associated with certain ideals, but he knew them as his brothers. Blood kin. The dirt was not just dirt. It meant something, if only privately

Ted Kennedy's sins and transgressions were very public. His position of privilege got him out of some really bad situations that none of us could have hoped to escape, and these situations were largely of his own making. These facts offend the small d democrats of America. We hate class privilege. It isn't right. Well it isn't.

And yet he did accomplish some really good things in his many years in the senate. At least I think much of what he did was good. He was a major influence on the laws of our country, shaping them in ways that served to uplift and make better the lives of people who were decidedly not privileged. Here's some of what he did: Title IX (gender equality in college athletics), the ADA, race-blind immigration legislation, bilingual education, Meals on Wheels, the National Commission on the Protection of Human Subjects (in med/sci experiments), stopping military aid to the fascist Pinochet regime in Chile, education for children with disabilities, expanding the civil rights act to protect persons with disabilities, the Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act, the Refugee Act of 1980 (asylum for persecuted persons), Employment Opportunities for Disabled Americans Act, the National Military Child Act, Civil Rights Act of 1991, Americorps, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, voted no on war with Iraq (one of 23 senators who did so).

Most of what he accomplished, he accomplished after that evil night at Chappaquiddick when Mary Jo Kopechne died. It is as though he had begun as the callow, drunken libertine his enemies call him -- a selfish irresponsible glutton who was rich enough and Kennedy enough to buy his way out of anything with money and social connections. But then something else emerged, something with a will and a capacity to make our nation better. In working to make America better, I think, he may have also worked to make himself better.

I am fully aware that some amongst us do not share my belief that he made our country better, and that is what it is. We will certainly disagree about many other things. It was always so. But the Americorps program has had a very real and beneficial effect on some of the little towns that dot this run-down portion of NE Texas. I've seen it. And allowing people from India and China and Jordan and Mexico to immigrate legally to the US the same as people from Western Europe has truly benefited this nation. Look what's happened to our national cuisine alone. I mean jeez!

Ted Kennedy did that for us. And he came to embody a certain attitude -- love it or hate it or whatever -- which may have died with him. He stood for something. He meant something.

Add to that the fact that he was a Kennedy. He was the son of Joe Kennedy, ambassador and alleged bootlegger millionaire. He was brother to Joe, Jr who died on an Air Corps mission in WWII, and brother to Jack who skippered PT 109 and survived to become a senator and later President of a Camelot White House before his murder. He was brother to Robert, murdered on the night of his triumphal victory in the 1968 California primary -- that terrible year of political murders. He was their blood kin, of their generation. My parents' generation.

And it passed with him.

I recall the November day in 1963 when John Kennedy as killed. We lived in a Dallas suburb at the time. I remember my mother sobbing on her bed. I remember not knowing what to do because I was still just a boy. And now the question arises. Why did she cry? She didn't know him. He was unrelated to her. He was a stranger. He was a glamorous, powerful man with a glamorous wife who lived a life so disconnected from the suburban reality of my mother's existence that they may as well have been separated by an ocean. But she sobbed that November afternoon for what had happened to him. And for what had happened to us. He meant something to us.

I once wrote a review of a show of Warhol's Jackie paintings which was presented in the building Lee Harvey Oswald used for his sniper's perch that awful day. My editor cut a line I'd written about our all being widowed after the killing of our President. But it was the memory of my mother sobbing that led me to write it. How can you explain that to an editor?

When Jackie died years later my mother bought a ticket to Europe. She had to get away even though she was retired and not flush with disposable cash. "That woman was too young to die" she explained. Jackie meant something. True or false, she meant something.

Ted wasn't John. Everybody knows that. He wasn't Bobby either. But he was ours. He was a Kennedy. And he was the last of them.

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