Friday, August 28, 2009

Edward Kennedy and Legacies

It was more than a little disconcerting when I woke up the other morning to the news that Edward Kennedy had passed away. When my clock radio went off, the station was replaying his 1968 eulogy for his murdered brother Bobby. So I came to consciousness rather groggy and thinking that I’d gone back in time. I clearly remember that June morning 41 years ago and waking to turn on my radio to see if Robert Kennedy had won the California primary. It was the primary that would have secured him the Democratic nomination at the party convention in Chicago that August. But what I heard instead was random screaming and horrific voices saying, “Get the gun!” Without a news announcer to provide any context, I knew what had happened. The depressive inevitability of what followed lingered like a bad hangover. But this time, once I realized that it was 2009 and Edward Kennedy had died in his bed due to cancer and not an assassin’s bullet, I was strangely relieved that he got to have a full life. His story now seemed complete. Well…almost.

Edward Kennedy was the youngest son of Joseph P. Kennedy and the one least likely for greatness. Most of his life, he’d lived in the shadow of three older brothers for whom great expectations were a matter of course. But Edward lived, as did his father, to watch them instead die tragically. First, Joe Jr., the favourite one, was destined to be the first Irish Catholic President. He died in a secret air force mission during the Second World War. John Kennedy did become President only to fall to an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, 1963, before he could finish out his first term. And then there was Bobby, the re-born idealist, picking up the broken pieces of his late brother’s legacy, also being killed by an assassin before he could realize his dreams. Teddy saw it all – then all eyes turned to him. Besides being a witness to tragedy, the legacy fell upon him like a burden. Watching him try to be the man his brother’s were was equally tragic. Edward Kennedy was not presidential material and he knew it. But he felt compelled out of family necessity to be somebody he wasn’t. Yet something self-destructive (alcoholism) and destructive (the horrible death of Mary Joe Kopechne) derailed those plans so that he could eventually find himself. Once he did, he was able to fulfill the Kennedy legacy in ways that no one could have imagined.

For one thing, he’d served in the Senate for 46 years and became the most effective liberal legislator in American history. Kennedy prevented Reagan’s odious 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. His recent fight over proper and humane health care had begun in 1969 when he backed health insurance. His bipartisan pragmatism was also refreshing in an age when people prefer to stubbornly dig in their heels and draw lines in the sand. (He had given support to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education bill.) Kennedy had also demonstrated how to put down the gloves and work effectively with opponents like John McCain on immigration reform, and with Senator Orrin Hatch in providing health care for children.

It seemed that once Edward Kennedy closed the book on his presidential pursuits in 1980, he shook the family burden from his shoulders and became his own man. In the process, he would fulfill the legacies of both JFK and Bobby. Of course, while his older brothers could conceal their weaknesses, Edward wore his on his sleeve. He was a living map of both the idealistic zeal and the horrible folly of the Kennedy family. So when he died the other day, it closed the book on the family chapter. But his final gesture may be his lasting one. When he threw his support behind Barack Obama, he was saying that although idealists can die, both tragically and naturally, ideals don’t.

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