Posts Tagged ‘LionoftheSenate’

tedkennedy_19621“A verb Senator! We need a verb!”

Whenever I think about Ted Kennedy, I think of this Doonesbury comic strip about the Massachusetts senator. Zonker was in the foreground as a reporter. From outside the strip, comes the Senator’s voice: “World peace… health insurance… education…social security…” In the last panel, an exasperated Zonker cried out, “A verb, Senator, a verb!”

As the saying goes, if we didn’t have a Senator Kennedy, we’d have to invent one. He was iconic. The white-haired senator given to big speeches, big issues, big celebrity and big mistakes.

I happened to be a senior in high school in Massachusetts in an election year and the Senator came to our school. We were sternly lectured by our old Yankee principal to behave ourselves and show respect. I remember how excited everyone was. A real Kennedy. In our school. Wow. I can’t remember what he talked about. My father said he was stumping for votes among newly minted voters. He may have been right, but at the time, I thought my Dad was being way to cynical. I couldn’t see why Ted Kennedy would need to go stumping for votes. He was so famous and he was a Kennedy. In Massachusetts, you vote for him. That’s what you do.

No matter how you feel about the Kennedys in general or Ted in particular, it’s a no-brainer to vote for him. He was a local, a favorite son. Unlike many multi-term Senators who eventually have stronger ties to D.C. or a Maryland suburb, Ted grew up here. His family was here. When he said he was a Red Sox fan, he wasn’t just paying lip service to die-hard fans. You had to like that. And with his seniority in the Senate, Massachusetts voters knew somebody would always have our backs as he did when he and Tip O’Neill fought to keep our army base Fort Devens open. He cared about the country, but at the end of the day, he knew all politics was local.

A few years later, I was a volunteer at the Channel 2 public television auction. I was back stage with a team of people loading the tables with items to be auctioned off on television. Things were going along smoothly when suddenly a producer with a headset and a clipboard came running backstage screaming that Senator Kennedy was here and he was going to auction of a table and it had better be one helluva table. No cheap crap. No gift certificates to hardware stores. This had to be one slammin’ table. And we all started tearing around the shelves of donated items looking for the designer watches, clothes, stainless steel cookware and to top it off, the person in charge of the artworks (who ran a well known gallery and knew his stuff) was in charge of picking out a lovely landscape to finish off the table. And he picked some sort of Cape Cod scene, as a nod to the Senator’s summer home.

So the table rolls out to the studio floor and we are all kind of excited to see Ted auction off our table when the table comes flying back with a bunch of screaming producers and David Ives, the president of the station in his signature green “Bid, Bid, Bid” Channel 2 apron. He was very angry. He may have had smoke coming out of his ears.

“What the hell is this? Some kind of morbid joke? I want to know right now who is responsible for this. What sort of mean-spirited and ignorant p erson would do something like this? Get me another painting now!”

It seems our idyllic Cape Cod scene (which was really nice by the way) was called “Sunset over Chappaquiddick.”


If looks could kill, we’d all have died right there. We found a nice still life with fruit and the senator was none the wiser.

Chappaquiddick was always the elephant in every room Ted Kennedy was in. Always. It is the event-that-must-not-be-mentioned. It hung in the air. It colored everything he did, perhaps even more than the legacies of John and Bobby.

A lot of people, including my parents, thought Ted was the Unfortunate Son. The last one left after a string of very gruesome, very public, very tragic deaths. Nobody expected much of Ted and it seems in the early going Ted didn’t expect much of himself. There was the cheating scandal and the drinking scandal and of course, the incident on the Bridge.

I sometimes wonder if Kennedy’s inglorious misspent youth helped make him the dedicated champion of the people we later became. He had a lot to prove and a lot to overcome. He may not have entirely succeeded, but he simply could not have tried harder.

After college, I went to work at a Boston newspaper that hated the Kennedys (because they are rich, elitist entitled SOBs who think they are above the law) and loved the Kennedys at the same time (because readers love reading about people doing rich, elitist, entitled things like drinking in Palm Beach, sailing at Hynannisport or getting married to movie stars) Ted was such an easy target, with his mane of white hair, public speaking style that hearkened back to William Jennings Bryant, a bit of a drinking problem, a messy divorce and a pretty new wife (snarkily called Miss Vicky by our gossip columnist). Kennedy always made good copy.

Ted never complained. He knew it was ugly and mean, but he also knew it came with the job. To paraphrase a favorite Kennedy family saying “To those much is given, much is routinely reported in the tabloids.”

In 2009, it was so refreshing and maybe a little bit astonishing to see such an unabashed liberal Senator, who never made excuses for what he believed in and never tried to pander to the lowest common denominator.

It’s unfortunate that Kennedy didn’t live to lend his basso profundo to the current health care debate. He won’t get to see the mountain. It’s a sad ending to a man whose family tree is filled with unfinished business. This will be Ted’s particular professional tragedy in a life primarily filled with personal tragedy.

I don’t think any protesters would show up if Senator Kennedy did a town hall. Like my high school principal and the producers backstage at the Channel 2 auction, even the most vitriolic Kennedy hater would dial it back. You just do. He knows what he did. You know what he did. Leave it alone. Move on.

Love him or hate him, he commanded respect for who he was, what he’d been through and what he was working so hard to achieve.


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