Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Kennedy Generation

Ted Kennedy last year, leaving a Boston hospital, with Caroline Kennedy looking on. See post below: the Kennedy Generation. Photo: Boston Globe.
Even after I knew that Ted Kennedy was terminally ill, and for most of a day after I learned he had died (which apparently was unexpected, as his children were away), I was not prepared for the effect it would have on me. I could feel it coming on during the day Wednesday, until I realized I had to recognize it, and I retreated to the television to watch the retrospectives and listen to the talk.

The reason this death was so important, of course, was that for my generation, Ted Kennedy--and his older brothers--were prominent in our hopes and dreams, tragedies and political disappointments, for most of our lives.

Some of the talk told me things I didn't know about Ted Kennedy himself, while other comments confirmed impressions I had. Ted Kennedy's maternal grandfather, "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, was a quintessential Irish politician, and the Mayor of Boston who threw out the first pitch in the first baseball game played at Fenway Park. Last spring, Ted threw out the first pitch at Fenway to begin this Red Sox season. More than John or Robert Kennedy, Ted was a throwback in style to his grandfather. I thought this when I watched him during his 1980 presidential nomination campaign, in particular when he came to Pennsylvania for our primary (which he won.) He had an old-fashioned braying oratorical style on the stump, and he clearly delighted in it.

But if he hadn't learned a lot about rhetoric from his brothers, he absorbed their most important political insights. He even continued to quote Arnold Toynbee and his theory that the civilizations that prosper do so by responding to challenges--an idea central to JFK's campaign, but rarely heard since.
He saw the poverty JFK saw in West Virginia, and RFK saw in New York, the deep South, among the migrant workers and on Indian reservations in the West. He knew what RFK knew about Vietnam, and he helped end the military draft and he voted against the Iraq war. But my theory is that he was less comfortable in foreign affairs, and that might be why he wasn't really enthusiastic about the presidency. His achievements--which are so many and so profound that they have, as eulogists point out, touched the lives of everyone in America--are mostly in domestic policies--everything from mental and physical health to education, worker pay and safety, to equal rights for immigrants, gays and women as well as African Americans.

Ted Kennedy was in the Senate to help pass Medicare. To help pass the Voting Rights Act. He helped bring the United States out of the nineteenth century essentially, to where it is now, which is in crucial ways still several decades behind other democracies.

I saw him for the first time in Washington during JFK's Inaugural weekend, when I was 15. I heard him speak for McGovern in 1972 in Boston, and there for a few minutes I found myself in an anteroom where he was standing, talking to someone. I was covering the event for the Boston Phoenix, and I knew I should jump on this opportunity to interview him. I looked steadily at him, trying to think of something to ask him beyond handicapping the race, while with one hand I tried to fish my notebook out of my coat pocket, where it was stuck. This went on for a few minutes when a man came up to me and started a friendly conversation, pretending to mistake my newspaper's name on my nametag for the city of Phoenix. I glanced at him and knew immediately--from having been an usher at a JFK event, where I was told how to identify them so as to report any suspicious activity--that the friendly guy was Secret Service. If my mind had been a bit boggled before, it was completely blown at that point.

I heard Ted Kennedy speak several times after that, and even shook his hand. I worked on his presidential primary campaign in Pennsylvania in 1980. But I never got past the feelings about the assassinations of his brothers when I saw him, and then over the years the rumors and revelations and revisionisms about the Kennedys took their toll: Kennedy fatigue.

But seeing parts of some of the retrospectives--some good, some bad, but with film and "fact" new to me, the former Kennedy scholar--I was forced to see again how much the Kennedys had influenced me, my life and times. So I especially note a memorial piece by Tom Hayden. Hayden was a founder of SDS and a cerebral radical when I first heard him speak in the '60s. Back when I first read Jack Newfield's book after RFK's murder, I was very interested to see a small reference to Tom Hayden standing in the back of the church at RFK's funeral, weeping. Real radicals weren't supposed to admit that establishment politicians like RFK made a difference.

But today Hayden says forthrightly what I have believed since JFK's murder: "If either of the earlier Kennedy brothers had not been murdered, the likelihood is that American would have evolved steadily in a progressive direction, without Vietnam, without the black uprisings and repressions, without Nixon and Watergate, because that was the trajectory where Ted Kennedy believed his brothers' legacy would be honored. That is why, as Jack Newfield wrote in 1968, we would become not a generation of has-beens, but a generation of might-have-beens, while we were very young."

That in a nutshell is the chief tragedy of my generation, my country and my life.

This is not to excuse us for what we didn't do, and certainly not to diminish Ted Kennedy's achievements. Indeed, he had a hand in almost every positive change of the past 45 years, to a staggeringly degree. Which of course makes his passing all the more frightening. Others will achieve important things, including other Kennedys. But it's not likely to be to the extent or at least in the way that he did. And in so many ways, he did the work his brothers set forth, and got little glory doing it, until he came to the end of his service.

His last major service was, of course, to help in a crucial way to make Barack Obama President. Exactly a year before he died, Ted Kennedy placed the entire Kennedy legacy behind Obama's candidacy. He overcame pain and illness to address the Democratic convention, and in his 8 minute speech, made specific references to RFK ("the belief that we are called to a better country and a newer world") and JFK ("This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans") and by concluding with a variation on his own famous words that concluded his 1980 convention speech. And these would be his last words to a national audience: "The work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on."